My Top 5 Favorite Books About Japanese Culture

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The list of books that I have read in 2022 is long, somewhere around 30-35. Among that list are the books below that I particularly found helpful in my journey to exploring and learning about Japanese culture. Although most of these books weren’t released in 2022 and I have owned some of them for a little while, I do enjoy revisiting books and reading them for a second or third time. The reason being is that I often learn something new with each read of the same book. I am in a constant state of growth and expansion so it makes sense that I would find something new to learn when I go back to some of these books.

There are many other books on my bookshelf about Japanese culture and I could probably do a Top 10 or 15 list, I tried to keep it to 5 (well 6 because I had trouble just picking 5 :)). If you are looking for last-minute gifts for the reader in your family consider following the links to grab a copy. Without further delay, let’s jump into the list.

What I like most about the book

When I began my exploration of what ikigai actually means, this book was a fantastic introduction. It helps to break down the myth that ikigai is a simple Venn diagram that seems to be all about a sweet spot in life or a giant goal you have. A simple search of ikigai on the internet returns several references to a Venn diagram that talks about what you are good at, what you can be paid for, what the world needs, and what you love. Unfortunately, this is not what ikigai is from a Japanese perspective, as the author respectfully explains. Living a life with meaning doesn’t have to be centered on your job, it can be about the little things in life as well.

A favorite quote

“The greatest secret of ikigai, ultimately has to be the acceptance of oneself, no matter what kind of unique features one might happen to be born with. There is no single optimum way to ikigai. Each one of us has to seek our own, in the forest of our unique individualities.” – Ken Mogi

What I like most about the book

It becomes quickly apparent that the enriching life experience that the author has gained from both studying Japanese culture and living in Japan informs much of the content of the book. The journey that you go on to learn more about the different facets of what ikigai means in it’s original context is just as much a spectrum as ikigai is to each individual. I would recommend this book to anyone that wants to understand more deeply what ikigai means from a Japanese cultural perspective and learn more about what it means to live life with “outstretched arms.” The author goes into depth on the intricacies of ikigai and how each facet can open up new meaning to the reader about how to “feel a life worth living.”

A favorite quote

“Ikigai starts with your values. You will feel ikigai if you live in harmony with your values – not those that you have inherited from or been pressured to accept by family, friends, institutions, or society, but those that you have identified for yourself. If you live in conflict or are forced to compromise your values, then ikigai will remain elusive for you.” – Nicholas Kemp

What I like most about the book

This book is a great introduction to the study of the art of shodō (Japanese calligraphy) and also some history surrounding the practice. The 5 elements of shodō that the author outlines are a nice comparison to the Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. The blending of the art along with the deep-rooted culture surrounding this art made this book a discovery into more than just the self. The idea that you can start small and start practicing this art gave me the encouragement to start learning shodō myself. Learning how to grind ink has given new meaning to the “daily grind.” If you are at all interested in learning more about Japanese calligraphy, I would highly recommend grabbing a copy of this book.

A favorite quote

“One of the fascinations of calligraphy is that it constantly challenges you to dance with both discipline and spontaneity at the same time! Hold too much to one or the other, and the game is over. In the beginning it may feel like you cannot make progress without technique and discipline, but after reaching a level of mastery, the challenge is more about letting the orchestra play than trying to control it.”

What I like most about the book

This book is an introduction to the methodology and mindset that businesses in Japan used to recover from the devastating economic effects of World War II. What I appreciate about the book is the author digs deep into what kaizen means and how you can apply this type of thinking to whatever business or organization you happen to be in. Western world thinking hasn’t given us the gains that we had hoped, perhaps it is time to adjust our thinking and actions to be closer aligned to the thinking presented in this book.

A favorite quote

“The Kaizen Philosophy assumes that our way of life – be it our working life, our social life, or our home life – deserves to be constantly improved.” – Masaaki Imai

What I like most about the book

The Japanese concept of ukeireru, or acceptance, is the main focus that psychologist Scott Haas explores in this book. He offers a practical and life-changing look at ways we can reduce anxiety and stress and increase overall well-being.

Haas explains that by learning and practicing ukeireru, you can improve relationships, find more calm in your everyday routine, show respect for yourself and others, and enjoy many more tangible benefits.

By practicing acceptance, I have learned to pause, take in the situation, and then decide on a course of action that reframes things. It has helped me become more at peace with the nature of things and the unrepeatable nature of moments.

A favorite quote

“Observation, listening, being silent, taking things in, considering problems as challenges, being far less reactive, and, above all, practicing acceptance: these are at the pinnacle of how you relate to yourself and others. While these behaviors all exist elsewhere, of course, as they are characteristic of our species, in Japan they are the cornerstones of institutional and systemic development.” – Scott Haas

What I like most about the book

I couldn’t just pick 5 books so I figured I would throw this one in too. This book focuses more on the personal journey one is on when implementing the practical side of kaizen. Often we can lost in trying to just do the mechanical side of change, this book helps identify that continuous improvement is built on the foundation of people courageously using their creativity. If you enjoyed reading Masaaki Imai’s book on Kaizen, you will definitely enjoy this read as I feel it is a great compliment to Imai’s work.

A favorite quote

“Business culture loves the idea of revolutionary, immediate change. But turnaround efforts often fail because radical change sets off our brain’s fear response and shuts down our powers to think clearly and creatively. A more effective path to change begins with the small steps of kaizen. These quiet steps bypass our mental alarm system, allowing our creative and intellectual processes to flow without obstruction. The result: Change that is both lasting and powerful.” – Robert Maurer, Ph.D.

Conclusion

As I already mentioned, this is a short list of my favorite books on Japanese culture. I am confident if you read these books and apply the principles you will see a huge shift in how you view your world and the environment you find yourself in. Have a wonderful holiday season and safe new year celebration.

Note: I have affiliate links set up on all of these books where I will get a small stipend if you decide to purchase but that in no way affects you or the cost of the book.

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