Inspirational books on Japan’s Aesthetics and Culture
Being a huge fan of everything to do with Japan, its culture, art, architecture and of course, craft, and also being a keen reader I have gathered great books throughout the years which have helped me frame my knowledge and understanding of this fabulous country.
For this list I have identified books that have taught me about what I call the spirit of Japan. Each of these books has had strong resonance in building my personal journey into Japan.
I hope you find this list useful if you are also looking for trusted and intelligent sources of information. I have listed books as I have them on my book shelves: some in English, some in French and I have tried to identify when the other language was also available.
Japon Japonismes (Japan Japanism) (MAD - 2018 - Béatrice Quette).
This highly visual book (featuring a jacket covered with a vivid wood printed washi floral reproduction) is the catalogue for 2018’s Japan Japanese exhibition in Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs. It covers the reciprocal influences between two strong artistic nations, France and Japan, from 1867 (Paris Universal Exhibition) to 2018. The book showcases the richness of the museum’s collections, historic Japanese artworks viewed alongside Western Japanist creations.
105 Key Words for Understanding Japan (Corona books - 2001).
Intelligent and knowledgable bilingual book (Japanese/English) showcasing 105 Japanese concepts ranging from well known ones such as ikebana and manga to lesser documented ones such as rakugo and aware. Each article is written by a specialist. Does not exist in French.
The works of IWAMIYA Takeji « Beauty and Shapes » (Mitsumura Suiko Shoin Publishing Co - 2018).
Iwamiya-san was a Japanese photographer (1920-1989) who beautifully captured the spirit of Japan in its details, textures, spirituality, daily life. It features the quintessence of Japan, and delivers images that have not aged a bit, the ones we are still looking for when we travel to Japan, timeless and unchanged in many ways. Does not exist in French.
Le Jardin Japonais (The Japanese Garden) (Phaidon - 2017 - Sophie Walker).
Precise, documented, beautifully photographed book on the Japanese gardens, symbolic, history, plants, layout. Also describing the 100 most beautiful gardens in Japan. Highly aspirational. In French or in English
Craftland Japan (Thames & Hudson - 2020 - Uwe Röttgen & Katharina Zetti).
I never have enough books featuring artisans from Japan and this one holds a special place because it manages to be precise, informative and very aspirational with beautiful pictures of artisans at work. Its compact size also makes it a highly functional reference book. Does not exist in French.
Made in Japan, awe-inspiring graphics from Japan today (victionary - 2018).
Published by a super dynamic Hong Kong-based publishing company this book highlights what is modern Japan graphic design with exemples from well-known or up-and-coming graphic studios. A great way to understand the renewal of the Japanese aesthetics and how today’s design takes its roots in traditions. Does not exist in French.
WA, the Essence of Japanese Design (Phaidon - 2014 - Rossella Menegazzo & Stefania Piotti).
One of my favourite book ever on Japan, WA showcases 250 objets from Japan, historical or modern crafts or design, classified by materials (wood, ceramic, paper…). Even more special that Phaidon used a traditional Japanese binding technique for this book, which as a result looks absolutely stunning. Does not exist in French.
Le Design Japonais depuis 1945, un panorama complet (Japanese Design Since 1945: A Complete Sourcebook)(Ed. La Martinière - 2020 - Naomi Pollock).
Released end of 2020, this book showcases hundreds of objects and designers from Japan in fashion, lifestyle, furniture, packagings…looking at timeless icons from the past but also modern ones. Exists in English, publisher Harry N. Abrams.
The Monocle Book of Japan (Monocle - 2020).
As with everything Monocle produces, this is THE reference book for everything modern, stylish, lovable, exciting to do with Japan. This great book is a love declaration to a country Monocle has been inspired by since day one. Does not exist in French.
Esthétiques du quotidien au Japon (IFM / Regard, 2010 - Jean-Marie Bouissou).
If I only had to keep one book, it would be this one. An incredibly rich and intelligent series of articles written by specialists on Japanese concepts and what is estheticism in Japan, both through history and contemporary. Brilliant! Does not seem to exist in English.
L’Esprit Mingei au Japon (ACTES SUD, musée du Quai Branly - Germain Viatte).
Catalogue from Paris Musée du Quai Branly’s 2009 exhibition « L’esprit mingei au Japon, de l’artisanat populaire au design » / « The Spirit of Mingei in Japan ». Based on the thinker Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), promoter of the Mingei movement and his son, Yanagi Sori, a leading post-war designer, this catalogue reflects on the relationship established during the 20th century between the rediscovery of certain traditional arts and the evolution of an international modern "design" art in Japan during the 1930s and 1950s. This book only seems to exist in French.
Architecture in Japan, Genealogies of its Transformation (Echelle - 2018).
Comprehensive catalogue of the fantastic 2018 Mori Art Museum exhibition under the same name, this book is a fabulous and intelligent overview of Japanese architecture, from past to future. In English and Japanese.
Handmade in Japan, The Pursuit of Perfection in Traditional Crafts (Gestalten - 2020).
Fantastic introduction, with amazingly beautiful photographs of some of Japan best craftsmen and craftswomen, unveiling the stories and techniques of timeless objects being produced in workshops throughout the country. This book is a personal best of! Does not seem to exist in French.
Design Parts Collection - In Japanese Traditional Style Architecture (Design book. 2015 5th edition).
Great little book to learn the precise vocabulary of Japanese traditional architecture, both formal (temples, shrines) and living spaces. Very neat and precise black pencil drawings each with the corresponding vocabulary in Japanese (kanji and rōmaji, i.e roman letters).
L’Art de Vivre au Japon (Japanese Style) (Flammarion - 1987 - Suzanne Slesin, Stafford Cliff & Daniel Rozensztroch).
Some books never age, this one is already 33 years old but it is still incredibly modern and relevant. This book had a huge impact on me when I received it as a gift all those years ago as a teenager. It perfectly encapsulates, with beautiful pictures, what Japan looks like, outdoor and indoor. Available on line in used versions as not published any longer.
Living in Japan (Taschen - 2013 for this edition - Reto Guntli, Alex Kerr & Kathy Arlyn).
A classical beautiful coffee-table book featuring modern and traditional Japanese houses from all parts of the country. Written by Alex Kerr, also the author of the famous 1996 « Lost Japan » book which depicts, among other subjects, his restoration of a traditional Japanese house is the very remote Iya Valley of Shikoku. Also a great read to be added to this list to go deep into Japanese culture.