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5 Books to Learn about Japanese Mythology

Fan of legends, literature or traditional culture? Check out these five classic and contemporary books to enhance your knowledge of Japanese folktales and legends.

By 3 min read 1

Pop culture, shrines and traditional performing arts are just a few things in Japan influenced by folklore and mythology.

Despite this, it can be difficult to learn about these traditional tales through travel alone due to the sheer breadth of Japanese legends. While the posted information at many sightseeing destinations might reference mythical figures, few may take the time to explain who they are in detail.

Luckily, multiple books—both classic and contemporary—can help curious culture buffs reach a better understanding of the legends that surround them in Japan. The books in this list are only a few resources for learning about Japan’s history. Those wondering where to begin their journey of understanding may find a good starting point here.

1. Where the Wild Ladies Are, Aoko Matsuda

Classic folktales told from a female perspective.

This collection of loosely connected short stories portrays classic folktales in a modern setting from a largely female perspective. To enhance readers’ understanding of each story, explanations of the original folktales are included at the back of the book.

In addition to being entertaining, many of these stories are connected to destinations such as Himeji Castle and arts such as kabuki performances. Reading this book before experiencing one of these locations or activities can expand one’s knowledge of their significance.

2. The Book of Yokai, Michael Dylan Foster

Learn about the purpose of yokai in Japanese culture.

In the Japanese language, yokai is a term that refers to various mythical creatures from folklore and legend. Tales of yokai are so widespread in Japan that many pop culture properties such as Pokemon and other anime and video games feature characters inspired by these creatures.

The Book of Yokai explains classic tales connected to some of the most prominent yokai in Japan while also exploring what purpose yokai serve in Japanese culture. Perhaps most interestingly, this book compares yokai to Shinto deities and explains how these figures can overlap in traditional tales. This makes the book an interesting reference for both yokai and cultural mindsets.

3. Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn

Read this before you go see the movie.

The Irish-Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn traveled to Japan in the late 19th century and quickly fell in love with the country. He would go on to live in Matsue, Kumamoto and Tokyo. He dedicated the remainder of his life to writing books that introduced English-speaking audiences to Japan’s folklore and culture.

Kwaidan is considered one of Hearn’s best works and was even adapted into a movie in 1964. The book compiles translations of classic folktales, many of which were told to Hearn by his wife, Setsu Koizumi.

4. The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters, O No Yasumaro


Ancient stories of shrine origins.

Written in the 8th century, this text is one of the oldest in Japan. It contains Shinto legends that explain how the Japanese archipelago was created, how deities in the Shinto pantheon were born, and much more.

This text is a must-read for anyone interested in visiting Shinto shrines because many of the legends told in The Kojiki explain the origins of certain shrines. For example, Izumo Taisha in Shimane Prefecture is said to have originated when Okuninushi, the god of fateful encounters, passed control of the earthly realm to the descendants of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. The shrine was said to be a palace in which Okuninushi could retire.

Multiple English translations have been made of The Kojiki, providing options for how to enjoy this text.

5. The Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest of Times to A.D. 697, O No Yasumaro

The Nihongi provides a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and the imperial family.

Also written in the 8th century, The Nihongi adds to the legends told in The Kojiki by drawing a connection between Japan’s imperial family and the Shinto deities.

As the alleged descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu, Japan’s emperors have traditionally been considered divinely-appointed heads of state or symbols of the state. Anyone interested in learning more about the imperial family, particularly the early emperors, may enjoy reading this book.

Like The Kojiki, a few different editions and translations of The Nihongi are available.

Know a book we missed? Have a favorite story from Japanese mythology? Let us know in the comments!

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