Travel to Japan by reading picture books, chapter books, and middle grade books that are set in Japan and show Japanese culture and traditions. Books help kids learn about different countries and their cultures. For me, the book Shogun first got me interested in Japanese culture. I wonder what it will be for your kids?
Picture Books About Japanese Culture
My First Book of Japanese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Japanese Language and Culture by Michelle Haney Brown, illustrated by Aya Padron
Learn the sounds and structure of Japanese by learning the alphabet. “A is for ari. A teeny weeny ant crawls with teeny weeny legs on the bamboo plant.” The poems for each letter will introduce kids to Japanese cultural elements like futons. Listen to the Japanese words in the book by going to tuttlepublishing.com.
Kiyoshi’s Walk by Mark Karlins, illustrated by Nicole Wong
Walk with Kiyoshi and his poet grandfather Eto through the town as his grandfather shows Kiyoshi where poems come from. When Eto stops to write a poem, Kiyoshi realizes that haiku poems come from what you see, what you hear, what you imagine, and what you feel. This beautiful book introduces readers to the traditional Japanese poetic form of haiku.
Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young
Wabi Sabi wants to know what her name means so she sets on a journey to find out. Written in narrative and haiku, she learns that wabi-sabi means the ability to see beauty in the simple things. Gorgeous collage illustrations.
The Bath House by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Gracey Zhang
Experience a happy day spent at the bath with your beloved aunties and grandma (baachan); it’s a day that celebrates a Japanese cultural tradition from the author’s own childhood as well as families and female bodies of all shapes and sizes. Yes, this book shows naked bodies with hair and plenty of details. “You’ll all dip your bodies, your newly sprouting, gangly bodies, your saggy, shapely, jiggly bodies, your cozy, creased, ancient bodies. Beautiful bodies.”
The Funny Little Woman by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent
The little old woman chases her runaway dumpling laughing all the while. As she does, she must avoid the three-eyed oni.
Natsumi by Susan Lendroth, illustrated by Priscilla Burris
In a story rich with Japanese culture and acceptance for individuality, you’ll love Natsumi, a little girl who likes to do everything with exuberance. Adults are always telling Natsumi to not be so loud, hard, or fast — like when she’s making tea with Father, picking flowers with Grandmother, or fan dancing with Mother. Except for Grandfather. Grandfather doesn’t scold her. He sees Natsumi’s strengths so he takes her to taiko drumming classes … where she can be herself — loud and fast!
Kikuchi’s Sushi by Myung Sook Jeong, illustrated by Sul Hee Kook
This book is a celebration (and introduction) to Japanese food. Desperate to try sushi, Fox makes trades with the sushi restaurant owner. For example, Fox trades fresh spring water, fresh wasabi, and an eel. When Fox glibly observes how easy sushi is to make, Kikuchi shows him step by step the challenging art of making sushi. Later the two go to a festival together where they eat yummy Japanese candies. The last four pages of the book give factual information about Japan.
SumoKitty by David Biedrzycki
A stray cat adopted into the sumo stable rids the stable of mice…at first. But the cat gets fat, lazy, and kicked out. Until this cat meets a wrestler who gives good advice about training and hard work. The stray cat becomes SumoKitty and moves back in the sumo stable after living out the motto, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”
The Crane Girl adapted by Curtis Manley, illustrated by Lin Wang
In this adapted Japanese folktale, a young boy saves a crane from a trap. Unknown to him or us the readers, the crane becomes a girl and asks to stay with the boy and his father. To help financially, she weaves beautiful silk cloths, asking that no one open the door to look at her while she’s doing it. When the boy’s father becomes demanding and greedy, he discovers her secret. The girl leaves and the boy follows her. They spend the rest of their lives together as cranes.
Yuko-san and the Daruma Doll by Sunny Seki
Yuko-chan is a blind orphan who doesn’t let adversity stop her. She’s brave and resilient as proven by her many adventures. She notices that when she tips over her gourd of tea, it always returns to an upright position just like the adage, “If you fall down seven times, you should get up eight times.” She invents the Daruma Doll from gourds and rallies the town to make and sell the dolls.
Little Kunoichi The Ninja Girl by Sanae Ishida
See what a real ninja does for training. The problem is that this girl isn’t doing well at ninja school. When she meets a boy, Chibi Samurai, who is training to be a samurai and not doing so well at his school either, the two pair up and train together shugyo style. Now their goal is to be better, not perfect, and to have fun. (Also on: Best Ninja Picture Books.)
Kimonos by Annelore Parot
In Japan, Kokeshi dolls wear kimonos as well as special uniforms to school. This artful picture book captures four Kokeshi dolls, their hairstyles, outfits, fabrics, family traditions, and bathing customs with lift-the-flaps and touch-and-feel. It’s a beautiful introduction to Japanese traditional dress.
Tsunami! (Rise and Shine) by Kimiko Kajikawa, illustrated by Ed Young
It’s the rice ceremony but Ojiisan doesn’t go. He has a feeling that something is coming… When he sees a monster wave, he knows what’s coming– a tsunami. How’s he going to save his village?
Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories by Florence Sakade, illustrated by Yoshisuke Kurosaki
Reading these 20 folktales, you’ll notice distinctive Japanese elements as well as similarities in folktales from other countries, particularly the life lessons learned in each. This book is whimsically illustrated and the stories are enchanting.
The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito, illustrated by Julia Juo
You will adore the magical illustrations in this picture book that celebrates Tokyo, and one boy’s search for silence. He notices the sounds around him, the train, the bamboo groves, and more …until he realizes that “ma” is a silence inside of him.
The Boy from the Dragon Palace retold by Margaret Read MacDonald, illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa
Isn’t this cover illustration adorable? When a flower seller gives the Dragon King leftover flowers, the Dragon King gives him a snot-nosed little boy who can grant wishes by blowing his nose. As you can imagine, the flower seller wishes to be rich and becomes ungrateful, kicking the boy out. And that’s when he loses all his wealth. What a valuable life lesson about gratitude vs. greediness.
One Leaf Rides the Wind by Celeste Mannis, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung
My husband and I love visiting Japanese Zen gardens — this book transports readers into such a garden using the simplicity of haikus and counting numbers from one on up paired with evocative illustrations.
Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Yan Nasciimbene
Kentaro befriends the dog that lives outside a train station in Tokyo who waits 10 years for his owner to return. The author weaves the setting beautifully, you’ll feel like you are living in Japan. This tender story is based on a real dog whose loyalty is immortalized in a permanent statue.
The Perfect Sword by Scott Goto
Michio and his master, Sensei Masa, craft a sword that rivals all others. When the warriors all over Japan come to claim it, only one can be worthy. Who will it be?
Chapter Books Set in Japan
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr, illustrated by Ronald Himler
This is a powerful based-on-a-real-girl story of a girl who, because of the atomic bomb, developed leukemia. Once able to run and play, now Sadako is in the hospital where she makes paper cranes with hope that they will make her better.
Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki
An important, multi-layered story of a Japanese girl’s understanding of Hiroshima, grief, family, and the healing power of sharing stories. When Nozomi’s art teacher, Mr. Yoshioka, leaves the school due to sickness, she and her friends plan a festival in his honor called “Hiroshima: Then and Now.” They interview people close to them about their experiences during the bombing (which they call “the flash”), learning many unknown stories including that Mr. Yoshioka lost his beloved and stills visits her grave. As the kids learn about their family and neighbor’s lives and deaths, their stories impact the way the kids’ view things now and their hope for the future, which they each share artistically in the festival.
My Awesome Japan Adventure: A Diary About the Best 4 Months Ever! by Rebecca Otowa
Brightly colored graphics stand out in this easy-to-read journal of a 5th grader who is an exchange student in Japan. He attends school, eats new food, and learns all about Japan.
Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz
Toyo lives at a boarding school in 1890 Japan. He loves the new game of besuboru (baseball) even though his father, a traditional man, hates the Western game’s influence. Toyo wants to find a way to honor and understand his heritage yet also play the game he loves.
White Crane (Samurai Kids) by Sandy Russell
Niya wants to be a samurai yet that won’t be easy— not when he only has one leg. He’s determined to achieve his goal and is finally accepted as a trainee at the Cockroach Ryu where he’ll prepare to fight in the Trainee Samurai Games.
The Young Samurai by Chris Bradford
The only survivor on a British ship attacked by ninjas, 12-year old Jack must adapt to the Japanese culture of his new home with a samurai warrior. He trains to fight as a warrior, develops a strong friendship with Akiko, and experiences dangerous adventures that often include his father’s most prized possession.
Heart of the Samurai by Margi Preus
I loved this historical-fiction book about a 14-year-old boy Japanese boy named Manjiro who is shipwrecked and taken on a ship to the United States. Eventually, he returns to Japan where he is mistrusted and imprisoned.
The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard
In feudal Japan, Taro’s journey to samurai starts with becoming a servant for Lord Akiyama. But when his master dies, he can finally train to become a samurai.
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