His parents were Bert Japin, a teacher and writer of detective novels, and Annie Japin-van Arnhem. After a difficult childhood—his father killed himself when Arthur was twelve years old—Japin entered the Kleinkunstacademie in Amsterdam, where he trained as an actor. He was also briefly an opera singer at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam.
His first novel, De zwarte met het witte hart (1997), translated as The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, was the story of two Ashanti princes, Kwame Poku and Kwasi Boachi, who were taken from today's Ghana and taken to the court of the Dutch king Willem II in 1837. The book became a bestseller and is considered a classic of modern Dutch literature. In November 2007, an opera based on the novel premiered in Rotterdam, with an English libretto by Arthur Japin and music by the British composer Jonathan Dove.
His second book, De droom van de leeuw (2002), is a novelized version of his relationship with the Dutch actress and novelist Rosita Steenbeek in Rome, where Steenbeek became the last lover of the Italian director Federico Fellini. His third novel, Een schitterend gebrek, translated as In Lucia's Eyes (2003), was a return to the historical novel, about Casanova's first lover, Lucia, who, he reports in his memoirs, inexplicably abandoned him in his youth, only to resurface years later as a hideous prostitute in an Amsterdam brothel. Japin was hailed as a great writer after his first couple of novels already, a status confirmed when he was asked to write the 2006 Boekenweekgeschenk: De grote wereld is a novella about a pair of circus-performing dwarves caught in Nazi Germany, which had a record first printing of 813,000 copies.
His 2007 novel De overgave, to be translated as Someone Found, takes the subject of the 19th-century Texas Indian wars, dramatizing the story of the Fort Parker Massacre of 1836, in which a white girl, Cynthia Ann Parker, was taken as a Comanche hostage, later becoming the mother of the famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker.
Japin has also published several volumes of stories. The first two, Magonische verhalen and De vierde wand, were gathered into the omnibus Alle verhalen, (2005). Magonische verhalen was made into the film Magonia by the Dutch director Ineke Smits. He has won almost every prestigious prize in Dutch literature, including the Libris Prize for In Lucia's Eyes.
- 1991: Heijermans!, a play, published by Het Nederlands Volkstoneel
- 1996: Magonische verhalen
- 1997: De zwarte met het witte hart, novel, translated as The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
- 1998: De vierde wand, travel stories
- 2001: Magonia, screenplay (based upon several of the ‘Magonische verhalen’)
- 2002: De droom van de leeuw, novel
- 2002: De vrouwen van Lemnos, choreographical screenplay
- 2003: Een schitterend gebrek, novel, translated as In Lucia's Eyes
- 2004: Dooi & Zeep, two stories illustrated by Arthur Japin, published by Uitgeverij Brokaat
- 2006: De klank van sneeuw, two stories
- 2006: De grote wereld, Book Week Gift
- 2007: De overgave, novel, winner of the 2008 NS Publieksprijs, translated as Someone Found
- 2010: Vaslav, novel
Japin has also written several screenplays, radio plays, songs, and theater pieces. His songs have appeared on the CDs Vol verlangen and Nuances van Liefde, sung by Astrid Seriese.
- 1990 - Gorcumse Literatuurprijs for De klap van Ediep Koning
- 1995 - LIRA-prijs for De roering van het kielzog
- 1995 - Literaire prijs van de provincie Gelderland for De draden van Anansi
- 1998 - Lucy B. en C.W. van der Hoogtprijs for De zwarte met het witte hart
- 1998 - Halewijn-literatuurprijs van de stad Roermond for the body of his work
- 1999 - ECI-prijs voor Schrijvers van Nu for De zwarte met het witte hart
- 2004 - Libris literatuurprijs for Een schitterend gebrek
- 2005 - De Inktaap for Een schitterend gebrek
- 2008 - NS Publieksprijs for De overgave
- 1996: Hoerenpreek, a television film by Ineke Smits
- 1996: De Wolkenfabriek, a television film by Ineke Smits
- 2000: Magonia, film version of Magonische verhalen by Ineke Smits, starring Dirk Roofthooft, Willem Voogd, Jack Wouterse, Linda van Dyck and Ramsey Nasr; also on DVD.
- Foreman, Liza (23 January 2008). "Living in a Dutch Town House". New York Times.
- "Arthur Japin wint NS Publieksprijs 2008". Brabants Dagblad. 28 October 2008.
- "Q.I." (in Dutch). VARA. Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-18.[dead link]
- "QI goes Dutch". Chortle.co.uk. Archived from the original on 23 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-19.