Born in Asakusa, Tokyo, Yamada attended Waseda University before entering the Shōchiku film studios, where he trained as an assistant director under Keisuke Kinoshita. He left the company at age 30 to focus on writing scripts for television dramas, penning such successful series as Kishibe no arubamu and Fuzoroi no ringotachi. He has also written scripts for film and the stage.
As a novelist, his novel Ijintachi to no natsu (異人たちとの夏), published in 1987, won the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize. It was translated into English, in 2004, as Strangers. Another Yamada novel, In Search of a Distant Voice, was translated and published in 2006 from a novel originally published in Japan in 1989. A third Yamada novel, I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While (飛ぶ夢をしばらく見ない Tobu yume o shibaraku minai), was translated into English and published in 2008.
Strangers has been adapted into feature film, directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Andrew Scott as Harada along with Paul Mescal, Claire Foy and Jamie Bell. Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin at Blueprint Pictures produced it for Searchlight Pictures and Film4.