The small Japanese maple in my front yard is getting dead stems and yellowed dried leaves in places. I have been cutting these stems away but it keeps returning from place to place. I am not sure whether this is normal or not and what to do to help the tree. The tree is in a lot of sun and in a drier soil (I believe). There is also mulch at the base but not touching the tree.
It sounds like your tree could be suffering from leaf scorch and/or twig burn. There may be many causes: wind burn, exposure to extremely hot sun, late spring frost, salt runoff from roadways or excessively alkaline soils, short intense drought periods, container plants in full hot sun. Usually the plant is not lost, but the appearance and vigour of the maple is damaged for that season.
For more information on growing Japanese maples, see the garden guide prepared by Toronto Master Gardeners at https://www.torontomastergardeners.ca/index.php/factsheet/growing-japanese-maples-a-toronto-master-gardeners-guide/