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Table of Contents
When choosing a book on Japanese history, you’ll want to make sure you pick something that’s not only informative but is also enjoyable to delve into. Before you begin browsing, take some time to determine your reading level and which topics interest you the most.
Whether you’re a novice or an aficionado when it comes to Japanese history, finding a book that's suitable for your level of knowledge is crucial. We're here to help you select a read that's just right!
Those who want a quick read that they can casually enjoy alongside a cup of coffee can't go wrong with this type of book!
Of course, academic tomes are generally longer and more expensive than beginner's guides, but they'll give you a much deeper understanding of Japanese history!
As there are so many different periods of Japanese history, you may feel overwhelmed when browsing books on the subject. You might even want to focus on one particular era, especially if you're doing research for an essay or a school project. In this section, we'll cover the main periods - from prehistoric times to the present day.
As you may expect, not many books are dedicated specifically to these eras and those that are tend to fall into the category of art history or archaeology, as there was a rich culture of ceramic and textile production during these times. In fact, the earliest Japanese pottery that has been discovered by archaeologists is from Jōmon!
If you want to learn more about the everyday life of ordinary people though, you'll need to seek out a book that provides an overview of Japanese history instead - these should have at least one section on the Jōmon and Yayoi periods.
The majority of general history books will cover these periods since they are essential for understanding the rise of Japanese popular culture. Chapters specifically about Heian society are likely to thrill fiction fans, as they discuss how the influence of the Imperial court led to the production of literature that still captivates readers to this day.
The subsequent Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD) was characterised by constant conflict between the different Japanese states and saw the infamous feudal lord Oda Nobunaga overthrowing the government - an event which historians describe as the first step towards the unification of Japan.
Books focused on these eras hence discuss military strategies and battles, particularly those of the samurai. The provincial wars during these periods also tend to be covered in most general Japanese history texts.
Since this period was such a fantastic time for culture, most general history books cover it. Some more specialised texts look at the lives of ordinary people during this time too, giving you an insight into the bustling world of Edo.
If you’re keen to learn about modern history and how Japan became Westernised during the Meiji Restoration, then we definitely recommend picking up a book that covers this period!
Lastly, we move into more recent history: the 20th century. The very short Taishō period (1912-1926) produced famous writers such as Tanizaki Jun’ichirō and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, while the Shōwa period (1926-1989) was characterised by the outbreak of the Second World War in the latter half.
Hence, most books about the Shōwa period examine Japan’s role in World War II, as well as the country’s occupation by American forces. Since these are controversial historical events, we should mention that it’s important to be aware some authors may be biased about certain issues.
In the following Heisei era (1989-2019), Japan experienced an exceptionally high rate of economic growth, but this “bubble economy” soon collapsed. Heisei also saw the global rise of Japanese popular culture such as television, fashion, and video games. If contemporary Japanese economic and cultural history interests you the most, you should start here!
Own an eReader like a Kindle or a Fire tablet? Digital versions of books tend to be much cheaper than physical copies and you can even highlight sentences in them if you're doing research for a project.
Audiobooks are also a fantastic option for those who learn best through listening, or people who like to multitask rather than sitting down with a book - you can hear all about samurai battle tactics while you're tackling the washing up!
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1. A History of Japan (Second Edition) – Conrad Totman
The Perfect Pick for Readers at Any Level!
2. Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present – Christopher Harding
A Concise Yet Engaging Examination of Modern Japan
3. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II – John Dower
Explores Japanese-American Relations and National Identity
Marius B. Jansen
4. The Making of Modern Japan – Marius B. Jansen
Logical, Thorough, and Suitable for History Newbies
Provides an Intimate Account of Edo Life
An Illuminating Portrait of the Meiji Period
Herbert P. Bix
6. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan – Herbert P. Bix
The True Story of Japan’s Most Controversial Emperor
7. Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan – Karl Friday
An In-Depth Look at Japanese Warrior Culture
8. A Brief History of Japan: Samurai, Shogun and Zen, the Extraordinary Story of the Land of the Rising Sun – Jonathan Clements
Compact Enough to Take on Your Travels
William Wayne Farris
10. Japan to 1600: A Social and Economic History – William Wayne Farris
A Short but Detailed Guide to Early Japanese Society
Amy Stanley's book, which was published this year, provides readers with an intimate insight into life for lower-class women during the Tokugawa period. Based on the diaries and letters of Tsuneno, the daughter of a Buddhist priest, it follows her journey from the countryside to the bustling capital city of Edo, now known as Tokyo.
This ambitious account not only takes you through Tsuneno's personal trials and tribulations, but it allows readers to time-travel back to 19th century Edo - a world of creativity where literature and theatre were used as a form of protest against the Tokugawa government. Those looking to enhance their knowledge about life and art under shogunal rule can't go wrong with this riveting read!
While many books have been written about the Meiji Restoration, few have delved into the story of the Emperor Meiji himself - who was the first Japanese ruler to ever meet a European! Renowned scholar Donald Keene's painstaking research explores every aspect of Meiji's life, especially the clash between his personal commitment to peace and the emergence of Japan as a modern, militarised state.
This is another hefty tome with over 900 pages, so it probably won't interest casual readers. For those eager to learn more about one of the most pivotal periods of Japanese history though, this book is just the ticket!
If you're keen to expand your knowledge of the world even further, we've got more great book recommendations for you! Click the links below to see our favourite non-fiction reads about politics and Black history.
Whether you’re new to Japanese history or looking to expand your existing knowledge, we’re certain that our recommendations will help you to find the best book for your needs. Once you start reading, you’ll become a history buff in no time!
Author: Nicola McClements
No. 1: Conrad Totman｜1. A History of Japan (Second Edition) – Conrad Totman
No. 2: Christopher Harding｜2. Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present – Christopher Harding
No. 3: John Dower｜3. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II – John Dower
No. 4: Marius B. Jansen｜4. The Making of Modern Japan – Marius B. Jansen
No. 5: Amy Stanley｜
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