What is a good book about Japanese History?
I get a lot of private messages about the blog, and in the last month or two I’ve gotten a few that were asking more or less the same thing. Here’s one reader’s e-mail:[i]
|I’m a JET living in Saitama and working in Tokyo. Sometimes I get lost reading your blogs because I don’t know the basics of Japanese history. Your Japanese Eras page is great, but sometimes I see other era names come up that I don’t recognize. I want to educate myself on Japanese History as a whole but I don’t know where to begin so can you recommend some books or websites for me to come to grips with Japan’s long history? I haven’t really studied Japanese either so I’m looking for English books.|
This is a great question. And to everyone else who asked similar questions and I told to wait[ii], I’m going to answer all of your questions today.
When I started this blog, I wanted to explain Japan to foreigners in basic terms. If you go back and look at the earliest blogs, they were pretty simple and assumed the reader didn’t know anything. But as the focus has become more and more specialized, I’ve found it harder and harder to be general and beginner-friendly. I think I’ve gone past the point of no return on that one. But for those of you who are trying to keep up, this page will arm you with all the goodies you need to come up to speed in some ways.
Japan: A Short Cultural History
George Bailey Samson
I picked this book up about 12 years ago while killing time at Penn Station in NYC. I had never read anything about Japan or Japanese history at the time. It was a cheap paperback that I could read on the train while commuting. I read it once during some summer commutes in NYC. A few years later, after learning a little more about Japan history and having visited Japan twice, I re-read it. It was even better the second time[iii]. I don’t have the book here with me in Japan, but I have fond memories of this book.
It was written in the 1930’s and I had no idea at the time that it was a classic survey of Japanese history; I was just looking for some light reading. So this is great, broad overview of the history of Japan. Because of its age, modern academics may level some criticism at this book, but for the beginner, it’s accessible, clear, and is a great launch pad into other areas of Japanese history and culture. I recommend you start here.
The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu
This is another book I just picked up randomly. By this time, I could shop on the internet easily and I found a used copy and was delighted to find the locations of the Tokugawa shōguns’ graves in one of the indexes. No matter what long term fans of Japanese history think of this book, it pointed me in the right direction towards my goal of surveying all the Tokugawa shōguns’ graves; a goal I still haven’t attained (10 years later).
This book was first published in the 1930’s, so while scholars of today may have some bones to pick with it, it is a classic. Understanding Tokugawa Ieyasu is one of the keys to understanding the Edo Period, but the man himself barely lived in the Edo Period. He was very much a product of the late Sengoku Period and as such the door that he helped close very much affected the door he helped open. People who love Japanese history tend to get burned out on Ieyasu over time, so it’s best to learn as much as much about the dude as you can in the beginning. This book is a great place to start.
I’m recommending this book without having actually read it cover to cover. I don’t even own it. But I have seen it from time to time and what I saw looked like Coffee Table Book PLUS. And the PLUS would be “plus awesome.” It’s not a survey of Japanese history, but it is a survey of Edo-Tōkyō history, and as such, it’s relevant to JapanThis!.
I like pictures and maps and drawings to accompany historical writings (something most historians suck balls at doing – the pictures are always a lazy afterthought). That’s one of the reasons I try to include so many picture here. If you want pictures to enhance your history reading, you’re probably gonna dig this book.
The Tea Ceremony
Sen’o Tanaka & Sendo Tanaka
My grandmother-in-law gave me this book. She’s a tea master to some elite families and I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying tea with her, but I haven’t undergone any training yet. That said, this book has helped me understand tea culture in Japan a lot. It especially helped me with my recent article on Yūrakuchō. It’s also helping me bond with my grandmother-in-law, which is fascinating.
This book really emphasizes the history and architectural and design elements of tea ceremony as a Japanese cultural phenomenon. It won’t really teach you how to do tea ceremony. But, of course, that’s the point. It’s an aesthetic. You’ll have to learn the art from an accomplished tea master. But this book will definitely prime you for the world you’re stepping into.
OK, I’m not even exaggerating when I say that this may be one of the best books in the world. Hands down. A middle class hatamoto (direct retainer of the shōgun) writes a book to his son about how to grow up and be a good samurai – a noble example of leading by example, which was the samurai’s role in the Edo Period – but in teaching said lesson he just tells crazy stories bragging about what a fuck up he was. Imagine a book written by your craziest friend that was just a bunch of “This one time, I was sooooo wasted that…” stories. Imagine those stories being in the late Edo Period – all with the premise of “Son, one day you’ll grow up and be a man. And I want you to learn from my mistakes. But, OMG, this other time, I went drinking and whoring in Yoshiwara and…”
Needless to say, Kokichi’s son grew up to be the legendary Katsu Kaishū who saved the Tokugawa, saved the city of Edo from destruction, saved Edo Castle, and assisted in a reasonably bloodless transition of power from shōgunate to imperial court.
The awesome thing about this book is it will shatter any romanticized ideals you may have about samurai. It humanizes them by showing you what daily life was like for middle class samurai families at the time right before Commodore Perry came and Japan fell into chaos. This is, quite literally, the calm before the storm. It’s fascinating and you won’t be able to put it down.
You wanna podcast? We gotta podcast!
You’d think there’d be a lot of podcasts about Japanese history, but there aren’t. But there are a few very unique and very awesome people who have pioneered the Japanese History podcast world. There are thousands of books on Japanese History but in this day and age some people don’t want to read or just don’t have the time. In that case, get your podcast on. I’m also going to talk about a few other online resources.
A Short History of Japan
First, I’d like to introduce A Short History of Japan which made for an awesome and fun survey of Japanese history from the obscure mythological beginnings of the Yamato Court up to an abrupt ending at the beginning of the Edo Period. I know that I’m not the only one who has been kept hanging since the podcast stopped.
This podcast is great for the beginner because the host, Cameron, doesn’t assume any previous knowledge of Japan or Japanese History. Nevertheless, he goes into detail on a number of issues[iv] that were awesome for me because if this were a book, my eyes would have glazed over. But in this format, it’s fantastic.
I’ve been referring to these guys for solid information on Japanese History since the first time I got interested in Japanese history. I kiss their collective asses regularly on JapanThis! – as anyone who actually clicks the embedded links I painstakingly add to every articles knows.
Originally a website featuring a wiki, original articles, reference materials, interviews and one of the nerdiest community forums I’ve ever seen, in recent years they started podcasting. Episodes 10-24 are a panel discussion-style survey of Japanese history from pre-historic times up to the unification of the realm under Toyotomi Hideyoshi[v]. This is an excellent place to start your path into Japanese History. The best thing is that these guys cite their sources, so if you find something you like, they’ll tell you where to get more material[vi].
If you’re looking for an awesome podcast that is still going, then this is the one for you. Since that initial survey they did, the podcast has covered a broad range of topics – often with a skeptical and un-romanticized view of old Japan[vii]. Many, but not all, episodes require a certain familiarity with the chronology and major events. But just by listening, you’ll start to get a feel for the world you’re stepping into. They have a decidedly academic but off the cuff approach. They’re undeniably the rock stars of Japanese History on the internet. I can’t recommend them enough.
Recently, I’ve really been digging this guy’s site. Although it’s a bilingual site, for beginners, it’s probably a bit intimidating because the content is mostly Japanese. But if you’re interested in Japanese History, consider subbing to this RSS feed and think of that as a chance to improve your Japanese reading skills while still getting some quality interviews and articles in English, too.
This website is one to watch. I don’t think there’s been a website like this for Japan History yet. It’s run by one Chris Glenn who has a host of media credits and is involved in many efforts to spread Japanese culture far and wide.
If you haven’t looked here yet, then maybe you should. In terms of a general chronology, Wikipedia isn’t half bad[viii]. All of the resources I mentioned above have much more interesting angles, but if you just need a quick crash course, then this is good.
Speaking of crash courses － here’s how Japanese history is generally viewed from a western, narrative view. The mispronunciations “eedo,” “bukoofoo,” and “tiyotomi hiday yoshi” plus the bizarre claim that the emperor abolished the bukoofoo and restored imperial power to himself make this well worth the watch[ix].
☆ UPDATE: I knew the Samson and Sadler books would catch me some flak. These are both books I bought blindly years ago (and have fond memories of). They were some of the first books I ever bought on Japanese History… about 10 years ago, if my memory serves me well. I included disclaimers along the lines of “some modern academics may have problems with these books.” Well, sure enough, some did.
- Andrew Gordon’s Modern History of Japan
- Misiko Hane’s Premodern Japan (ugly cover, but you know what they say about judging a book…)
- Karl Friday’s edited volume. (I’m guessing that’s the correct link)
These books could be replacements for the Samson book that I recommended.
As for a biography of Ieyasu, yes, I know Sadler’s 1930’s book must be outdated, but I haven’t read any more recent book on the topic. So if anyone else wants to recommend a bio of Ieyasu for beginners, please leave it in the comments below to share with us all.
[i] They wouldn’t let me use their name, so I didn’t. If you send private messages, please let me know your preference, too.
[ii] Or I didn’t reply to (just because I’m busy, nothing personal, ok?)
[iii] Because I had more context.
[iv] The spread of Buddhism and the arrival of guns and gun powder come to mind.
[v] With a brief mention of Tokugawa Ieyasu at the end; the implied joke being that there were no real samurai in the Edo Period… an idea no doubt put forward by the inimitable Nate Ledbetter.
[vi] Something I should start doing… but can you imagine the amount of footnotes I have then?
[vii] While it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, there is a serious military perspective as well. One member, Nate, is a career military dude who brings the martial reality of the Sengoku Period through rational and skeptical analysis – something that is generally overlooked in Japanese History.
[viii] I wouldn’t trust them on specializations, including etymology.
[ix] If I were recommending a fun survey course of world history for high school kids, I would recommend this series because it’s fast paced, witty, and makes history look cool