At school, history was reduced to dates and names, bite-sized snippets to be memorized for exams and then discarded, perhaps surfacing years later in a pub quiz. The personalities and narratives that bring the past to life were removed in favor of testable facts, leading to an assumption in many that history is boring or irrelevant. Far from it. Moving to Japan in 2005, I was motivated to find out more about my adopted home beyond the imperfectly translated photocopies in castles and the scant information on museum exhibit labels. Here are nine books for the general reader that I’ve found both entertaining and informative.
1. A History of Japan, George Sansom
The ultimate history of Japan. This three-volume edition begins with the geological formation of the archipelago and ends with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, giving new meaning to the phrase “definitive history.” Written in easy-to-read prose and with an eye for a captivating episode, any study of Japan’s history should begin with this box-set overview.
2. Japan from Tokugawa Times to the Present, Andrew Gordon
Gordon’s “modern history” picks up exactly where Sansom’s leaves off — at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji era, making it the perfect companion. Moving effortlessly from grand political trends to domestic details, this fills in the blanks between the opening of Japan and World War II that many other histories skim over. Of particular interest are his chapters on the Taisho era (1912-1926) and the democracy movement, left-wing radicalism and progressive cultural trends that were snuffed out by the rise of militarism — a story often rushed in order to reach the fighting.
3. Embracing Defeat, John Dower
A classic text unpacking the Japanese experience of defeat and reconstruction. Dower’s exhaustive exploration digs into every aspect of life: politics, business, religion, cultural pursuits — no stone is left unturned — and shows how defeat and occupation forced a wholesale reassessment of values on the Japanese population. Despite being something of a doorstop, Dower’s prose makes this an enthralling read.
4. Bending Adversity, David Pilling
As a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper, Pilling was based in Tokyo between 2001 and 2008 and interacted with the key political and cultural figures of the time. This fascinating book gives a historical overview but is much more concerned with where Japan is today and where it will go in the future. Essential reading for anyone trying to get behind recent headlines.
5. A Diplomat in Japan, Sir Ernest Satow
Satow came to Japan in 1862 as an interpreter and worked as a secretary for the British Legation in Tokyo for more than two decades — arguably the most notable two decades in Japanese history. A key eyewitness to the ending of the feudal era and the beginning of “modern” Japan, this memoir would be fascinating for that reason alone. But Satow is also a wonderful writer, a man with a vibrant sense of humor and a way with an anecdote that must have made him popular in the drinking establishments he happily admits to frequenting. The book is packed with tales of disreputable behavior and larger than life characters, alongside political machinations and diplomatic encounters.
6. Japan Rising, Kume Kunitake
This abridgment of a five-volume diary charts a two-year diplomatic fact-finding mission sent by the Japanese government in 1871. From America, through Britain and Europe, and back via Russia and China, the mission visited governments, factories, banks and schools, learning everything it could in order to modernize Japan while hoping to renegotiate the unfair treaties the Western powers foisted on Japan a decade earlier. But it’s Kunitake’s descriptions of the places, people and cultures they encountered that makes this such a compelling book.
7. The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang
Focusing on one of the most controversial episodes in Japanese history, Iris Chang’s book on the events of December 1937 when the Imperial Army seized control of the ancient capital is not an easy read. Based on extensive interviews with Japanese, Chinese and Western eyewitnesses, Chang lays out in unforgiving clarity the atrocities committed by troops. While exact numbers can be endlessly debated and the issue has become a bat Japanese and Chinese nationalists use to beat each other, this book returns the human story to the foreground.
8. Japan’s Longest Day, The Pacific War Research Society
A comprehensive and exhilarating account of the 24 hours surrounding Japan’s surrender in August 1945. Written by 14 Japanese historians, what it lacks in nuance (the “clear the Emperor’s name” agenda is obvious from the outset) it more than makes up for in readability. It’s both an enjoyable narrative and a solid introduction to the chaos of the end of the war.
9. The Wages of Guilt, Ian Buruma
Psychological and sociological responses to defeat in World War II played out differently in Japan and Germany, with the German “culpability and atonement” model often lauded by Western commentators over Japan’s “move on” approach. This view usually says more about the cultural assumptions of the commenters than it does about the actual relations to the past in the countries in question. Buruma’s excellent comparative study lays many of these myths and misconceptions to rest — and is a moving account of the damage a distorted history can do.
Given the length of Japan’s history and the detail into which historians both foreign and domestic have delved, this list could go on indefinitely. These nine books would make a good starting point for anyone wishing to learn more about Japan’s past and how it intersects with the present and affects the future.
Want to read more books about Japan or written by Japanese authors? How about 8 Contemporary Japanese Novelists (Who Aren’t Haruki Murakami) or Japanese Settings, International Themes: 14 Recommended Novels Set in Japan.
As always, share your recommendations in the comments below!