Many of us foreigners living or traveling in Japan are only slightly familiar with the country’s troubled and complicated history. From shoguns to World War II and beyond, Japanese history is a goldmine of fascinating tales sure to intrigue anyone willing to delve a bit deeper.
Imperfectly translated information on museum exhibit labels barely scratch the surface. Instead, here are nine books on Japanese history that are entertaining and informative for both casual readers and history buffs alike.
9. A History of Japan, George Sansom
This three-volume edition begins with the geological formation of the archipelago and ends with the Meiji Restoration of 1868 which saw the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. 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.
8. A Modern History of Japan From Tokugawa Times to the Present, Andrew Gordon
Gordon picks up exactly where Sansom’s leaves off—at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji era. This book fills in the gap between the opening of Japan and World War II that many other history books skim over. Of particular interest are the chapters on the Taisho era (1912-1926), the democratic movement, and progressive cultural trends that were snuffed out by the rise of militarism.
7. Embracing Defeat, John Dower
This classic book masterfully unpacks the Japanese experience of defeat and reconstruction. Dower’s exhaustive exploration digs into every aspect of life—politics, business, religion, cultural pursuits. Despite being something of a doorstop, Dower’s prose makes for an enthralling read.
6. Bending Adversity, David Pilling
Pilling was based in Tokyo between 2001 and 2008 as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times. While in Tokyo, Pilling often interacted with key political and cultural figures. This book gives a fascinating historical overview but places emphasis on where Japan is today and where it’s headed toward in the future.
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 over two decades. As a key eyewitness to the end of the feudal era and the start of “modern” Japan, Satow presents a fascinating memoir. This book is packed with tales of disreputable behavior and larger than life characters, alongside political conspiracies and diplomatic encounters.
4. Japan Rising, Kume Kunitake
This abridged version of a five-volume diary follows a two-year diplomatic mission by the Japanese government in 1871. The goal of the mission was to learn how to modernize Japan while hoping to renegotiate the unfair treaties forced on the country by Western powers a decade earlier. Kunitake’s colorful descriptions of the places, people, and cultures he encountered make this a compelling read.
3. The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang
Chang’s book focuses on one of the most controversial episodes in Japanese history. From 1937 to 1938, Imperial troops massacred up to 300,000 residents of China’s former capital city Nanjing (also written Nanking). Based on extensive interviews with Japanese, Chinese, and Western eyewitnesses, Chang lays out in unforgiving clarity the atrocities committed by Japan’s army.
2. Japan’s Longest Day, The Pacific War Research Society
Japan’s Longest Day is a comprehensive and exhilarating account of the last 24 hours surrounding Japan’s surrender in August 1945. Written by 14 Japanese historians, what it lacks in nuance it makes up for in readability. This book is a fantastic introduction to the chaos of the end of World War II.
1. The Wages of Guilt, Ian Buruma
Psychological and sociological responses to losing World War II played out differently in both Japan and Germany. Buruma’s excellent comparative study is a moving account of the damage a distorted history can have on a country and its people.
Given the length of Japan’s history, this list could go on indefinitely. These nine books are a good starting point for anyone wishing to learn more about Japan’s past, present, and future.
Want to read more books about Japan or written by Japanese authors? Try 8 Contemporary Japanese Novelists (Who Aren’t Haruki Murakami) or Japanese Settings, International Themes: 14 Recommended Novels Set in Japan.
Share your recommendations with us in the comments below!