Japanese History for the Uninformed
August 15, 2010 6:48 PM   Subscribe

I have just finished The 1000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell and realize that I do not know as much Japanese history as I would like. What should I read?

I am primarily interested in non-fiction but I would be open to good historically accurate fiction as well. Podcasts or video would also be welcome.
posted by readery to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
"Soldiers of the Sun" is a superb history covering the period between the visit by Admiral Perry in 1854, through the Meiji restoration, to the end of WWII. It concentrates primarily on the Imperial Japanese Army but indirectly covers the Navy and the civilian government.

I think the author's purpose was to explain just how it was that the Army became the kind of force that could slaughter prisoners and commit the Rape of Nanking -- and by the time you get to that point in the book, it all makes sense. (It isn't forgiveable, but it makes sense.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:01 PM on August 15, 2010

Embracing Defeat about Japan after WWII won the Pulitzer Prize. Andrew Gordon's A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present is a more straight textbook exposition of modern Japanese history, but it gets the job done.
posted by AwkwardPause at 7:19 PM on August 15, 2010

I rather liked "Silence" by Shusaku Endo. I'm currently reading Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe, and it's not my favorite thing he's written, but great nonetheless.
posted by OrangeDrink at 7:26 PM on August 15, 2010

One of Mitchell's source books for Jacob de Zoet was Recollections of Japan by Hendrik Doeff. I heard Mitchell talk about the book when he came through Philadelphia, and it went on my "to-read" list then.
posted by gladly at 7:57 PM on August 15, 2010

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is both a fascinating first-person account of Heian-era Japan and the world's first blog! And a snarky blog at that, when you read some of her lists: Hateful things, Things that make one's heart beat faster, Things that should be short, etc.

Other thoughts:
1. fall in love with a particular era/location/culture of Japan (Sengoku Jidai! Hokkaido! yakuza!) and read as many books about it specifically as possible (you'll branch out later), especially books in translation written by Japanese about Japan, straight from the source.
2. and/or fall in love with translated work(s) of Japanese fiction (novels, manga, anime, whatever) based however loosely on historical events, and then research your way out from those. At the very least, you'll learn the important names and rough time periods. I wouldn't remember a fraction of the stuff I learned in class about Tokugawa-era Japan if I hadn't simultaneously been reading Samurai Deeper Kyo and discovered how hilariously bad that series is at matching up historical timeframes.
posted by nicebookrack at 8:28 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

it's an obvious choice, but "shogun" by james clavell is a classic of the genre, is supposedly one of the first books published in the west to offer a more balanced, open, "multicultural" view of the orient, and remains a deep, thoughtful, tragic, edge-of-your-seat pageturner to boot. i believe it's fairly strongly rooted in proper japanese history.
posted by messiahwannabe at 1:47 AM on August 16, 2010

I'm a graduate student and I study Japanese history. I am always reading way too many books about Japanese history. These are the books I like:

Anything by John Dower is very good, but he only writes about modern history. If you want some older history, you can look into these books by Andrew Gordon and Conrad Totman:

"Early Modern Japan" by Conrad Totman covers roughly the Edo period (1600-1868). Andrew Gordon's book, "A Modern History of Japan," covers from 1868 until the present. He released a new edition in 2008. Those two books are standard texts for college courses on Japanese history.

Gordon also edited a collection of essays entitled "Postwar Japan as History."

For some medieval history, I highly recommend State of War by Thomas Conlan. He proves many common assumptions and stereotypes about the samurai are false by demonstrating how they actually did behave.

If you have access to them at a library, you should go through the Cambridge History of Japan books and pick out interesting articles to read. Most are under 50 pages or so. They cover a wide range of topics and are easy to understand without prior exposure to Japanese history.

If you want some fiction, check out books by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. "Kappa" is pretty good. I think he also wrote "Rashomon." For some political theory disguised as fiction, "A Discourse on Government by Three Drunkards" by Nakae Chomin is good. "Musui's Story" by Katsu Kokichi is a picaresque autobiography from the late Edo period and is fun to read.

For cultural history, Donald Keene is a good author to look into.

I can make many recommendations for academic works about very specific topics in Japanese history, but I really don't think many people would find them interesting without having already read the more general textbooks. But if you really really want to read 250 pages about government coal and oil policy in the late 1940s (I didn't...), then send me a MeFi mail and I can send you a list of more focused books.

This question reminds me that I need to work harder on keeping my Endnote bibliography up to date.
posted by twblalock at 4:08 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some of my favorite books about Japan include Memories of Silk and Straw and Memories of Wind and Waves. These books offer a portrait of life in Japan as told by the people who lived it. Dr. Junichi Saga personally visited hundreds of people from all walks of life and wrote down their stories. It's fascinating reading and I highly recommend both books.
posted by bristolcat at 7:42 AM on August 16, 2010

I hope this isn't too much of a derail, but did you enjoy The 1000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, readery? I was considering reading it.
posted by sharkfu at 9:18 AM on August 16, 2010

I would recommend Retribution: The Battle for Japan by Max Hastings. While the book is controversial in how it discusses the atomic bombings (see the WaPo review on Amazon), it's an excellent history of Japan's experience during WWII.
posted by elder18 at 9:49 AM on August 16, 2010

Favorite book so far this year, I liked it as much as Cloud Atlas. I typically am not a fan of historical fiction, but I did that thing when you slow down when you get to the last third or so of a book because you don't want it to end.

So I need to know more about Japan c.1800.

Part of my question could easily get into spoiler alert territory, but I would really be especially interested in convents and religious worship.
posted by readery at 9:53 AM on August 16, 2010

I hope this isn't too much of a derail, but did you enjoy The 1000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, readery? I was considering reading it.
I also just finished it a month or two ago and adored it. One of those books where you get melancholy as the end approaches.
posted by Lame_username at 10:15 AM on August 16, 2010

I didn't read your response before I posted readery. Since you are apparently my secret clone (or vice versa), I have shipped Cloud Atlas to the trusty Kindle post haste.
posted by Lame_username at 10:18 AM on August 16, 2010

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