What's the best book about Japanese history?
September 22, 2005 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in learning about Japanese history pre-1900. What book(s) should I be reading?

I've been reading Lone Wolf and Cub (as well as some Samurai Executioner) and it struck me that I really don't know much about Japanese medieval history. I mean, I know a little about the samurai, and the structure of the country, and the various periods that history is divided into. But I'm lacking a lot of detail, and I'm in the mood for a meaty but readable history of Japan, preferably from early times to the dawn of modernity. Does anyone have any suggestions? If I really need to read 2-3 books rather than just one, that's fine too.

I should also throw in the caveat that I don't speak or read Japanese, so any books would have to be in English.
posted by selfnoise to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My Japanese art history class read Japanese Culture, by Paul Varley. It might focus a bit more on the art and literature of the culture than what you're looking for, but it definitely gives a good overview of the history chronologically starting from the prehistoric Jomon period. I also found it to be surprisingly readable, for a history text.
posted by gwyn at 12:05 PM on September 22, 2005

You could try Traveller's History to Japan by Richard Tames. It's a "mad dash" of hundreds of years of Japanese history in about 300 pages. It's a straightforward read.
posted by luneray at 12:21 PM on September 22, 2005

The Japanese were actually pretty good at recording their own history. It's very informing to read translations of the original sources, especially if there are good footnotes. I suggest the Heike Monogatari, especially. It's about the 12th century civil war that pulled Japan from one era into another. Also, Junichiro Tanazaki wrote a wonderful short story about a blind blind masseur caught up in the fighting between the momoyama and moromachi periods. It's a good introduction to the history surrounding the start of classical Japan.

You'll want to read any book about Nobunaga or Tokugawa Ieyasu to help sort out that era (muromachi, momoyama and edo periods). It is confusing (people are constantly killed and replaced), but this time period is a the heart of samurai culture. War in Japan 1467-1615 is short, but it covers this warring states period.
posted by Alison at 1:24 PM on September 22, 2005

Best answer: George Sansom's books (3 volumes covering premodern Japan) are so dry as to be unreadable, in my opinion.

The Cambridge History of Japan is very good, I find--that's a whole lot of volumes, though.

I'd recommend "Everyday Life in Traditional Japan" as short and informative--more cultural than historical.
posted by Jeanne at 2:14 PM on September 22, 2005

Response by poster: Followup- I read Everyday Life in Traditional Japan on my vacation. It was just what I needed! Thanks, Jeanne.

I'm now moving on to Japanese Inn, which was mentioned in the endnote.
posted by selfnoise at 5:50 PM on October 23, 2005

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