5 Best Books About Japanese History

5 Best Books About Japanese History

Last Updated on November 16, 2020

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Are you curious about the Land of the Rising Sun? Have you ever took a vacation in Japan and wondered about its origin? Quench your thirst for knowledge with these best books about Japanese history. Japan is an East Asian island country composed of 6,852 islands. It has five main islands: Honshu, Shikoku, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Okinawa, with Tokyo as its capital city. The unification of the archipelago dates back between the 4th and 9th centuries with Heian-kyō (now Kyoto) as its official capital. Japan endured century-long civil conflicts and World War II. The country has been a global leader in economy, art, music, science and technology, cuisine, and popular culture. Learn more about Japan through the narratives of Brett L. Walker, Andrew Gordon, Mitsuo Kure, Jonathan Clements, Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay.


1. A Concise History of Japan (Cambridge Concise Histories) (By Brett L. Walker)

This book tackles Japan’s beginnings through archaeology and the ancient remains of its early history. Walker’s narrative follows Japan’s imperial court, samurai era, civil and world wars, and its survival and modernization post-war. It explores the country’s internal relationships, the rise of their science and technology, and the growth of their nation and economy. Furthermore, this history book about Japan links its history with present environmental issues.  

  • Review: Walker’s A Concise History of Japan is a scholarly book, eloquently detailing Japan’s past and addressing the impacts of environmental challenges such as natural disasters, pollution, climate change, disease, and famine. It takes a critical look at the archipelago’s development through the years. The book is well-written with a clear readable style, which is excellent for pleasure reading. Even with its ambitious scope, it manages to deliver comprehensive information and cover Japan’s history in a small volume, accompanied by helpful illustrations and images. However, the book is rather academic, deeply rooted in environmentalism, and lacks depth due to focusing on providing general overviews. 
  • Author: Brett L. Walker is a history professor at Montana State University. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Oregon in 1997. His research expertise includes Asian studies, World War II studies, environmental history, public health, and science and technology studies. He is a Guggenheim Fellowship awardee for his contributions to environmental history. He is a published author of numerous books, book chapters, academic articles, and research papers. 
  • Pages: 364
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (March 2, 2015)

2. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (By Andrew Gordon)

The book offers a view of Japan’s military history from the era of the shogunate to the samurai revolution in the 19th century. The revision of this edition further takes the reader from 1989  to 2008. Furthermore, it explores the Western influences on the country’s culture and military. The book also covers the popular culture of Japan, such as manga and anime. The final chapter concludes on the recent history of the country, including the financial crisis of 2008 and the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011. 

  • Review: The book is beautifully written with a clear organization, covering all the significant happenings and modernization in Japan. Its writing style makes it enjoyable and engaging for both students and general readers. It is a recommended Japanese history book for busy people as its section divisions are convenient for short reading times. It provides a good background to Japan with its fantastic overview and relevant information. However, it has a less in-depth discussion of certain topics; thus, the book needs accompaniment to cover Japanese history in full depth.
  • Author:  Andrew Gordon is a professor of history at Harvard University and has taught at Duke University. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1981, completing his dissertation about History and East Asian Languages. He is an expert on the modern history of Japan and a recipient of the 1997 John King Fairbank Prize. He has published books and journal articles about modern Japan, which has been translated into different languages.
  • Pages: 432
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (March 26, 2013)

3. Samurai: An Illustrated History (By Mitsuo Kure)

Samurai: An Illustrated History takes its readers back to the 700 years of medieval Japanese samurai. Samurais were the warrior caste of feudal Japan from the 12th century to the 19th century. The book explores the world of warriors from their beginnings as lowly soldiers to their rise to the imperial court and the formation of a parallel military government.

This Japanese history book shows the impact of the samurai era to the development of the country. It includes relevant facts about armors and weaponry, as well as military techniques and practices. Around 800 colorful images, sketches, and maps illustrate the powerful samurai caste. 

  • Review: This book is recommended for the neophyte readers and collectors about the Samurai period of Japan due to its drawings and illustrations. It details the intricacy of samurai armors and weaponry. It is well-written and well-researched, focusing on the Japanese feudal society. However, the writing style integrates the discussion about the armors, weaponry, and culture, which might not be helpful for readers who are looking for full depth explanations about each topic. 
  • Author: Mitsuo Kure is a Tokyo-based surgeon. He finished his medical studies in 1972. He is also an artist and an avid fan of samurais. He has been reconstructing full-size samurai armors and figures since gaining an interest in the Japanese warriors at an early age. 
  • Pages: 192
  • Publisher: Tuttle Publishing (May 15, 2002)

4. A Brief History of Japan: Samurai, Shogun and Zen: The Extraordinary Story of the Land of the Rising Sun (By Jonathan Clements)

This book traces back to Japan’s history from its prehistoric times up to being a pioneering country in the global industry. It reveals the victories of Japan as honed by its traditions, government, topography, and advancement. The chapters of the book include explanations about the mythical origins of Japan, the civil conflicts focusing on Minamoto versus Taira, the Sakoku or the country’s isolation from other countries for 200 years, Japan’s restoration of advancement post-war era, and its establishment as a global powerhouse. 

  • Review: Clements uses a blended documentary and storytelling style to introduce the politics, culture, and economy of Japan, which is an interesting introduction for travelers or students. It provides a great and concise overview of the country with well-researched and thoughtful explanations. The book also includes illustrations to further portray the early days of Japan. However, it lacks timelines of more relevant events which would have helped relate the past and the present times. 
  • Author: Jonathan Clements is a published author of East Asian history books and biographies of historical figures. He is also a television program consultant for PBS/Nova, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and American Heroes. He earned his Ph.D. in the history of anime at the University of Wales. His publications have been translated into different languages worldwide. 
  • Pages: 304
  • Publisher: Tuttle Publishing (August 1, 2017)

5. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization ( By Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay)

This book provides information about Japanese history, focusing on its politics, society, and culture. It is the result of the authors’ researches at The Kyoto University Institute. The approach of the book enables it to be accessible for first-time readers about Japan. Furthermore, it includes drawings, maps, timelines, and readings to satiate the curiosity of its readers. 

  • Review: This concise Japanese history book covers numerous eras, leading to the country of today. It is a great read for the learners of Japanese culture as it provides illustrations and chronological tables to systematically show the flow of history. The book is also a great read for Japanese and Chinese civilization studies. However, it is a dense book and has fast-paced storytelling. 
  • Author: Conrad Shirokauer was a history professor at the City University of New York. He earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University, completing his dissertation about 12th-century Chinese political thought. His area of expertise included Chinese and Japanese historiography. He was a published author of notable books, such as Modern East Asia: A Brief History and Modern China and Japan: A Brief History.

David Lurie is a Japanese history and literature professor at Columbia University. He earned his Ph.D. at the same university in 2001. His research interests include the history of writing systems and literary history in pre-modern East Asia. He is a published author of research papers and co-author of books. 

Suzanne Gay is an East Asian Studies professor at Oberlin College. She has conducted researches about the social and economic history of feudal Japan, focusing on the commoners of society. She has also worked on the history of merchant families and commerce of medieval Kyoto. She is also the published author of The Moneylenders of Late Medieval Kyoto in 2001.

  • Pages: 336
  • Publisher: Cengage Learning (January 1, 2012)

Japanese history is a rich and complex narrative composed of different events, shaping present Japan. Avid readers about the country’s culture should equip themselves with the finest books to feed their curiosity. Learn from world-renowned historians and scholars about the history of Japan. 

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