9 of the best Japanese history books


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Over the years, I have read more than a few books on the history of Japan. Part of my family immigrated from Japan, so they always had a special interest and place in my heart. Of course, that doesn’t make me an expert, just an interested observer. However, if you’re in the mood for more, these Japanese history books are a great place to start.

Although I read more fiction than non-fiction in general, I have some interesting Japanese history books of non-fiction here. I also include two fictional titles that I can’t help but add at the end. Hopefully some of them will be of interest to readers who like to learn more about Japan and the history of Japan.

non-fictional works

Coverage of Japan, a short history

Japan: A Brief History of Mikiso Hane

Hane was a Japanese American who spent his life studying and teaching others about Japan. Hane was born and raised in the United States until he was sent to live with an uncle in Hiroshima in the 1930s. He returned to the United States in 1940 and was ultimately interned in Arizona for 18 months. during WWII. He went on to work as a Japanese teacher and earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Yale, writing numerous books and articles during his lifetime. While some of her other work is probably better known (especially Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan), this short story is a good place to start.

Cool cover design from Japan

Sumiko Kajiyama’s Cool Japan

This is a travel guide, but Kajiyama does such a great job of bringing together Japanese history and historical sites that it is worth reading more widely, even if you aren’t planning a trip just yet. . The section on Kyoto, for example, covers the story of the Tale of Genji, Oda Nobunaga, and Sakamoto Ryoma in a way that I think is quite accessible to someone with limited knowledge of the subjects. And since this is a guidebook, there are some great pictures to watch along the way of temples, museums, and sometimes mouthwatering food.

Samurai Girls Blanket

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura

It is the story of several young girls sent from their homes to Japan in 1871 to study in America. This is the story of three of the girls and their experiences. It’s hard to imagine how shocking that must have been for them. They ended up living in the United States for ten years before returning home to Japan, where they eventually became supporters and pioneers of girls’ education.

Cover of Showa A History of Japan

Showa: A History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Zack Davisson

It is a tetralogy that will captivate you from the first pages with its works and its history of Japan. Mizuki has lived and seen so much that I couldn’t forget it. After I finished this, I read the other volumes on his life from 1939 to 1989 in quick succession. I highly recommend these. And if these interest you, you might also like this list of historical manga.

Bells of old Tokyo

The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman

It’s a more contemplative look at Tokyo, as the title suggests. If you want to delve deeper into one of Japan’s most famous cities, this can be a good addition to your reading. Sherman didn’t grow up there, but she moved to Tokyo in 2001, which gives her a perspective of around 20 years. She said in an interview that when she first moved there, she spent two years walking around Tokyo and then another ten years writing this book. She called it her love letter to the city.

only woman in bedroom blanket

The Only Woman in the Room: A Memoir of Japan, Human Rights and the Arts by Beate Sirota Gordon

Gordon is of Russian descent, but spent a decade of his childhood in Japan and has long considered it his home. She learned to speak Japanese fluently and returned to her crumbling homeland as an American civilian employee on Christmas Eve 1945. Her parents had spent the war there and their reunion was bittersweet. As both sides of his family are Jewish, many relatives in Europe were sent to Auschwitz or other death camps. During this time, her parents suffered with millions of Japanese during World War II. This is a fascinating tale of Gordon’s life, how she returned to Japan during this tumultuous time, and how she and her parents maintained their love of music and the arts throughout. of those years.

1964 book cover

1964: The Greatest Year in Japanese History by Roy Tomizawa

Japan hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964. It’s easy to forget that this was just two decades after the end of World War II and its devastation. Tomizawa helps us follow this story in his book. He has interviewed many former Olympic athletes and made the link between seemingly disconnected events to present this story of Japan’s re-emergence on the international stage.


Where Are the Wild Women by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton

This is where I add two fictional titles because I can’t resist. This one is a 2020 translation of Matsuda’s Short Tales of Japanese Folk Tales. In case you are worried that you may not “learn” anything, you should check the back material. There you will find abridged versions of the original tales that inspired these new interpretations.

makioka sisters blanket

The Makioka sisters of Junichiro Tanizaki

Let me recommend another work of fiction, that of Tanizaki The Makioka sisters. It’s one of those books that I think of like George Eliot’s Walking middle. I don’t know if I would have read it if someone hadn’t literally put a copy in my hands and told me to do it. The two looked intimidating. Both seemed like classics that I would never understand. However, I loved them both so much and now I wish I could hand you a copy, dear reader. Take this as your opinion that you really need to read this enchanting novel set in 1930s and 1940s Japan.


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