Many books have been written about Japan’s history over the years. I’ve always been interested in Japan because a lot of my family came from there. This, of course, doesn’t make me an expert. I’m just an interested person who wants to learn more. However, if you want to learn more about Japanese history, these books are a good place to start.
There are some interesting nonfiction books about Japanese history here. I read more fiction than nonfiction, but there are some interesting ones here. I also include two books of fiction that I can’t help but add at the end. Readers who enjoy learning about Japan and Japan’s history may find some of these interesting.
Japan: A Short History by Mikiso Hane
When Hane was a child, he was the only Japanese American in his family. He spent his life studying and teaching others about Japan. The U.S. is where Hane was born and raised, until he was sent to live with an uncle in Hiroshima in the 1930s. In 1940, he came back to the United States. During World War II, he was held in Arizona for 18 months. As a Japanese teacher, later, he went on to get a BA from Yale, an MA from Yale, and a PhD from Yale. He also wrote many books and articles over the course of his life. The book Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan is one of his best-known works. This short history is a good, easy way to learn about Japan.
Cool Japan by Sumiko Kajiyama
Because Kajiyama does such a good job of putting together Japanese history and historical sites in this book, even if you’re not planning a trip to Japan right now, you should read it. The section on Kyoto, for example, talks about the history of the Tale of Genji, Oda Nobunaga, and Sakamoto Ryoma in ways that I think are understandable even for people who don’t know much about the subjects. And because it’s a guidebook, there are beautiful pictures of temples, museums, and even some tasty food to look at as you go along the way.
Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura
They were sent from their homes in Japan in 1871 to study in America. There were three girls who lived there. This is the story of how they lived their lives. People might not have been able to believe how shocking this must have been for them to see. Eventually, they lived in the U.S. for ten years before coming back to Japan, where they advocated for girls’ education and were the first to do so.
Showa: A History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki, Translated by Zack Davisson
From the first page, this tetralogy will get you hooked with its beautiful art and history of Japan. She went through so much that I couldn’t put this book down. Following this, I read the other books on his life from 1939 to 1989 in quick order. I think these are great. If you like these, you might also like this list of manga about history.
The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman
If you read the title, you know this is a more thoughtful look at Tokyo. To get more information about one of Japan’s best-known cities, you might want to read this book. Sherman never lived there, but she moved to Tokyo in 2001, which gives her a look back at about 20 years. There have been a lot of interviews with her. She has said that when she first moved to Tokyo, she spent two years walking around and then ten years writing this book. She called it a letter to the city that she loved.
The Only Woman in the Room: A Memoir of Japan, Human Rights, and the Arts by Beate Sirota Gordon
People from Gordon’s home country are from Russia, but she spent a lot of time growing up in Japan. She thought of it as her home for a long time. She learned to speak Japanese very well, and on Christmas Eve, 1945, she came back to her home in Japan as a U.S. civilian employee. It was hard for her parents to see each other again because they had been there during the war. As both sides of her family are Jewish, many of her relatives in Europe were sent to Auschwitz or other death camps because they were Jewish. Her parents went through a lot during World War II, as did a lot of other Japanese people. A lot of people don’t know about Gordon’s life, but this is a great story about how she came back to Japan during a time of great change and how she and her parents kept their love of music and art alive.
1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan by Roy Tomizawa
The Summer Olympics were held in Japan in 1964. As time goes on, it is easy to forget that this was just two decades after World War II came to an end. He helps us understand this history in his book. He talked to a lot of people who used to be Olympic athletes, and he connects seemingly unrelated events to tell this story of Japan’s rise back to the top of the world stage.
Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, Translated by Polly Barton
This is where I add two more fiction titles because I can’t stop myself from. These are short stories written by Matsuda that tell Japanese folktales in new ways. This is a 2020 translation of them. To make sure you don’t forget anything, look at the back of the book. In there, you will find shorter versions of the original stories that led to these new interpretations of them.
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters is another book that I think you should read. This is one of those books that I think of when I think of Middlemarch by George Eliot. The only way I would have read it is if someone put a copy in my hands and told me to. Both of them looked scary. Both looked like things I’d never understand. However, I loved both of them so much that I wish I could give one to you, dear reader. Take this as a sign that you need to read this wonderful book about Japan in the 1930s and ’40s.