The most captivating books about Japanese history

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a retired economics professor from the US who studied Japan for most of my 46-year career and have lived in Kyoto since 2008. I first visited Kyoto in 1981, naively hoping to revel in the splendors of the Heian era, and was disappointed to find that the physical manifestations of medieval Japan as evoked in The Tale of Genji had vanished. But the persisting legacy of that ancient age is still evident to the trained observer. Japan today embodies its past. It's not enough to know that Japan today is a prosperous country. Curious people also want to know how it got that way. The roots lie deep in the past. 


I wrote...

The Japanese Economy

By David Flath,

Book cover of The Japanese Economy

What is my book about?

My book describes the history behind current Japanese economic institutions, practices, and policies and uses economics to explain their possible rationales and likely effects. The economics is explained without presuming the reader has any prior knowledge of it. Anyone who dives into the book will learn much about Japan and will alsoI hope—develop an appreciation of the power of economics to clarify and make logical sense of the world. My coverage begins with economic history from the sixteenth century up through the American occupation and then takes on more current topics—macroeconomy, public finance, international trade and finance,  industrial policy, government spending and taxation, environment, industrial organization, finance, marketing, and labor. In writing the book and revising it over the years, my own interest in Japanese history deepened.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Japan from Prehistory to Modern Times

David Flath Why did I love this book?

The best way to start one’s reading about Japanese history is to pick a short overview written by an expert who writes well. This decades-old book is a splendid example of that and still the best in my opinion. Hall was an American who grew up in prewar Japan and spent his later years as a distinguished scholar of premodern Japanese history at Yale University. The book is a joy to read and identifies the main historic events from prehistoric time up through the American occupation that ended in 1952.

By John Whitney Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Japan from Prehistory to Modern Times as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times has a heavy emphasis upon the premodern period of Japanese history. No attempt has been made to provide the usual kind of textbook completeness. Hall’s fascination with Japanese history lies within the manner in which Japan’s political and social institutions have changed and diversified over time and how this fundamentally “Eastern” culture gave rise to a modern world power. Japan is today a modern nation in the full sense of the term. Yet its history is less familiar to us than the histories of those Western powers that it has now outstripped, or of…


Book cover of The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan

David Flath Why did I love this book?

This is essential background for any reader of the Tale of Genji, the famous novel written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century. In a breezy style that pulls the reader along, Morris describes how the court nobles of Heian—the original name for  Kyoto—had created a distinctive high culture inspired by borrowings from China but uniquely Japanese. We learn about a polygamous society in which males among the court nobles competed for the affection of high-born females through poetry and aesthetics. Political ambitions were channeled into the pursuit of higher social rank rather than into government works and policies. That last sentence could describe Japanese politics of today. Readers of this book will learn that even in the eleventh century, Japan already had a sophisticated culture, government, and style of life. The nation’s economic development has roots that extend at least that far into the past. 

By Ivan Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World of the Shining Prince as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ivan Morris’s definitive and widely acclaimed portrait of the ceremonious and melancholy world of ancient Japan.

Using The Tale of Genji and other major literary works from Japan’s Heian period as a frame of reference, The World of the Shining Prince recreates an era when women set the cultural tone. Focusing on the world of the emperor’s court—a world deeply admired by Virginia Woolf, among others—renowned scholar of Japanese history and literature Ivan Morris explores the politics, society, religious life, and superstitions of the period.

Offering readers detailed portrayals of the daily lives of courtiers, the cult of beauty they…


Book cover of They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640

David Flath Why did I love this book?

This is an impressive collection of first-person accounts of experiences in Japan by various Europeans including Jesuit missionaries, adventurers, and others. Each account is short, and all are organized by themes. Here we learn of audiences with Nobunaga,  Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu, along with reports of some of their atrocities. Other entries pertain to the daily life of Japanese people and still others describe great temples and shrines that are still there today. The immediacy of these commentaries sends me back in time to this pivotal epoch in Japanese history when civil wars were ending and two centuries of closure were about to begin. This is ecstasy for the Walter Mitty in me. 

By Michael Cooper,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked They Came to Japan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Japan accidentally discovered by the Europeans in 1543 was a country torn by internecene wars waged by independent barons who recognised no effective central government and were free to appropriate as many neighbouring fiefs as force of arms and treachery would permit. The Japan which deported the Europeans a century later was a stable, highly centralised bureaucracy under the firm control of a usurping family which was to continue to rule the country until well into the Victorian age. Europeans living in Japan at the time have not only recorded the events of this fascinating period but also provided…


Book cover of The Politics of Oligarchy: Institutional Choice in Imperial Japan

David Flath Why did I love this book?

A legal scholar and a political scientist, both Americans who grew up in Japan, explain Meiji and Taisho political history from the standpoint of rational calculation by the leading politicians. This is a convincing narrative of the birth of parliamentary government and the emergence of political parties under the Meiji constitution, 1889 to 1947. The authors explain how the leaders of the various political parties were pursuing their own selfish ends—perpetuation of their own power and status. Without intending to do so, those politicians created a political structure that extremist cliques in Japan’s armed forces were able to subvert.

I especially like this book because it avoids the trap that so many others fall into of imputing benign motives to a nebulous but omnipotent entity spinning out government policies—a “development state,” or whatever you might call it, a cadre of unnamed “policy-makers” who are guided by the abstract arguments of college professors and philosophers. That is not the way the world works; never was and never will be.

By J. Mark Ramseyer, Frances McCall Rosenbluth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Politics of Oligarchy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the latter-half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, Japan underwent two major shifts in political control. In the 1910s, the power of the oligarchy was eclipsed by that of a larger group of professional politicians; in the 1930s, the focus of power shifted again, this time to a set of independent military leaders. In this book, Ramseyer and Rosenbluth examine a key question of modern Japanese politics: why the Meiji oligarchs were unable to design institutions capable of protecting their power. The authors question why the oligarchs chose the political institutions they did,…


Book cover of Lever of Empire: The International Gold Standard and the Crisis of Liberalism in Prewar Japan

David Flath Why did I love this book?

Britain, America, and France collectively adopted deflationary policies after 1920 to reestablish the gold standard at the pre-World-War-I parity. Japan's government joined in. The ensuing Japanese deflation retarded growth, produced widespread economic hardship, precipitated a banking crisis in 1927, and ultimately contributed to the sharp swing in Japan's politics towards fascistic, right-wing reactionaries, punctuated with an exclamation mark by the “Manchuria incident” of 1931. Metzler describes in granular detail this historical arc, with special attention to the key persons—including Innoue Junnosuke, Takahashi Korekiyo, and Thomas W. Lamont—and their own written justifications or critiques for the policies they or others implemented. It is not an economic analysis (like much of my book is) but a historical narrative, and a gripping one.

If you already know the economics of the gold standard, it’s even more gripping, because those behind the return to the gold standard in Japan, particularly including Innoue Junnosuke, were mostly delusional about their reasons for doing it. Takahashi Korekiyo—the “Keynes of Japan”—who opposed return to the gold standard made a lot more sense. Metzler superbly documents the historical record.

By Mark Metzler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lever of Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book, the first full account of Japan's financial history and the Japanese gold standard in the pivotal years before World War II, provides a new perspective on the global political dynamics of the era by placing Japan, rather than Europe, at the center of the story. Focusing on the fall of liberalism in Japan in late 1931 and the global politics of money that were at the center of the crisis, Mark Metzler asks why successive Japanese governments from 1920 to 1931 carried out policies that deliberately induced deflation and depression. His search for answers stretches from Edo to…


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Book cover of A School for Unusual Girls

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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