The best books on early Japan in world history

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up on the West Coast of the US and became fascinated with Japanese culture after I enrolled in a Japanese language course in college. I changed my major from geology to Asian Studies and went on to get a doctorate in Japanese history from Stanford. The first place I lived in Japan was on the western island of Kyushu, historically Japan’s front door to the outside world. This experience led to a lifelong interest in early Japanese foreign relations. Fun fact: despite being from the US I have now lived most of my life in Japan teaching history at a Japanese university.


I wrote...

Gateway to Japan: Hakata in War and Peace, 500-1300

By Bruce L. Batten,

Book cover of Gateway to Japan: Hakata in War and Peace, 500-1300

What is my book about?

Gateway to Japan spotlights four categories of cross-cultural interaction—war, diplomacy, piracy, and trade—over a period of eight hundred years to gain insight into several larger questions about Japan and its place in the world: How and why did Hakata come to serve as the country’s “front door”? How did geography influence the development of state and society in the Japanese archipelago? Has Japan been historically open or closed to outside influence? Why are the Japanese so profoundly ambivalent about other places and people? Enriched by fascinating historical vignettes and dozens of maps and photographs, this engagingly written volume explores issues not only important for Japan’s early history but also highly pertinent to Japan’s role in the world today.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada

Bruce L. Batten Why did I love this book?

What could be cooler than underwater archaeology? This book tells the incredible story of how Mongol emperor Kublai Khan attempted to conquer Japan, not once, but twice in the late twelfth century. Both invasions were unsuccessful, and Kublai’s second fleet was sunk by a “divine wind” or kamikaze in the waters off Kyushu island in western Japan—only to be rediscovered in modern times by underwater archaeologists.

By James P. Delgado,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1279, near what is now Hong Kong, Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan fulfilled the dream of his grandfather, Genghis Khan, by conquering China. The Grand Khan now ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen - one that stretched from the China Sea to the plains of Hungary. He also inherited the world's largest navy - more than seven hundred ships. Yet within fifteen years, Khubilai Khan's massive fleet was gone. What actually happened to the Mongol navy, considered for seven centuries to be little more than legend, has finally been revealed. Renowned archaeologist and historian James P. Delgado…


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

Bruce L. Batten Why did I love this book?

Japan’s first encounter with the West came with the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese merchants and missionaries in the mid-sixteenth century and dramatically ended less than a century later when the Tokugawa Shogunate closed the country to most foreign visitors. Luckily, the Westerners who visited Japan during this brief (by historical terms) window left many fascinating accounts of what they saw and experienced. This book is a kind of Reader’s Digest of the juiciest of those records. It’s old but has never been superseded and never will be. The book is super easy to read because each entry is just a short vignette.

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 Ennin's Travels in T'ang China

Bruce L. Batten Why did I love this book?

This book is also old but I have always loved it. It’s the best thing ever written by Edwin Reischauer, the pioneer historian of Japan and also US Ambassador to that country during the Kennedy administration. It follows Ennin, a ninth-century Japanese Buddhist monk, on his visit to the glorious and cosmopolitan Tang empire in China together with a group of Japanese diplomats. Travel then was very different from travel now; to go by ship across the East China Sea was to take your very life into your hands. What an adventure!

By Edwin O. Reischauer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ennin's Travels in T'ang China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book, a reconstruction of daily life and ways of thought in China during the ninth century, is based on an extensive travel diary of that time. The diarist Ennin was a Japanese Buddhist monk who went to China in AD 838 in search of new Buddhist texts and further enlightenment in his faith. While journeying through North China, and living in Ch’ang-an, he recorded in detail what he saw and experienced.

Edwin O. Reischauer presents—often in Ennin’s own words—a series of vignettes of various aspects of life in the Far East in medieval times: embassies and the conduct of…


Book cover of A Maritime History of East Asia

Bruce L. Batten Why did I love this book?

OK, I had to sneak in at least one academic book; I’m a professor, after all. This book might be a little drier than some of the others, but it’s also the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of premodern Japanese international relations available in English. Most Japanese historians only publish in Japanese, so this book provides a unique window into the results of their studies for those who don’t read that language. It’s a treasure trove of information about diplomacy, war, piracy, trade, and cultural exchanges between 1250 and 1800. Who could ask for more?

By Masashi Haneda (editor), Mihoko Oka (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Maritime History of East Asia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the history of a region from the perspective of the interactions that occurred on and were facilitated by the sea. It is divided into three parts that each focus on a different hundred-year period between 1250 and 1800. The chapters in each part examine the people, goods, and information that flowed across the seas of the East Asian maritime world, facilitating cultural exchange and hybridity.

The intricate and often fraught relations between China, Japan, and Korea feature throughout, as well as those between these polities and the waves of outsiders…


Book cover of Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

Bruce L. Batten Why did I love this book?

This one might seem a bit of a stretch. If you are familiar with the Ainu you know they are an ethnic minority from Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, whose culture exhibits many similarities to that of native Americans from the Pacific Northwest. So why would a book about the Ainu have anything to do with foreign relations or Japan in world history? Well, because Hokkaido was originally not part of Japan and the Ainu were independent of their southern neighbors. This book, an exhibition catalogue, is not only the single best source of information in English about Ainu history and culture but also a visual feast.

By Arctic Studies Center (National Museum of Natural History),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

As soon as the Ainu became known outside Japan in the early 1800s, scholars recognized that their history was different from that of surrounding Japanese, Korean, and Siberian peoples. This book presents a broad range of contemporary scholarship on Ainu studies by leading European, American, and Japanese scholars, and by native Ainu artists and cultural leaders. Using materials from early, unpublished Ainu collections in North America, supplemented by archaeological, archival, and modern Ainu art from Japan, Ainu culture is presented here as a rich blend of traditional and modern belief. Like other extant native cultures, the Ainu have survived by…


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Rip Current

By Sharon Ward,

Book cover of Rip Current

Sharon Ward Author Of In Deep

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Even as a kid, I was intrigued by the underwater world, so as an adult, I learned to scuba dive. I took to it like a fish to water, and my husband and I spent the next several years traveling to tropical islands to experience the local dive conditions whenever possible. I loved learning how every island had a different culture and a different undersea environment. Since I love tropical islands, scuba diving, mysteries, and adventure stories, these books really hit my sweet spot.

Sharon's book list on mysteries set on a tropical island

What is my book about?

Unsettled weather has caused life-threatening rip currents to sprout up seemingly at random in the usually tranquil sea around Grand Cayman. Despite posted warnings to stay out of the surf, several women lose their life when caught in the turbulent waters. Fin attempts some dangerous rescues, and nearly loses her own life in the process.

Meanwhile, Fin and the team at RIO are struggling to find more sources of funding for the Institute’s important research, and danger arises from an unexpected source while Fin and hot movie star Rafe Cummings are filming an upcoming documentary. When a young internet influencer…

Rip Current

By Sharon Ward,

What is this book about?

Unsettled weather has caused life-threatening rip currents to sprout up seemingly at random in the usually tranquil sea around Grand Cayman. Despite posted warnings to stay out of the surf, several women lose their life when caught in the turbulent waters. Fin attempts some dangerous rescues, and nearly loses her own life in the process.
Meanwhile, Fin and the team at RIO are struggling to find more sources of funding for the Institute’s important research, and danger arises from an unexpected source while Fin and hot movie star Rafe Cummings are filming an upcoming documentary.
Soon after a young internet…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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