The best books on early Japan in world history

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By James P. Delgado

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

Why 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.


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

By Michael Cooper

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

Why 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 It’s old but has never been superseded and never will be.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.


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Ennin's Travels in T'ang China

By Edwin O. Reischauer

Book cover of Ennin's Travels in T'ang China

Why 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!


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A Maritime History of East Asia

By Masashi Haneda, Mihoko Oka

Book cover of A Maritime History of East Asia

Why 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?


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Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

By Arctic Studies Center (National Museum of Natural History)

Book cover of Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

Why 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.


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