The best books to get aboard the rollercoaster world of Japan’s global history

The Books I Picked & Why

The Making of Modern Japan

By Marius B. Jansen

The Making of Modern Japan

Why this book?

This was the first comprehensive academic history book of Japan that I read, and it is still the best. I go back to it regularly to check on details and refresh my memory. Jansen writes fluently and maintains reader engagement with a great pace, never too little information, never too much. His subject matter helps, as this period is well researched and blessed with plentiful source material to give a full picture. Highly recommended as a serious starter in Japanese history and culture.


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The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives

By Christopher Harding

The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives

Why this book?

Twenty Lives is truly compelling. Very well written, a book you won’t put down. Anyone can pick it up and not be put off by academic terminology, complicated writing style, or as often happens with books about Japan in English, an overwhelming sense of Japanese ‘otherness.’ This book treats Japanese people as themselves, without engaging in over-the-top characterizations and stereotypes. A non-academic introduction to the full sweep of Japanese history.


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Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

By Matt Alt

Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

Why this book?

In this book, Alt sets out a convincing argument as to how much of the modern world, the culture and products consumed, as well as niche but dangerously influential areas of the internet and modern politics such as ‘4chan,’ trace their birth and or roots back to Japan. It is full of facts that are commonly overlooked or ignored but are true nonetheless. I could not stop reading this, and I suspect that if you are reading this list, you won’t be able to either.


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The Samurai: A Military History

By Stephen Turnbull

The Samurai: A Military History

Why this book?

I would recommend anything by Stephen Turnbull, but I can only choose one, so I chose this. It is a blow-by-blow account of ‘The Age of the Country at War,’ Japan’s long 16th century, which ended with the unification of the country under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu. A key era in Japanese history, and there is still no other book in English to match it.


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Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West

By Lesley Downer

Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West

Why this book?

As with number 4, I recommend anything by Leslie Downer, but can only choose one, so chose this. It gave me a view of Japanese history that I had never encountered before and told the story of Japan’s first truly global superstar, Kawakami Sadayakko. It is criminal that this lady is not better known, as she was a key player in the formation of the modern Japanese entertainment industry and the popularization of Japanese culture around the globe. Very well written and researched. An excellent read.


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