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

Who am I?

I first came to Japan knowing nothing about the place I was going to live. With hindsight, that was perhaps foolish, but it started my adventure in Japanese history. At first, I stumbled through blindly, reading the odd book and watching dramas and movies for fun. But then I discovered Yasuke, an African who became samurai in 1581. He focused me, and I started reading to discover his world. History means nothing without knowing what came before and after, so I read more, and more, until suddenly, I was publishing books and articles, and appearing on Japanese TV. It has gone well beyond the African Samurai now, but I am eternally grateful to him for his guidance.

I wrote...

African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan

By Thomas Lockley, Geoffrey Girard,

Book cover of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan

What is my book about?

The man who came to be known as Yasuke arrived in Japan in the 16th century, an indentured mercenary arriving upon one of the Portuguese ships carrying a new language, a new religion, and an introduction to the slave trade. Curiously tall, bald, massively built, and black-skinned, he was known as a steadfast bodyguard of immense strength and stature, and swiftly captured the interest, and thence the trust, of the most powerful family in all of Japan. Two years later, he vanished.

Yasuke is the story of a legend that still captures the imagination of people across the world. It brings to life a little-known side of Japan - a gripping narrative about an extraordinary figure in a fascinating time and place.

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The books I picked & why

The Making of Modern Japan

By Marius B. Jansen,

Book cover of The Making of Modern Japan

Why did I love 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.

By Marius B. Jansen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Magisterial in vision, sweeping in scope, this monumental work presents a seamless account of Japanese society during the modern era, from 1600 to the present. A distillation of more than fifty years' engagement with Japan and its history, it is the crowning work of our leading interpreter of the modern Japanese experience.

Since 1600 Japan has undergone three periods of wrenching social and institutional change, following the imposition of hegemonic order on feudal society by the Tokugawa shogun; the opening of Japan's ports by Commodore Perry; and defeat in World War II. The Making of Modern Japan charts these changes:…

Book cover of The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives

Why did I love 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.

By Christopher Harding,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


'Mightily impressive ... a marvellous read' Waldemar Januszczak, Sunday Times

From the acclaimed author of Japan Story, this is the history of Japan, distilled into the stories of twenty remarkable individuals.

The vivid and entertaining portraits in Chris Harding's enormously enjoyable new book take the reader from the earliest written accounts of Japan right through to the life of the current empress, Masako. We encounter shamans and warlords, poets and revolutionaries, scientists, artists and adventurers - each offering insights of their own into this extraordinary place.

For anyone new to Japan, this…

Book cover of Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

Why did I love 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.

By Matt Alt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Amazingly well researched, fabulously informative and an awful lot of fun. If you love Japanese culture or are just curious to know more I can't recommend this book highly enough' Jonathan Ross

'A nerd- and generalist-friendly look at how Japan shaped the post-World War II world, from toys to Trump . . . A non-native's savvy study of Japan's wide influence in ways both subtle and profound' Kirkus

The Walkman. Karaoke. Pikachu. Pac-Man. Akira. Emoji. We've all fallen in love with one or another of Japan's pop-culture creations, from the techy to the wild to the super-kawaii. But as Japanese-media…

Book cover of The Samurai: A Military History

Why did I love 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.

By Stephen Turnbull,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

First published in 1977, The Samurai has long since become a standard work of reference. It continues to be the most authoritative work on samurai life and warfare published outside Japan. Set against the background of Japan's social and political history, the book records the rise and rise of Japan's extraordinary warrior class from earliest times to the culmination of their culture, prowess and skills as manifested in the last great battle they were ever to fight - that of Osaka Castle in 1615.

Book cover of Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West

Why did I love 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.

By Lesley Downer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The author of Women of the Pleasure Quarters shares the story of the famous geisha whose life inspired Puccini's Madame Butterfly, from her training and participation in secret geisha traditions to her defection from her lucrative career to marry the penniless actor and political maverick Otojiro Kawakami and her rise to international celebrity. Reprint.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Japan, geisha, and Edo Japan?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Japan, geisha, and Edo Japan.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Women of the Pleasure Quarters, The Tale of Murasaki, and Geisha of Gion if you like this list.