The best books about pre-modern Japan

The Books I Picked & Why

The Tale of Genji

By Murasaki Shikibu, Edward G. Seidensticker

The Tale of Genji

Why this book?

That The Tale of Genji is the world’s first novel is reason enough to read it, but it’s also a priceless insight into the lives of the aristocracy during Japan’s Heian period (794-1185). Genji chronicles the life and loves of Genji, the “Shining Prince,” an emperor’s son who isn’t high enough ranking to ever inherit the throne and spends his days plotting romantic conquests that bring sorrow as often as joy. A masterpiece of world literature.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Tale of Murasaki

By Liza Dalby

The Tale of Murasaki

Why this book?

The perfect companion piece to The Tale of Genji, The Tale of Murasaki is a modern historical novel about Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji). Author Liza Dalby is a scholar of Japanese culture as well as the only Westerner ever to become a geisha. A meticulously researched, evocative window into Heian Japan.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Tale of the Heike

By Royall Tyler

The Tale of the Heike

Why this book?

You won’t find any samurai in The Tale of Genji – during Murasaki’s time, Heian aristocrats considered them mere security guards. But oh, how things changed by the end of the 12th century. The Tale of the Heike is a classic of medieval Japanese literature that chronicles the rise of the samurai and the end of direct imperial rule. In its depiction of the titanic clash between two powerful samurai clans, The Tale of the Heike brings to mind The Iliad. In this translation, Royall Tyler transforms and reinterprets Heike into an epic poetry format that mimics Homer. Stirring, tragic, and elegiac.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

By Ivan Morris

The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

Why this book?

The Japanese love underdogs. Ten are portrayed here, ranging from the 4th to the 20th centuries, with storylines that Shakespeare would’ve stolen if only he’d known about them. A terrific round-up that will inspire you to delve deeper into Japanese history.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi

By William Scott Wilson

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi

Why this book?

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) has an almost mythic status as Japan’s greatest swordsman. As a teenager, he fought on the losing side at Sekigahara, and went on to become a renowned duelist. The two-sword style he created (nitoryu) is still practiced as part of modern kendo (Japanese sword fighting). It wasn’t just Musashi’s technical mastery that left mouths agape, but also his ability to psych out his opponents. If you’ve never heard of his famous duel against Sasaki Kojiro on Funa Island, you’re in for a treat. Wilson’s short biography captures Musashi in all his enigmatic glory.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Random Book Lists