The best books to excite your imagination about Tokugawa (early modern) Japan

Constantine Nomikos Vaporis Author Of Samurai: An Encyclopedia of Japan's Cultured Warriors
By Constantine Nomikos Vaporis

The Books I Picked & Why

Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai

By Katsu Kokichi, Teruko Craig

Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai

Why this book?

The samurai were central to the story of the two-and-a-half century-long Tokugawa peace. During this time, they were transformed by it from warriors to sword-wearing bureaucrats. This wonderful autobiography from a 19th-century low-ranking samurai of the central (Tokugawa) government belies the myth of the noble samurai who followed a code of chivalry similar to that of European knights.

A ne’er-do-well, Katsu Kokichi drinks too much, gets into fights, gets arrested, engages in trade as a sword seller (which samurai weren’t supposed to do). He acts so poorly his own father confines him in a bamboo cage so he will straighten up. It’s such a lively read, sucking the reader into the daily life not just of samurai but of the commoners around them too.


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Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

By Englebert Kaempfer, Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey

Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

Why this book?

This book first excited my interest in the Tokugawa period and directly led to my first two academic books on the subject. Kaempfer’s History of Japan was a best-seller from the date of its publication in London in 1727. The author was a German doctor in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, who were the only Europeans the Tokugawa rulers would allow into Japan until 1853. He was able to make two trips to the capital of Edo, likely the largest city in the world at the time, and thus was able to observe Tokugawa society broadly.

He recorded important events (such as meeting the shogun) as well as the mundane minutiae of life. It is, hands down, the best informed and liveliest foreign account of Tokugawa Japan before the mid-19th century. Bodart-Bailey translated the text from the original German, annotated it, and wrote a very helpful introduction to the work.


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China in the Tokugawa World

By Marius B. Jansen

China in the Tokugawa World

Why this book?

This book pairs well with Kaempfer’s History, because it challenges the notion that Japan was cut off from the rest of the world except for its relations with the Dutch VOC. The author (disclosure: my Ph.D. adviser at Princeton) challenges this idea of seclusion through his focus on Japan’s relationship with its closest Asian neighbors, particularly China, through the port of Nagasaki. The book skillfully analyzes the impact of the China trade on Japan’s political, economic, and cultural history. Based on a series of lectures, this relatively short book (160 pages) is quite an enjoyable read, even for people who already know a lot about the period.


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Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability

By Morgan Pitelka

Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability

Why this book?

Who could resist a book whose topics range from tea caddies, Chinese and Japanese tea bowls and paintings, severed heads, swords, falcons, and even a deified hegemon (Tokugawa Ieyasu)? This book about “things” and the famous people who collected them in the late sixteenth (before the onset of the Tokugawa period) and the first few decades of the seventeenth century uses material culture as a window into the politics and society of the military elite. It will entice those who are interested in non-linear history and the social life of things.


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Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-E Market

By Julie Nelson Davis

Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-E Market

Why this book?

What best list would be complete without at least one volume centered on art? Going beyond a focus on single-sheet woodblock prints, this fascinating study takes a broad approach to the so-called “floating world” or demi-monde to consider printed books, including those of an erotic nature. As the title indicates, the book reveals that the collaborative process went well beyond the illustrator to include publishers, brothel owners, and other commercial interests. The author’s reflections on the status of art, the contemporary definition of beauty, and the physicality of the body as perceived by the Japanese will draw the reader in.


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