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

Who am I?

I’ve spent all of my career teaching and writing about Japan. Within that country’s long history, the Tokugawa or early modern period (1600-1868) has always fascinated me, going back to my teenage years when I went to Japanese film festivals in Boston with my father and brothers. This fascination stems in part from the period’s vibrancy, color, drama, and the wealth of historical documentation about it that has survived warfare as well as the ravages of time. From these rich sources of knowledge, historians and other scholars have been able to weave rich narratives of Japan’s early modern past.


I wrote...

Samurai: An Encyclopedia of Japan's Cultured Warriors

By Constantine Nomikos Vaporis,

Book cover of Samurai: An Encyclopedia of Japan's Cultured Warriors

What is my book about?

The samurai were an estate of warriors who imposed and maintained peace in Japan for more than two centuries during the Tokugawa period, 1603-1868. While they maintained a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, as a result of the peace the samurai themselves were transformed over time into an educated, cultured elite--one that remained fiercely proud of its military legacy and hyper-sensitive in defending their individual honor.


This book provides detailed information about the samurai, beginning with a timeline and narrative historical overview of the samurai, followed by 100+ alphabetically arranged entries on topics related to the samurai, such as ritual suicide, castles, weapons, housing, clothing, samurai women. The entries cite works for further reading and often include sidebars linking the samurai to popular culture, tourist sites, and other information.

The books I picked & why

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Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai

By Katsu Kokichi, Teruko Craig (translator),

Book cover of 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.

Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai

By Katsu Kokichi, Teruko Craig (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Musui's Story as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A series of picaresque adventures set against the backdrop of a Japan still closed off from the rest of the world, Musui's Story recounts the escapades of samurai Katsu Kokichi. As it depicts Katsu stealing, brawling, indulging in the pleasure quarters, and getting the better of authorities, it also provides a refreshing perspective on Japanese society, customs, economy, and human relationships.

From childhood, Katsu was given to mischief. He ran away from home, once at thirteen, making his way as a beggar on the great trunk road between Edo and Kyoto, and again at twenty, posing as the emissary of…


Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

By Englebert Kaempfer, Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey (translator),

Book cover of 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.

Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

By Englebert Kaempfer, Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kaempfer's Japan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Engelbert Kaempfer's work was a best-seller from the moment it was published in London in 1727 and remains one of the most valuable sources for historians of the Tokugawa period. The narrative describes what no Japanese was permitted to record (the details of the shogun's castle, for example) and what no Japanese thought worthy of recording (the minutiae of everyday life). However, all previous translations of the history oar flawed, being based on the work of an 18th century Swiss translator or that of the German editor some fifty years later who had little knowledge of Japan and resented Kaempfer's…


China in the Tokugawa World

By Marius B. Jansen,

Book cover of 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.

China in the Tokugawa World

By Marius B. Jansen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked China in the Tokugawa World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book challenges the traditional notion that Japan was an isolated nation cut off from the outside world and its influence in the early modern era. This familiar story of seclusion, argues master historian Marius B. Jansen, results from viewing the period solely in terms of Japan's ties with the West, at the expense of its relationship with closer Asian neighbours. Taking as his focus the port of Nagasaki and its thriving trade with China in the 16th century through the 19th centuries, Jansen not only corrects this misperception but offers an important analysis of the impact of the China…


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

By Morgan Pitelka,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Morgan Pitelka,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Spectacular Accumulation, Morgan Pitelka investigates the significance of material culture and sociability in late sixteenth-century Japan, focusing in particular on the career and afterlife of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The story of Ieyasu illustrates the close ties between people, things, and politics and offers us insight into the role of material culture in the shift from medieval to early modern Japan and in shaping our knowledge of history.

This innovative and eloquent history of a transitional age in Japan reframes the relationship between culture and politics. Like the collection of meibutsu, or ""famous objects,""…


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

By Julie Nelson Davis,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Julie Nelson Davis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Partners in Print as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This compelling account of collaboration in the genre of ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) offers a new approach to understanding the production and reception of print culture in early modern Japan. It provides a corrective to the perception that the ukiyo-e tradition was the product of the creative talents of individual artists, revealing instead the many identities that made and disseminated printed work. Julie Nelson Davis demonstrates by way of examples from the later eighteenth century that this popular genre was the result of an exchange among publishers, designers, writers, carvers, printers, patrons, buyers, and readers. By recasting these…


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