The most recommended books on Edo Japan

Who picked these books? Meet our 17 experts.

17 authors created a book list connected to Edo Japan, and here are their favorite Edo Japan books.
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Book cover of Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary

Craig McLachlan Author Of Tales of a Summer Henro

From my list on understanding Japan and the Japanese.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have a passion for Japan and the Japanese stretching back over four decades. I’ve done a lot of wandering around my wife Yuriko’s home-country – walked the 3200km length of it; hiked across it from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific, climbing all 21 of its 3000m peaks; broken the record for climbing its 100 Famous Mountains; walked around the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku Pilgrimage; and journeyed around the Saigoku 33 Temples of Kannon Pilgrimmage – and written books on all these adventures. I’ve co-written Lonely Planet’s “Japan” and “Hiking in Japan” guidebooks since the late 1990s, covering everywhere from Hokkaido to Okinawa.

Craig's book list on understanding Japan and the Japanese

Craig McLachlan Why did Craig love this book?

Matsuo Bashō is considered the most influential figure in the history of hokku (or haiku) poems and this book brings them to life with excellent English translations and commentary. I particularly enjoy Bashō because he was a traveller. He didn’t just sit and write poems in comfy surroundings. He hit the road and wrote about his experiences, be they good or bad. In many ways, they are the humorous, spontaneous, gritty writings of a fatigued experiencer of life. One of my favourites - “My summer robe, there are still some lice, I have not caught”. Ueda’s book is brilliant and allows English speakers to glimpse Bashō’s true thoughts as he rambled about the countryside in 17th century Japan.

By Makoto Ueda,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Basho and His Interpreters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book has a dual purpose. The first is to present in a new English translation 255 representative hokku (or haiku) poems of Matsuo Basho (1644-94), the Japanese poet who is generally considered the most influential figure in the history of the genre. The second is to make available in English a wide spectrum of Japanese critical commentary on the poems over the last three hundred years.


Book cover of Woman in the Crested Kimono: The Life of Shibue Io and Her Family Drawn from Mori Ogai's Shibue Chusai

Anne Walthall Author Of The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration

From my list on amazing women during the age of the samurai.

Why am I passionate about this?

When I was studying Japan in graduate school, my advisor once told me that he hoped I wouldn’t pursue research in women’s history, calling it a fad. He was wrong, but it took me well over ten years to figure that out. Thanks to colleagues and friends, I helped build the field of Japanese women’s history in English, especially for the early modern period. As professor emerita at the University of California, Irvine, I remain committed to the possibility of uncovering the lives of yet more amazing women who challenge the stereotypes of docile wife and seductive geisha all too prevalent in fiction set in Japan.

Anne's book list on amazing women during the age of the samurai

Anne Walthall Why did Anne love this book?

Picture a woman just emerged from her bath, wearing nothing but a loincloth with a dagger between her teeth, confronting three thieves who threaten her husband. This was Shibue Io, born the daughter of a wealthy merchant in 1816, who chose as her spouse a scholar and samurai bureaucrat. He had already been married three times and was eleven years her senior. He had erudition and prestige; she had wealth and enough willpower for both of them. Her story takes the reader through the intimate details of daily life of well-placed Edo families, the intricacies of family alliances complicated by the prevalance of adult adoption, and the challenges of surviving civil war and a forced move from Edo up to the frozen north. She is nothing short of unforgettable. 

By Edwin McClellan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Woman in the Crested Kimono as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The life of Shibue Io and her family, a kind of Japanese Buddenbrooks, may be unknown in the West, but her rich and engaging story marks the intersection of a remarkable woman with a fascinating time in history."-Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

"It stands clichEs about traditional Japan on their heads. . . .Together with the people she knew, Io lives on in this literary album of old family pictures. It is well worth looking at."-Ian Buruma, New York Times Book Review

"A most engaging book. Seeing Shibue Io through the various lenses of her husband, her…


Book cover of Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan

Christopher Michael Blakley Author Of Empire of Brutality: Enslaved People and Animals in the British Atlantic World

From my list on animal and environmental history.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a scholar of environmental history with a focus on human-animal relationships. I’ve also studied the histories of slavery and the African Diaspora, and in my book I’ve fused approaches from these two fields to look at how human-animal relations and networks shaped the expansion of slavery and slave trading from West Africa to the Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. My scholarship is also an outgrowth of my teaching, and I regularly teach American environmental and cultural history at California State University, Northridge. I finished my PhD in history at Rutgers University, and my research has recently been funded by the Special Collections Research Center at the College of William & Mary.

Christopher's book list on animal and environmental history

Christopher Michael Blakley Why did Christopher love this book?

Jakobina Arch is an outstanding scholar of early modern Japan, and her book follows the lives and afterlives of whales in Tokugawa Japan in rich detail. The book is also an excellent international narrative, as Arch dives into the legacy of American whaling in the Pacific World that impacted the Japanese whaling industry.

By Jakobina K. Arch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bringing Whales Ashore as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Japan today defends its controversial whaling expeditions by invoking tradition-but what was the historical reality? In examining the techniques and impacts of whaling during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Jakobina Arch shows that the organized, shore-based whaling that first developed during these years bore little resemblance to modern Japanese whaling. Drawing on a wide range of sources, from whaling ledgers to recipe books and gravestones for fetal whales, she traces how the images of whales and by-products of commercial whaling were woven into the lives of people throughout Japan. Economically, Pacific Ocean resources were central in supporting the expanding Tokugawa state.…


Book cover of The Making of Modern Japan

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

From my list on Japan’s global history.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Thomas' book list on Japan’s global history

Thomas Lockley Why did Thomas 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 Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan

Jilly Traganou Author Of The Tôkaidô Road: Travelling and Representation in EDO and Meiji Japan

From my list on travel in premodern and modern Japan.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an architect from Greece who traveled to Japan in the 1990s as an exchange student. Visiting Japan in the early 1990s was a transformative experience. It led me to a career at the intersection of Japanese studies and spatial inquiry and expanded my architectural professional background. I did my PhD on the Tokaido road and published it as a book in 2004. Since then I have written several other books on subjects that vary from the Olympic Games to social movements. In the last 16 years, I've taught at Parsons School of Design in New York where I am a professor of architecture and urbanism. My current project is researching the role of space and design in prefigurative political movements.

Jilly's book list on travel in premodern and modern Japan

Jilly Traganou Why did Jilly love this book?

Laura Nenzi’s book discusses the role of travel in the formation of identity, using primary sources that derive from travel accounts of Edo Japan. Nenzi looks at personal travel diaries and brings an anthropological view on the subject seeing travel as a self-discovery process, while also paying attention to differences in the experience of the literati travelers and the less educated commoners for whom, with the rise of the market economy, the roads and their pleasures became more accessible. This brings to life the changes in the earlier literati tradition of the meisho (famous places) with the rise of commodification of both products (meibutsu) and religious practices.

Nenzi’s most unique contribution is shining a light on the travels of women, which still remain an elusive subject in historical narratives of Japan. Nenzi shows that the hierarchies of Edo Japan were defied by the transgressive potential of travel, as the roads…

By Laura Nenzi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the Edo period (1600-1868), status- and gender-based expectations largely defined a person's place and identity in society. The wayfarers of the time, however, discovered that travel provided the opportunity to escape from the confines of the everyday. Cultured travelers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wrote travel memoirs to celebrate their profession as belle-lettrists. For women in particular the open road and the blank page of the diary offered a precious opportunity to create personal hierarchies defined less by gender and more by culture and refinement.After the mid-eighteenth century - which saw the popularization of culture and the rise…


Book cover of Flame in the Mist

Clair Gardenwell Author Of Foxgloves Are For Deception

From my list on fantasy that is inspired by a fairy tale.

Why am I passionate about this?

A fantasy romance author myself, there's something comforting about seeing my favorite fairy tales retold in new ways. It's so much fun to see how authors can twist the tales into something new and totally unique. Maybe the handsome prince is no longer the prince, but a cursed ogre. Or that dragon flying through the night is a queen in disguise, waiting for that one special true love to unlock their curse. But no matter the journey, we know that true love will win, break the curse and save the day, and here are my recommendations for some of my very favorite books.

Clair's book list on fantasy that is inspired by a fairy tale

Clair Gardenwell Why did Clair love this book?

A retelling inspired by the ballad of Hua Mulan, this tale is not a fairy tale in the sense of princesses, but a powerful legend in its own right. Taking place in feudal Japan, the character Mariko immediately weaved her place as my favorite. Always thinking how she can best escape or twist a situation to her advantage, the beginning of the story featured her setting out to find who was trying to kill her, and never stopped from there. Including finding her own found family of outlaws, and able to use her love of experiments in any way she pleases. Every time Mariko came up with a new idea for an invention, it felt like I could see the thoughts sparking inside her mind. Sometimes they worked, sometimes not, but she never stopped trying. That includes finding the truth to some of the darker events that come into play.

By Renée Ahdieh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flame in the Mist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn, comes a sweeping, action-packed YA adventure set against the backdrop of Feudal Japan where Mulan meets Throne of Glass.

The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place-she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort-a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing.…


Book cover of Shōgun

Robert Whiting Author Of Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball

From my list on learning about life.

Why am I passionate about this?

They are in some sense books of self-discovery and/or discovery of new worlds. They made me want to travel and explore other cultures. And they also inspired me to write. They helped shape me as a person. I'm now a journalist and author of several books on Japan. I've lived in many different places around the world and find Tokyo Japan to be the best capital to live in. My work describes life in Tokyo and the Japanese culture in general, focusing on sports, crime, and politics. I've written best-sellers in both the US and Japan and been nominated for several prizes. Most recently I was selected winner of a 2023 Henry Chadwick Award.

Robert's book list on learning about life

Robert Whiting Why did Robert love this book?

Shōgun is a historical novel set in 17th-century feudal Japan that is based on the life of an English sailor named Will  Adams who is shipwrecked there.

He became a samurai and a confidant of a warlord based on Ieyasu Tokugawa. It is a meticulously researched and richly detailed novel that combines historical events with fictional characters and storylines, dealing with themes of honor and loyalty in a world of samurai and daimyos.

It also explores relationships between Japanese and European traders, highlighting the clash of Western and Eastern values. At over 560,000 words long, it is a spellbinding narrative that offers an encyclopedic exploration of Japanese history, culture, customs, and traditions of Japan. It started a Japan craze in the United States when it was first published.

By James Clavell,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Shōgun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Clavell never puts a foot wrong . . . Get it, read it, you'll enjoy it mightily' Daily Mirror

This is James Clavell's tour-de-force; an epic saga of one Pilot-Major John Blackthorne, and his integration into the struggles and strife of feudal Japan. Both entertaining and incisive, SHOGUN is a stunningly dramatic re-creation of a very different world.

Starting with his shipwreck on this most alien of shores, the novel charts Blackthorne's rise from the status of reviled foreigner up to the hights of trusted advisor and eventually, Samurai. All as civil war looms over the fragile country.

'I can't…


Book cover of The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan

Cees Heere Author Of Empire Ascendant: The British World, Race, and the Rise of Japan, 1894-1914

From my list on East Asia in the age of empire.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a historian of empire and international relations, and have worked at universities in Britain and the Netherlands (where I was born). I’m fascinated by the ways in which empires have shaped – and continue to shape – the world we live in. Empire Ascendant was my first book, and I am currently working on a global history of the Dutch colonial empire.  

Cees' book list on East Asia in the age of empire

Cees Heere Why did Cees love this book?

Histories of Japan’s encounter with the West typically start from the premise that prior to its “opening” by the American Commodore Perry in 1853, Japan was a “closed” society that shunned contact with the outside world. This book, which explores the relationship between the Tokugawa shogunate and the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), presents a radically different story: one in which one of the world’s most ruthless commercial operators was forced to humble itself before the shogun. It’s an essential corrective to anyone who equates “world history” with the rise of the West.

By Adam Clulow,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Dutch East India Company was a hybrid organization combining the characteristics of both corporation and state that attempted to thrust itself aggressively into an Asian political order in which it possessed no obvious place and was transformed in the process. This study focuses on the company's clashes with Tokugawa Japan over diplomacy, violence, and sovereignty. In each encounter the Dutch were forced to retreat, compelled to abandon their claims to sovereign powers, and to refashion themselves again and again-from subjects of a fictive king to loyal vassals of the shogun, from aggressive pirates to meek merchants, and from insistent…


Book cover of Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability

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

From my list on Tokugawa Japan.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Constantine's book list on Tokugawa Japan

Constantine Nomikos Vaporis Why did Constantine love 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.

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,""…


Book cover of Kaempfer's Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed

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

From my list on Tokugawa Japan.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Constantine's book list on Tokugawa Japan

Constantine Nomikos Vaporis Why did Constantine love 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…

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…