The Best Japanese History Books that will Feed Your Brain

As a good Otaku, it is important to have ample knowledge about the history of Japan, so you can see how the past may have shaped the anime and art that is being created in Japan today. There are quite a few English language Japanese history books on the market, how do you know the best one for your needs?  

We've reviewed the best Japanese Language booksCookbooks and Japanese Mythology Books.We've listed the Top 10 Best Japanese history books and summarized each for you.Some of the books below only cover Modern History and others go all the back to the feudal times, check below to find out more!

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The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire

This is a Pulitzer Prize winning book, you must check it out! It covers the time period of World War II, before and after and follows the dramatic rise and fall of this powerful nation. The book is written through the eyes of the Japanese so you get a unique perspective of their overall worldview of the time. Stories of all kinds of Japanese people are included in this history telling, from Japanese leaders, to soldiers and everyday average people. The events of this time are covered in great details, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and much much more. 

This could be a very boring book but in the writer John Toland's hands it is riveting. He does a masterful job of weaving personal facts with strenuously researching historical facts. The story of how the war came to be and the consequences, the mistakes and the misunderstandings, it proves that real life is more fascinating that fiction any day. Both the good and the very bad sides of human nature is illuminated in The Rising Sun. Pick up this read for a great retelling of World World II history which differs greatly from what you have read in your American textbooks!


Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

This next book is a great followup to Rising Sun as it details Japan in the period immediately following World War II and the United States occupation of Japan. Japan at this time period was absolutely exhausted, they had been warring for 15 years. Dower also does a deep analysis about Japan's popular culture during this time: tv, magazines, and media. What is amazing is how the formerly totalitarian society, under the Western rule, transforms rapidly while still maintaining Japanese traditions. Writer John W. Dower is a MIT professor who is one of the leading experts on World War II.

This is a serious read and not easy to breeze through but you will definitely learn a graduate degree's course worth of knowledge. More obscure topics of history such as the Emperor and the War Crime trials, the food riots and the sex trade are covered in depth. There are no better accounts of the Allied occupation of Japan. Pick up Embracing Defeat to take a deep dive into the Modernist history of Japan

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Emperor Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Emperor Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is yet another Modern history book about Japan, we promise we will feature history books featuring far back into the beginnings of Japanese history. The controversial Emperor Hirohito ruled Japan for sixty-three years and this biography offers a deep historical look of this time period. Born and bred to be a ruler, Hirohito evolves into a true leader with his own perspectives and point of view. He is also known as"one of the most disingenuous persons ever to occupy the modern throne."The book illuminates the China War and the Asia-Pacific War and Hirohito's role and his actions during World War II and to the ultimate surrender to the Allied Forces.

This book goes against an established idea of Hirohito as weak and manipulated figurehead who was powerless in the midst of wars and political change. Instead author Herbert B. Bix presents the emperor as a decisive leader who was responsible for many of the atrocities of war but ultimately distanced himself from taking any responsibility for his role and instead spinning. This book is 690 pages jam packed with extensively researched historical data. Read this japanese history book to get a deeper understanding of important events came to pass under the emperor's long rule.


Secrets of the Samurai: The Martial Arts of Feudal Japan

Finally we are onto feudal Japan! This book is about the samurai specifically, their history, custom and weapons but the history of Japan at the time is covered extensively. Warlords and the competition for power, Japanese military history and the transformation of towards the absolutist power of Japan. The book is also beautifully illustrated and the beliefs and training of the samurai is discussed in exhaustive detail. Through the beliefs and the training of the samurai and more, you are able to get a deep understanding of feudal Japan and the culture of the times.

The writing is easy to follow, good for a beginner and the many photos are lavish. Comprehensive and a long read at 500 pages. This is an especially great read for an otaku who is passionate about fighting anime

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A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower

This next Japanese history book takes a look at the complete history and road which Japan has taken to become the superpower that it is today. What shines through most if Japan's determination to succeed and preserve its tradition during its ascension. This 288 page book from Kenneth Henshall spans all the way from feudal Japan to current times with each chapter covering a specific historical period. He offers an objective and thoughtful point of view in this book.

Although "A History of Japan" starts out pretty strong, the end of the book after the Meiji era, tends to run into conjecture and personal opinions. For a basic, to the point history text on Japan, this book is a great pick!


A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

Andrew Gordon, a Harvard history professor, pens this next Japanese history book from feudal to modern times. What really gives this 400 page text a unique perspective is his focus on the point of view of the common people instead of just leaders and military strategists. Gordon delves into an idea akin to the idea of 'The Butterfly Effect', that one small action or idea can lead to sweeping irreversible changes in a powerful society. This book is aimed at students or serious readers of Japanese history and there is a heavy focus on how women were affected by the changing tides of Japanese history. A Modern History of Japan definitely reads like a textbook delving into the causes and effects of significant events and ideas in Japan's past.

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Japan: A Reinterpretation

his next Japanese history book focuses on the forces that have catapulted Postwar Japan into modern times. It takes a hard look at the influence outside Western influences and the effects of overdevelopment. Writer Patrick Smith challenges the the typical American viewpoint of the Japan as a postwar success story: with a society of hardworking, democratic and docile people.

There are issues in Japanese that haven't received ample coverage such as poverty, high stress in the worklife, the break down of romantic relationships and the subservience of women. This 440 page text takes a very thoughtful look at Japan's current state as the result of the political plays that took place during America's occupation in order to prevent Japan from slipping into Communism. Check out this book for an interesting take on Japanese from a writer who lived in Japan and reported from various Japanese news outlets. Most fascinating is Smith's opinion on what he believes in Japan's dysfunctional society today, brought about by America's influence.


Japan: It's History and Culture

This illustrated text presents a straightforward history of Japan from its beginnings to Modern day. It's been popularly used as a college textbook since its publication in 1970. The last publication was in 1984 so a lot has changed in Japan since then. It definitely reads like a textbook and would be ideal for a book report. You'll have a solid understanding of Japan's culture after digesting this text.

The book is only 300 pages so it cannot fully cover all the facets and developments through history but it does give a comprehensive overview of all significant events. Although the events are not covered in great detail, Morton does discussion the cultural developments and how they relate to political or military developments at the time. It's an interesting study. Morton is an expert on Japanese history in the 19th and 20th centuries, he brings in another writer Olenik to cover post World War II Japan. You definitely notice the change in style of writing when Olenik takes over.

This is more of an intro to Japanese history, so if you are very knowledgable already, this isn't for you. For a newbie to Japanese history, this would be a great foundational read.

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The Making of Modern Japan

Marius B Jansen takes the reader on the journey of Japan's fraught and violent path that ultimately led it to transform into the peaceful, technologically advances society that it is today. The book delves all the way back 400 years to focus on the influence of the Tokugawa period and the Meiji Era. Western ideals were rejected in in its early days, Japan grew to embrace outside ideas post World War II. Jansen also offers a very unbiased view and discussion of both sides of the argument during World War II, allowing the reader to reach his own conclusions. This 936 page tome is a surprisingly easy read, more like an academic article and even page turner in some parts rather than a school textbook.

This is a great solid introduction into Japanese history.


A History of Japan

For a truly comprehensive history of Japan, spanning over 1500 pages, check out George Sansom's three tomes: A History of Japan to 1334; A History of Japan, 1334-1615; and A History of Japan, 1615-1867. This is definitely for a passionate aficionado of Japanese history, not for the casual reader even though its a thoroughly enjoying read. It has a heavy focus on political and social phenomena but does not delve deep into art or religion etc. It is extremely detailed and well researched but can be difficult to follow because of the habit the Japanese changing their names (why do they do that??)

Its an exhaustive life's work, truly impressive. At the time that it was written in 1958, it was an unparalleled work. Sometimes the book can be a dry read because Sansom focuses on the societal changes taking place, instead of on individual personalities and motives. Great maps and illustrations are also included in this text. Pick up this book for the most comprehensive work on Japanese history

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