So You Want To Know About Japanese History

in japan •  6 months ago


Japan is very popular and one thing everyone wants to know about—or thinks they want to know about—is Japanese history. When I had my own Japan themed website I was constantly getting email on the subject. On Quora, where I am relatively active, I am still constantly getting questions about the best way to learn Japanese history.

So what is the best way to learn about Japanese history? Let's look at a few ways to explore...

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Japanese History

(but were afraid to ask)

I'll divide this into steps, moving from casual learning to more serious. Ready? Let's go.

Level I

For someone only casually interested in the subject, a basic overview may be enough. For that purpose, one can't do much better than this fantastic video:

There are a few things wrong in that video, but overall it is remarkably accurate—and very fun. That's a rare combination in education!

Did you enjoy the video and want more? Proceed to...

Level II

I think the next best thing to do is go read Wikipedia's History of Japan page. It's huge and quite comprehensive, but don't feel compelled to start at the beginning. Pick a time period that interests you and dive in there.

If the idea of jumping into all history is too daunting, here are a few suggestions for places to start:

  • Sengoku Jidai
    The most popular time period in Japanese history for Japanese people and foreigners alike has to be Sengoku Jidai—the civil war period. This is when the Shogun had lost all control, the country had fallen into pieces, and local warlords were scheming and fighting and attempting to conquer everything they could; the most ambitious of these warlords eyeing Kyoto and the possibility of themselves becoming the next shogun.

    • The three biggest names in this period, if you want to start your Japanese History study with people are Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu. Those three men are the ones who unified the war-torn country. Another name samurai movie buffs may have heard of is Musashi.
  • The Meiji Restoration
    If you remember the Tom Cruse samurai movie, this is the time period it was showing. This is when Japan opened to the West and was importing Western ideals and customs, modernizing the country as quickly as possible in an attempt to avoid being carved up by the Imperialist West as they saw happening in China.

    • The downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the brief civil war that followed before the rise of the Meiji government is also an exciting area to start.
    • Two big names to read about are Ryoma, and Saigo Takamori, who was the real last samurai (not Tom Cruse).
  • The Genpei War
    This is the single most famous war in Japanese history. It marked the end of the classical period, the rise of military rule of the country, and the origin of Japan's obsession with red and white in every competition. The names of the people involved here are the things of legend and are referred to in awe and respect by other figures throughout Japanese history. Learning this time period might be analogous to learning about the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.

    • The leader of the Taira, Kiyomori, the losing side of the Genpei War, is the most infamous figure in this period.
    • The Genpei War was romanticized in the epic The Tale of the Heike which may be the most famous story in Japan.

Most people who think they are interested in Japanese history will probably be satisfied at this level. There is plenty on Wikipedia to feed this basic level of knowledge. But for the serious students, the next level beckons...

Level III

Here I'd recommend a trilogy of books by George Sansom. These are:

He wrote these books about a half-century ago and so the writing style is a bit old fashioned. The scholarship is also a bit out of date, with some facts given that are now considered incorrect. But overall, these are still wonderful books. Reading these books might give a similar, though much less opinionated, feel as the classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Be forewarned, however, these are very information dense books. If you are not seriously interested, they will put you to sleep.

Want more, my budding Japanophile friend? Let's move on to...

Level IV

If you thought the Sansom books were detailed, you ain't seen nothing yet. Laying in wait is the meticulous Cambridge series. This series laughs at the quaint Sansom trilogy. "Only 3 books?" It mocks. "That's cute."

This massive undertaking consists of:

The same catch applies here: if you are not really seriously interested in the subject, you will be put to sleep. But for those who are interested, these are super-informative.

Unfortunately, neither the Sansom books nor the Cambridge series are available in ebook format. But if you are a serious student of Japanese history, track them down in a local bookstore or order them from Amazon. They are the best of the best.

There are many more Japanese history books, of course. For general looks at all of history, I'd say either get one of the book series I list or read Wikipedia. Wikipedia has less personality than any book, but it is free and probably more accurate than most smaller overviews.

The 20th century bears special mention, though.

Level V

The final volume of the Cambridge series does a fine job for the 20th century, but there are two additional books I would recommend.

The first is a fantastic look at Imperial Japan, probably the best information available in English.

The second is a equally fantastic look at Emperor Showa, known in most of the world as Hirohito. Unfortunately the Imperial Family still has not released much information about the man, but what little has been made available to the public is in this book, from his culpability in WWII to how he still wielded more power than we had previously been led to believe post-war.

Final Words

And there you go, five levels ranging to the very casual to the very serious. If you think you want to know about Japanese history, have at it!

Any questions? Leave them in the comments and I will try to get to them as soon as possible.

Title graphic from a photo by 5187396, licensed CC0 (public domain). Get the original here

Hi thereDavid LaSpina is an American photographer lost in Japan, trying to capture the beauty of this country one photo at a time.
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Hey! Great to see someone recommending both Sansom (available quite cheaply in the Dover Books format; oh, and I'm not sure the style is that old-fashioned, it's just very classic British English) and the Cambridge series (standard reading when I studied Japanese at university). I wonder, what do you think of Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword?