Not everyone wishes to do some ‘homework’ before their holidays but for those with the time and inclination any of the following books provide interesting and useful background on Japan for your tour.
History, Society & Culture
A History of Japan. 2nd Edition. Conrad Totman (Blackwell 2005)
An authoritative and accessible work for the student and lay reader.
Kyoto. A Cultural History. John Dougill (Oxford 2006)
An introduction to Kyoto from the perspective of the various arts and traditions associated with this city, once Japan’s capital for over a thousand years.
Everyday Life in Traditional Japan. Charles J. Dunn (Tuttle 1972)
A fluent and concise account of daily life of the various social strata during the Edo period (1603-1868).
A Diplomat in Japan. Ernest Satow (Yohan, 2006)
A fascinating, first-hand account by a British diplomat of the turmoil in Japan at the end of the Edo Period and the early Meiji-Period. First published 1921.
Japan. Its History and Culture. Fourth Edition. W. Scott Morton & J. Kenneth Olenik (McGraw Hill 2005)
A quick, easy introduction to Japanese history.
Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II. John Dower (Penguin 1999)
A comprehensive account of the years after Japan’s surrender and occupation.
Japanese Culture. Fourth Edition. Paul Varley (University of Hawaii 2000)
A well-written survey of Japanese culture from its emergence to modernity. Covers all the major Japanese art forms.
Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion. Donald Keene (Columbia University Press 2003)
The life of a Shogun who, while incompetent as a ruler, had great influence on the development of Japanese culture. Written by a renowned expert on Japan.
The Flowering Spirit. Classic Teachings on the Art of Noh. Zeami. Trans. William Scott Wilson (Kodansha International, 2006)
An excellent introduction and companion to this esoteric and often difficult to understand ancient form of theatre.
Geisha. The Secret History of a Vanishing World. Lesley Downer (Headline 2000)
An insight into the real lives and hardships of the Geisha.
Dimensions of Japanese Society. Gender, Margins and Mainstreams. Kenneth G. Henshall (Palgrave Macmillan 1999)
An academic but accessible insight into the many complex layers of Japanese society.
A Dictionary of Japanese Food - Ingredients & Culture. Richard Hoskings (Tuttle 1972)
A listing of the foods of Japan.
Contemporary Japan. 2nd Edition. Duncan McCargo (Palgrave Macmillan 2004)
A short but detailed introduction to modern Japanese politics, economy and society.
The Making of Modern Japan. Marius B. Jansen (Harvard 2002)
An excellent book for both layman and student on general Japanese history since 1600.
The State and Politics in Japan. Ian Neary (Polity 2002)
A comprehensive guide and useful companion book to understanding modern Japanese politics in the post-war period.
The World Turned Upside Down - Medieval Japanese Society. Pierre François Souyri. Trans. Käthe Roth (Pimlico 2002)
An excellent and exciting account of samurai history.
Secrets of the Samurai - The Martial Arts of Feudal Japan. Oscar Ratti & Adele Westbrook (Tuttle 1973)
A must read for anyone interested in the details of martial arts. Excellent descriptions of weapons as well as strategies, organisation and techniques employed by the samurai.
The Taming of the Samurai. Eiko Ikegami (Harvard University Press 1995)
A good if rather academic treatise on the Japanese warriors society.
The Japanese House - In Space, Memory, and Language. Takeshi Nakagawa. Trans. Geraldine Harcourt (International House Press 2005)
A useful companion for appreciating the details of the traditional Japanese house and life within them.
Japanese Homes and their Surroundings. Edward S. Morse (Tuttle 1972)
A very good introduction to Japanese architecture and building techniques by a visitor to the newly ‘opened’ Japan in the late C18th. First published in 1886.
Japanese Literature & Poetry
The Book of Five Rings. Miyamoto Musashi. Trans. William Scott Wilson (Kodansha 2002)
A book about the strategy and combat of feudal Japan that has now found application in business around the world.
Narrow Road to the North. Basho. Trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa (Penguin Classics 1966)
The classic collection of haiku poetry by the greatest exponent of the art.
The Snow Country. Yasunari Kawabata. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker (Penguin Classics 2011)
The Nobel Prize winning author’s most famous work, a tale of love between a dilettante and a geisha in a provincial resort town deep in Japan’s snow country.
Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Ryounosuke Akutagawa. Trans. Jay Rubin (Penguin Classics 2006)
Rashomon is one of the early works on moral ambiguity by Japan’s greatest exponent of the short story form. The film of the book was made by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. Isabella L. Bird (ICG Muse 2000)
An account of travels in 19th Century Japan by one of the most adventurous women travellers of the Victorian age.
Hitching Rides with Buddha. Will Fergurson (Vintage 1998)
A knowledgeable and entertaining description as the writer follows the cherry blossom through Japan. This book is also published as Hokkaido Highway Blues.
The Roads to Sata. Alan Booth (Kodansha 1997) and Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan. Alan Booth (Kodansha 1996)
Two insightful books on the author’s journeys by foot through the Japanese countryside.
Lost Japan. Alex Kerr (Lonely Planet 1996) and Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan. Alex Kerr (Hill and Wang 2002)
Two thoughtful and passionate books on modern Japan.
A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture. (Jonathan Cape 1985) and Inventing Japan: From Empire to Economic Miracle. Ian Buruma (Phoenix 2005)
Buruma’s work provides many insightful and interesting criticisms of Japan.