View Full Version : Where to start?

16th July 2000, 23:22
What books would you learned types recommend for someone who knows nothing about Japanese history? I've got books on various systems of martial arts, I'm looking for something more about Japan itself, battles, rulers, culture, etc.

One more thing, I don't read or speak Japanese so books in English would be prefered! (Heck, videos, magazines, etc wouldn't be bad either....)

Thanks for the help!

Neil Hawkins
17th July 2000, 05:26
There are many good books out there, but to start I would recommend anything by Steven Turnbull, they are a good general introduction. I have heard some comments about his accuracy but on the whole he is pretty good, he doesn't get bogged down in the fighting arts and covers all the important info.

Once you have a general knowledge you can start honing in on specific subjects or era's, then there are other authors who specialise, you can ask again when your ready.

The library is always a good source, try before you buy! :)



Joseph Svinth
17th July 2000, 08:19
My basic advice is to ignore the martial arts books, as their history, as a rule, sucks. Instead head over to the academic history section. Professors may write dry books, but their names, dates, and places are usually good. Books by Karl Friday are always worth reading.

If academic tomes seem a bit scary at first (and they probably will), then try the Osprey/Men-at-Arms series. If you shop the Internet, you can find some serious discounting. Otherwise check hobby shops specializing in wargaming with miniatures.

And, for more specific guidance, try http://koryu.com/books/bookreviews.html and http://ejmas.com/kronos/index.html#Online Resources .

18th July 2000, 21:47
I've personally always liked studying a culture and its history through its art. Of course, like any area of literature you will find both good and bad books. I would give you some exact titles and authors, but I just shipped all of my books to Japan yesterday in preparation for a move.... so I won't be seeing them for a month or two.

18th July 2000, 23:40
Hi !
If you are searching for a good book for a general overview and perhaps for detailed studies on the time of your choice I recommend reading the book that is called "The Japanese Empire" by John Whitney Hall from Yale University. The title is only a translation of the versoin but you´d find it with the authors name.

Good luck!

Brently Keen
19th July 2000, 08:31
A nicely illustrated and very easy to read entry level book on Japanese history is:

"Samurai, The Story of a Warrior Tradition" by Harry Cook.

I also recommend Karl Friday's, and Steven Turnbull's books.

Another is, "Warriors of Japan, as Portrayed in the War Tales" by Paul Varley.

And these are not specifically history books, but I think every e-budo member should buy "Koryu Bujutsu" and "Sword and Spirit" edited by Diane Skoss from Koryubooks, and "Aikido Masters" and "Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu", both edited by Stanley Pranin of Aiki News/Aikido Journal.

Happy Reading!

Brently Keen

19th July 2000, 12:02
"Samurai, The Story of a Warrior Tradition" by Harry Cook.

Not only is Mr. Harry Cook a good writer, he is also an excellent budoka! I had the pleasure of meeting him several years ago at one of Higoanna Sensei's seminars. He is a true gentleman. Good recommendation!

Adam Young
19th July 2000, 12:33
I would also suggest, after reading some basic history books, that you make forays into Japanese literature. You may not want to make the commitment necessary to delve into a translation of the "Tale of Heike", but there is stuff out here that can provide interesting insights into Japanese culture (with a slight - even imperceptible - emphasis on martial culture).

Yukio Mishima, while not the most significant of modern Japanese writers, is notable in that he personally tried to live up to a 'manly' image that he perceived to have been grounded in the samurai. His books reflect this, and make for interesting reading if his background and motivations are known.

Other early modern writers such as Natsume Soskei and Mori Ogai are interesting to read in that their writing essentially bridges the modern and the classical. They are modern and write in a modern style, but the influence of "old Japan' comes through. They are also excellent writers in their own right, and can be read anytime.

There was another book I can't remember the name of (perhaps someone else could help me out with it). I think that the English title was "Horse Shanks" or something like that. It takes place in the Tokugawa period, and was written in the latter half of said time period. I read it some 7 years ago, so the details escape me.

Of course, an easier read is Eiji Yoshikawa's "Musashi", as long as you remember that it is a story and not in any way reflective of the actual history. It is good for ambiance, and it is a fun, if lightweight, read.

Hope these suggestions help.

Tom Davidson
19th July 2000, 17:26
Adam, the title you're looking for (and so am I):
HIZAKURIGE or "Shanks' Mare" Ikku Jippensha, translated by Thomas Satchell
Charles E. Tuttle Co but is currently out of print, so if anyone has a copy, I'd be interested.

Other useful English-print fiction:
TALES OF THE SAMURAI Translation/Author James S. de Benneville.
A fine translation of a classic 14th century tale.

PAGODA, SKULL, AND SAMURAI 3 Stories by Rohan Koda
"The Five-Storied Pagoda" tells of a dull-witted carpenter, "Encounter with a Skull" is a horror classic, and "The Bearded Samurai" tells a story around the Battle of Nagshino.
ISBN: 0-8048-1499-6 (Hardcover) ISBN: 4-8053-0496-0 (Softcover, Japan Only)

One of the best–known Japanese stories, of the 47 ronin who commit hara-kiri for slaying the corrupt court official whom they held responsible for their master's death.
ISBN 0-8048-0196-7 (Softcover)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE LORD OF MUSASHI AND ARROWROOT Junichiro Tanizaki, translated by Anthony H. Chambers
"The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi" describes with black humor and wit the great warrior lord's sexual fixations.
ISBN: 4-8053-0491-X (Softcover)

WAVES : A War Diary by Ibuse Masuji. A fictional diary of a Taira 'Prince' dealing with their defeat by the Minamoto

Overlook Press; ISBN: 0879516194

THE SAMURAI Shusaku Endo
ISBN: 0720605598



19th July 2000, 20:33
Take a tip from Frederick Lovret. It's not necessary to waste your time reading books or conversing with other knowledgable persons. There are plenty of videos available. Anything by Kurasawa is recommended, although most chambara television series are shorter and probably easier to understand.


20th July 2000, 02:30

Let me add the following, all available in paperback:

"A History of Japan to 1334"
"A History of Japan 1334-1615"
"A History of Japan, 1615-1867"

"Japan, A Short Cultural History"

All the above by G.B. Sansom

"Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol.I & II"
Compiled by Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore De Bary, and Donald Keene

"Tale of the Heike, Vols. I & II"

Translated by H/ Kitagawa

"Chrysanthemum and the Sword"

by Benedict

"The Japanese"

by Reischauer


Gil Gillespie
23rd July 2000, 01:37
Thanks, Tommy.

As I read through all the above posts I was intending to reply with George Sansom's books. They were recommended to me years ago when I raised the same question re: a good basic well done history of Japan. They more than lived up to their recommendation. I love Turnbull's stuff, too.

5th August 2000, 14:11
by Steven Turnbull

E.J Harrison

Yours in Budo
Dale Elsdon

19th March 2002, 15:34
For an account of the relationship between samurai culture and the larger culture of Japan that takes a somewhat more critical look at the subject than most such texts, particularly as they relate to the ethical claims made by many writers on Japanese martial culture:

The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan. Eiko Ikegami, Harvard University Press

For the full text of my review, originally published in The Daily Yomiuri, go to: http://www.kokumo.com/reviews/samurai.htm

Fred Little
Palisades, NY