What is stochastically the best book to read about Japan?

Here were reader recommendations: remember the ground rules, namely that the book must aspire to some degree of comprehensiveness:

Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy.
Japan and the Shackles of the Past is very good. David Pilling’s Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
Also, Japan through the looking glass, by Alan Macfarlane.
While Richie is *the* famous foreign voice on Japan, Alan Booth’s “The Roads to Sata” is, to use Tyler’s favorite word, underrated and worth a read.

Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West Paperback – March 28, 2000 by T.R. Reid

Good book about Japan by the WaPo correspondent. Funny.

Alex Kerr is another great writer on Japan, but this one is a bit dated although definitely still worth a read. His Lost Japan is my favorite.

The best book I’ve read about Japan, or at least modern Japan, is “Dogs and Demons” by Alex Kerr. It’s a fairly pessimistic book about how various postwar obsessions — material comfort, social harmony, and clear class identities — have created a surprisingly unambitious, overly conservative, deeply sclerotic country that has seen its brief glimpse as one of the world’s major powers unambiguously pass.

For Japan:

Modern: Bending Adversity by David Pilling is an excellent view on modern (deflation era) Japan.

Recent: Covering the Showa Period (1923-1989), the graphic novel “Showa” by Shigeru Mizuki is excellent. (I’m not usually a graphic novel reader, but this was amazing)-4 volumes.

Through 1867: A history of Japan by George Sansom (published 1958) is a three volume set covering -1334, 1334-1615 and 1615-1867.

There are a number of other enjoyable books as well (e.g., Road to Sata) but I would not say that they are representative or “must-reads”, regardless of how pleasant reading it may be.

I am not endorsing (or rejecting) those selections, merely aggregating them.  That said, you should read them.


How about "Shogan" and "Gaijan"?

Ian Buruma's 'The Wages of Guilt' is a fascinating comparative study of post-war Germany and post-war Japan. Specifically, it focuses on each country's efforts to come to terms with its fascist past. Needless to say, the contrast is night and day.

Buruma has a new book coming out in March called 'A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir'


The whole point of the book is that's it not night and day. Like a ton of this comprehensive writing about Japan by white male journalists, it displays a very infuriating and obnoxious refusal to come down on one side or the other, letting them feel smug about being right no matter which position is actually right

Did you understand my comment? The night-and-day difference is between Germany's noble efforts to face up to their fascist past and Japan's childish tendency to deny theirs and sweep it under the carpet. That is quite a stark difference. I don't believe that Buruma is quite so uncritical as you suggest. He rightly diagnoses Japan's victimhood mentality and shows it to be absurd. I take your point that most authors of books about Japan are overly generous (for reasons of self-righteousness), but I do not feel that a Japanese person could possibly feel smug about their national identity after reading 'The Wages of Guilt.' (That said, I believe that Buruma has romanticised and idealised Japan in other books, and his views on the Islamification of Europe are maddeningly naive.)

The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty First Century

I like Tamaki Saito's Beautiful Fighting Girl as it is an exploration into the Japanese nerd's psyche and how it's aesthetic culture differs from Western culture. Although the language of the book might be too bit esoteric for the casual reader it was one of the most interesting things I read in 2017.

The way they are all Straussian here, esoteric they can handle.

Um that’s a different meaning.

Of esoteric.

Jared Taylor's "Shadows of the Rising Sun: a Critical View of the "Japanese miracle"" is very good.

James Clavell's Shogan has already been mentioned. Also, though it might seem dated now, Rising Sun by Michael Crichton.

Autobiography of yukichi fukuzawa.

Showa is a great graphic novel.

Didn’t see Ruth Benedict mentioned. Chrysanthemum and the sword.

Walter LaFeber - the clash.

Walter LaFaber - The Clash

I agree with Brad Delong's review:

"I do not like this book.

"Let me hasten to say that I do not criticize Walter LaFeber because he is a bad historian. I criticize him because he is a good one.... The Clash is likely to be the best history of U.S.-Japanese foreign relations we will have for the next half a generation.

"Yet his vision of American-Japanese foreign relations is warped, twisted, and fundamentally false. For LaFeber sees conflict where in reality there is economic partnership and cooperation. LaFeber sees border tensions and adjustments in which governments jockey for local positions and small advantages. He magnifies the frictions naturally created by a growing and productive relationship. He thinks they are the whole story--and so he misses the enormous upward sweep in productive economic integration and trade."


Thank you for the indications. Sound like promising books.

There is a perfect answer - Basil Hall Chamberlain's Things Japanese. Unfortunetely it was written in the nineteenth century so is a touch out of date.

Generally, those books that aim for comprehensivity, especially those that seek a monocausal 'explanation' for Japan, tend to end up revealing more about the preconceptions of the author, so whilst Ruth Benedict, Bushido (Nitobe Inazo), Karel van Wolferen (The enigma of japanese power), even Ritchie's The Inland Sea are all really worth reading, you need to do so with a skeptical eye.

In particular I don't know a good book that manages to say something vital about both pre and post bubble Japan. Maybe Alex Kerr's work (especially Dogs and Demons), which falls into the category above, bridges the gap the best I've encountered. For pre-fall Japan, Ian Buruma's Inventing Japan is a short and insightful modern history, and Dower's Embracing Defeat is not short but a great work on the birth of postwar Japan.

Finally, these don't fit the brief at all but the film/book Rising Sun is a great period piece that tells us something much broader about how we see foreign rivals, and Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book is one of the great underrated classics of world literature (IMO)

Japan and the Shackles of the Past is probably the best comprehensive book, although as you say that's a very very low bar to clear. At the very least he's not overtly hostile or bad faith/clearly wants the country to succeed

Japan as - anything but - Number One by Jon Woronoff

Seleçao social : campanha antiniponica by Miguel Couto (about the Japanese plan in he 1930s to use fifth columnist conquer Brazil and enslave or exterminate the local population - an important arning cry for today's America).

I read Japan as anything but Number One soon after I arrived in Japan in 1992, and it helped explain what I was seeing around me. In his intro he explains how there is a mixture of good and bad but was wrong that drugs and AIDS were a threat where that never materialized especially compared with many Western countries including the U.S. Not even close. There were also huge reductions in polution in Japan from the peak in the 1960s to when he wrote the book, matching U.S. levels a few years later.

Yes, some problems never materialized, but the big picture was right: Japan is a neo-fascist country, where the population is oppressed and he leaders are arrogant and anti-West.

How about some recommendations for books written by Japanese folks, instead of white guys? There is only one on your list - a Manga artist.

So you want Japanese propaganda!

Because the Ivy League humanities departments are the sole fount of truth and enlightenment.

They are better than fascist propaganda.

These aren't even academic scholars, 90% of these sorts of books are written by people whose only qualification is being a white man journalist in Japan

Maybe they want to be informed rather than tick diversity boxes?

26 Nobels won by Japanese (only 3 of those being literature and peace) since 1949 say you're an idiot.

Still interested in the ultimate Hungary book(s).

Eri Hotta's 1941 is not just a story about Japan's entry into the war but also about its struggles with its standing in the modern world.

Highly recommended book about Japan and about how Asians see the weakness of liberal democracies even today.

Kinkaku-Ji - Mishima

Spring Snow - Mishima

Snow Country - Kawabata

Sound of the Mountain - Kawabata

Old Capital - Kawabata


As always, there is no 'best book' on anything except perhaps for technical manuals on particular machinery or sets of instruments (in which cases there's often a best book because there is only one book). You compile a bibliography with a view to the purposes you have in mind and the time you have to fulfill those purposes.

That is almost always correct but because there are so few English books on Japan's economy the book I recommended last time, The Japanese Economy written by David Flath is the most coprehensive and clearest book on Japan's economy. (The only equations I recall are from the post war growth chapter.)

Economic history from Tokugawa (1603) to 1945, 90 pages; saving, macro economy, international trade and finance, 100 pages; industrial policy, government spending and taxes, 60 pages; environmental policy, industrial organization, finance, marketing, labor, and tecchnology, 120 pages.

The problem with R. Taggart Murphy's book is that it gets quite a bit of economics wrong.

Amen. For simple lay readers like myself, the most "comprehensive" book on a country will likely be a novel. Non-fiction rarely has the ability to convey the complexity, nuance, and emotional idiosyncracies of a culture, people, place. And the immersion that a novel provides often results in an appreciation that one may not get from non-fiction. Direct, unmediated exposure to a country's novelists also helps one to avoid having to deal with whatever "purposes" the non-native non-fiction writer brings to a book on a country. It is hard to scratch the surface of Japanese literature which is so rich, vibrant, diverse, and has such a vast number of outstanding authors, so for my purposes, if a friend who knows I like to read, asked me for a recommendation on a Japanese book, I'd go with Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.

This. Thread winner.

Thanks for more eloquently expressing my general opinion on the topic.

Indeed. The only caveat I would add is that, in order to prevent oneself from acquiring a jaundiced eye, one ought to try and find novels written by more than one side. E.g. in turn-of-the-century France I would look for novels from both Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. Perhaps it is in this spirit that Potato above advises both Kawabata and Mishima.

Fun = A geek in Japan
Efficient = The Japanese Negotiator

Since I see it cited nowhere else about: Paul Varley's Japanese Culture was in its fourth edition (updated and expanded) as of 2000 (U of Hawai'i Pr.). Four editions over 25 years suggests the work's fine qualities.

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, Jake Adelstein

Forgot about this one. Agree.

And I have been banned from puclic pools in Japan for having a simple tattoo on my back. :-)

The Tokyo correspondants....

* T.R. Ried's book has funny parts but mostly gives only the positive aspects of Japan. When I heard him promote "Confucius Lives Next Door", I was surprised at how uncritical he was.

* David Pilling's "Bending Adversity: Pilling wrote that he studied Japanese for a month when he was 37 and became the FT's Tokyo bureau chief from 2002 to 2008. In the beginning he writes that by the end he could conduct interviews in "stilted Japanese." I've read the free 70 pages or so on Amazon and listed to two 45 minute talks when his book came out and to me his economic knowledge is hit and miss, which isn't uncommon.

Pilling spends some time on the nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011 and here he falls in line with almost all journalists reporting: he simply doesn't understand the basic science and engineering behind the story so has assumed for years that a "nuclear catastrophe" was narrowly avoided when that was always a physical impossibility and so heavily distorts his entire view of 3/11. He also misses what the U.S. did wrong in how it treated Japan in March 2011.

Japan Nissen JSCA Stamp Catalog Volume 1, 1871-1946, Japanese Philatelic Society.
Perhaps one day I will publish a (copyright free obviously) small book of photographs with detailed color pictures of what each of those stamps commemorated.

Also, people make jokes about haiku, but there is no reason to miss out on the Japanese haiku tradition, if you have even a minimal level of natural human liking for words - you do not need to start by knowing any Japanese, just jump right in with a phonetic transliteration and an explanation of each word. This is a good exercise for seeing why so much of what we say is not translatable, also a good exercise for seeing why so much of what we say is, in fact, translatable, up to a point, into other human languages.

In general, stay away from anime as a guide to Japan. Typically, on a major anime project, only one or two of the people on the creative staff know what they are doing. Picture it like this - the average anime is to Japanese reality what the interminable Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys from back in the day were to United States of America reality.

Finally, read the better and more honest negative reviews of Western films that have samurai in them.

"Typically, on a major anime project, only one or two of the people on the creative staff know what they are doing. Picture it like this – the average anime is to Japanese reality what the interminable Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys from back in the day were to United States of America reality."
You mean there weren't gangs of children roaming America solving crimes?
A few days ago, my nephew was watching an anime about Japanese warrior fighting magical alien invaders. You mesn it is not true either?

Well, I could have been wrong.

Many years ago (1968, to be accurate) I was a young American living in the sort of place young Americans lived in. I remember how amazingly well-dressed everybody (except me - hand-me-downs were good enough for me, I was told by my cheapskate relatives) was - the teenagers (one still remembers, half a century later, how good the teenagers were at looking like, well, teenagers - one particularly remembers the shoes the cheerleaders wore - I do not know why I have that particular memory, I am certainly not a shoe fetishist, but circa 1967 or so all the cheerleaders wore interesting shoes, God bless them, they are all now older women, and one hopes that they live in nice houses with people who care about them): one also remembers the storekeepers (they always had some interesting detail to their accoutrement - the pharmacists with their weird leather vests with all those phial-ready pockets, the grocery store owners with their frocks, the doctors with those useless (I know that now - not a single doctor within a hundred miles of me ever heard anything on those stethoscopes that led to a cure) (I say that, but my doctor. circa 1968, had what I thought in my youthful arrogance was a funny weird stethoscope, years later I learned he had carried it throughout several battles in the Solomon Islands and other islands later in the Pacific campaign - Death surrounds us more than we think, as does Bravery), and the plumbers with those so comfortable looking overalls (God bless them for being so ready to do the work that plumbing work actually is....).

So, having gone on and on about the details of life circa 1968, I feel fairly confident that you might think I am not just bloviating when I say that I believe that, no, there were not gangs of children roaming America solving crimes, back in the day.

I could be wrong. Who am I, after all, to say that the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew did not protect me, throughout all those years, from hard-boiled evildoers who would have rejoiced upon stealing my stamp collection from the mysterious tower of my suburban home, or would have rejoiced in switching out lousy rock and roll records for my priceless collection of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke 78s, when I foolishly did the sort of thing that Nancy and the Hardy Boys would have immediately considered to have been the sort of thing that they, Nancy and the Hardy Boys, would not have done, in their superior knowledge of human society? Wheels within wheels, as we used to say.

God bless anyone, who, on the behalf of the rest of us, fights off magical alien invaders. I do not claim to have ever done anything on behalf of those who fight off magical alien invaders. I would have liked to, given the chance, of course.

Rewrite::: the doctors with their useless ***stethoscopes*** (I know that now - not a single doctor within a hundred miles of me ever heard anything on those stethoscopes that led to a cure) (I say that, but my doctor, circa 1968, had what I thought in my youthful arrogance was a funny weird stethoscope, years later I learned he had carried it through several battles in the Solomon Islands and other islands later in the Pacific campaign). Death surrounds us, as does Bravery. And the plumbers with those so comfortable looking overalls (God bless them for being so ready to do the work that plumbing work actually is.) God Bless. Isaiah, chapter 11, for the win, or Romans 6: 3-11, also for the win. (Vegas baby is what I would now say if I were the sort of person who says that sort of thing, but I am not. That is an important distinction, and there are more important things than prosody and rhetoric. Right?))

For the record, (and I only point this out because this is a comment thread that is more than a day old) I never lived in a suburban home with a mysterious tower, I never had a stamp collection worth stealing, and I never owned a 78 that was priceless because it was a Bix or Louis 78. And I never will, I never will, I never will.

Maybe you wonder why the f*** someone would post a comment like this ( or like these). Maybe you are reading this, in 2050 or somewhere like that, or maybe it is still 2018 and you googled, as people do, once in a while, for some place on the internet where Louis and Bix and Nancy Drew were all mentioned in the same paragraph. Or maybe you are reading all this for some more obvious reason. Maybe you just like reading the comment threads on Tyler Cownen or Alex Tabarrok posts.

Romans 6, 3-11. Vegas Baby. I remember. You remember. That day in the desert where we understood what water means.

I concur that a novel is probably the best way to experience a comprehensive way of Japan. Mishima and Kawabata (and others of course) do not reveal much about the Japan lived by the Japanese during their time. I would much more recommend Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama: it looks like a detective novel but it is a brilliant and enjoyable study of how a Japanese administration (the police) works and how it interacts with other people (the victim, the neighbors, etc.). Since most large organizations in Japan work bureaucratically, Six Four descriptions apply to a large chunk of corporate Japan.
I have never been able to understand Alex Kerr's brand of "it used to be so nice in the past". I think that he is completely blind on how people actually live or to the dynamics of Japanese society.
Among non-fiction writers, I would recommend Bill Emmott, the Sun also Sets, of course slightly dated but really good and less prompt to unwarranted generalizations than most authors.
Also very good is Junko Kitanaka's "Depression in Japan Psychiatric Cures for a Society in Distress": she demonstrates that depression is not new in Japan. She demolishes the myth of karoshi (death by overwork) and analyzes well how depression is, at least partly, a social construct. Not an easy read but very rewarding.

Now a bit dated as it was written c. 1989, but if you know baseball, Robert Whiting's "You Gotta Have Wa" is better than most books that have been mentioned. Pre-bubble, and his later work The Meaning of Ichiro is less comprehensive and less valuable.

Many years ago I randomly came across a book by about Japan that I thought was quite perceptive culturally and sociologically. Unfortunately I didn't bother to remember the title of the book. I did take note of the author's name: Ezra Vogel. This was just before he published _Japan as Number One_ and became famous as a pundit on Japan, so it wasn't his name on the book that got my interest (I'd never heard of him until looking at that book), it was the content. But I still can't remember or figure out which of his books it was.

I've liked: Anne Allison, Brian McVeigh, Marilyn Ivy, Chie Nakane, Takie Lebra, John Dower, Joy Hendry, Harry Harootunian, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Charles Shiro Inoue

If you are serious about Japan, start with the Cambridge Histories

Mishima and Kawabata are great, but I think Dazai, Hayashi Fumiko, Banana Yoshimoto, and Natsume Soseki are closer to kokoro of Japan

I think Sugimoto's Japanese Society, now 3rd edition, is the standard introduction.

The Outnation by Jonathan Rauch

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