Historical Musings #20: Exploring Japan

Historical Musings In previous Historical Musings posts, I’ve confessed to a lack of knowledge of the histories of certain African and European countries and was pleased to receive so many intriguing suggestions for future reading. This month’s post is on a similar topic, but much more specific as this time I’m asking about just one particular country rather than a whole continent!

shogun I’ve recently finished reading Lesley Downer’s The Shogun’s Queen, one of a quartet of novels set in nineteenth century Japan. The book tells the story of Atsu, the wife of Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa Shogun. I have yet to post my full thoughts, but for now I can say that I found it all fascinating; everything that happened in the novel was completely new to me and as I read, I couldn’t stop thinking about how little knowledge I have of Japan’s history. In fact, the only other historical novel I can think of that I’ve read set in Japan is Shogun by James Clavell (set much earlier than the Lesley Downer book, in 17th century feudal Japan).

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I read Shogun a few years before I started blogging in 2009, and I was convinced that, surely, I must have read something else set in Japan since then! A search through my blog archives, however, shows that I haven’t – although I have read some books that touch on various aspects of Japanese history and culture. For example, the gardener Aritomo in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists is Japanese and the story is set partly during Japan’s occupation of Malaya. China Dolls by Lisa See and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford both explore the fate of Japanese Americans during World War II, while Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff features the story of a character who was interned in a Japanese camp in Java. Other than these few books, Japan doesn’t seem to have featured in my reading at all in recent years.

So, my question this month is:

Which books would you recommend to someone who knows almost nothing about Japan’s history? Fiction, non-fiction and classics…any suggestions are welcome!

15 thoughts on “Historical Musings #20: Exploring Japan

  1. Joanne says:

    Julie Otsuka has two good books in this category. Buddha in the Attic focuses on Japanese women who emigrated to the U.S. as sort of mail-order brides for Japanese men already there. When the Emperor was Devine is about what happened to Japanese Americans before and during the WWII internment.

      • Helen says:

        Thanks, Lory and Jennifer! I’ve been interested in reading The Makioka Sisters for a while, since reading a very positive review on another blog. I’ll have to move it further up the TBR!

        • Karen K. says:

          The Mankioka Sisters is really good — I was going to recommend it also. It’s really a domestic novel about a family but it does give good insight as to the lives of middle-class people during the pre-war years.

          I also really liked Sword and Blossom, which is a nonfiction book about the long-term relationship between a British officer and a Japanese woman.

  2. Sarah Gruwell says:

    I’ve read a few in the Sano Ichiro historical mystery series by Laura Joh Rowland (though for some reason, I have them unmarked on GR) and remember some great period and societal details. They take place in Shogun era Japan.

    There are a few titles on my to-read shelf that fit this category. The Tale of Murasaki by Liz Dalby tells the story of a court noblewoman from 1000s Japan, the author of the first novel, The Tale of Genji. The Blade of the Courtesans is a thriller tale in shogun era Yoshiwara in Kyoto, kind of a Japanese version of a chivalrous knight tale. Can’t speak for how good either book is but they sounded intriguing to me.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll have to think about reading the Sano Ichiro books – the Shogun era is the period I’m most interested in reading about. I like the sound of The Tale of Murasaki and The Blade of the Courtesans too. Thanks for the suggestions, Sarah!

  3. Carmen says:

    Last year I read a very good novel set in Japan circa 1950. It’s more a like a puzzle to decipher than a historical novel, but it’s gorgeously written; its title is The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw.

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