The Japanese today are famous for their engineering and electronic goods. Their civilisation and culture are no less fascinating. The books below give a panoramic view of Japan from ancient to modern times.
1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu This book was written in the early 11th century. It is thought to be the world’s first novel. The author was a noblewoman. The story is a romantic one, and portrays life in the Heian period. It is a lengthy read, running into fifty four chapters.
2. Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe The author of this book was a Japanese educator who worried that the Japanese would lose the essence of their culture in their quest for modernity. He has brought together traditional Japanese beliefs and Western philosophy to present a way to live in today’s world while holding on to values deemed essential to Japanese culture.
3. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki The author was a Japanese novelist who wrote during the Meiji period, at around the turn of the 19th century. The title means ‘the heart of things’. This is what the protagonist experiences when he befriends a stranger known as Sensei. This book also depicts the conflict between traditional and contemporary ways.
4. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present by Andrew Gordon This book covers the history of Japan over the last two centuries. It starts with the era of the shoguns, who were feudal overlords. It chronicles the advent of Western influences, the rise of democracy, Japan’s military expansionism and its role in World War II. It goes on to show how Japan became an economic giant after the war and includes all important events from this century.
5. Lost Japan by Alex Kerr The author is an American who lived most of his adult life in Japan. He originally wrote this book in Japanese. He recounts his experiences which range from culture to cuisine. He laments the environmental destruction taking place in Japan and the lack of concern about its cultural heritage.
6. Embracing Defeat by John W. Dower After World War II, Japan was a shattered nation. This book examines the effect of over six years of American occupation. It is considered a definitive history of that time period and won its author a Pulitzer Prize. It is accompanied by a large number of photographs.
7. The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer This well known travel writer went to Kyoto to live in a Buddhist monastery because he wanted to know more about Zen Buddhism. He met a Japanese housewife who was well read and cultured. She was familiar with Western classical music as well as rock, but she was also well versed in her own culture and traditions.
8. Hiroshima by John Hersey On August 6th , 1945, the Allied forces dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This event was hailed for its effect of bringing World War II to an end. This Pulitzer prize-winning writer interviewed six of the survivors in Hiroshima to present to the world the horrors wrought by the bomb. The book was published in 1946, and a shocked world questioned the use of nuclear weapons. Forty years later, the author re-visited Hiroshima and wrote a final chapter.
9. Blue-Eyed Salaryman: From World Traveller to Lifer at Mitsubishi by Niall Murtagh In an unusual turn of events, the author was travelling around the world when he decided to accept a job in the mega corporation that is Mitsubishi. The term ‘salaryman’ is a colloquialism that the Japanese use for corporate employees. The author provides an insider’s look at how wildly successful Japanese companies are run.
10. Basho: The Complete Haiku by Matsuo Basho (translated by Jane Reichhold) Haiku is a form of poetry which originated in Japan. It is now appreciated in other countries as well. This is the first compilation in English of the complete haiku of Basho, acknowledged master of this literary form.