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Recommended Books to Rediscover Japan and Its History From an Outside Perspective

Have you ever wondered how Japan and Japanese people appeared to the foreigners that came here, right after the country was opened 150 years ago? Here are some books written about Japan by those people.

Japan as Seen by Foreigners 150 Years Ago

When the Meiji Government was formed following the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan pursued modernization reforms in order to catch up to the major world powers of Europe and the US, inviting various experts from the West in fields such as politics, law, military affairs, and economics to impart their advice. The various accounts they recorded regarding Japan and Japanese people have become valuable resources for understanding what the country was like at that time.

Rutherford Alcock, “The Capital of the Tycoon”

Alcock was the first British consul-general (afterwards official envoy) to reside in Japan. He wrote “The Capital of the Tycoon” (referring to the Shogun) over three years, from the time he took up his post in Japan in 1859 to when he returned to Britain for a time. He recorded the various problems Japan had both internally and externally during the time of upheaval at the close of the Edo Period, as well as his own observations of the lifestyles, customs, and beliefs of the Japanese people at that time. In terms of understanding Japanese politics, society, culture, and customs, this book has become a valuable resource. Alcock was also famous for being the first foreigner to climb Mt. Fuji.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan”

Lafcadio Hearn was a scholar and teacher who came to Japan in 1890. He was the author of “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”, a collection of retold legends and tales from the various regions of Japan, and was also known by his Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo. “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” is a travel journal written shortly after Hearn’s arrival in Japan, and depicts a vision of the good old days in Japan at the end of the 19th century. Hearn turned his eyes towards matters so common for Japanese people that they tend to be forgotten, such as the stunning nature that was being lost as the era changed, the myths and folklore, and the modest yet plentiful lives of the common people, and tried to find the deepest levels of the culture that the Japanese people had cultivated. When you read Hearn’s writings, you understand the kinds of things about Japan that Westerners were drawn to and interested by.

Hearn's former residence in Matsue

Isabella Bird, “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan”

Isabella Bird was an English travel writer who traveled the world through the second half of the 19th century, up to the end of her life. “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” is a travel diary kept by Bird of her trip from Tokyo to Ezo (now Hokkaido), from June to September of 1878. It records in detail the landscapes, customs, and lifestyles of the regions of Japan right after the Meiji Restoration. The descriptions of the Ainu people are particularly detailed, making this a highly rated research material on Ainu culture. After reading this book, if you follow the same course as Bird, you can perceive first-hand the things that have changed and the things that still remain the same.

Ludwig Riess, “Allerlei aus Japan”

Ludwig Riess was a German historian who resided in Japan from 1887 to 1902. Because of the empirical historical investigation methods he brought to Japan, he is called the father of modern Japanese historiography. “Allerlei aus Japan” is a memoir of his 15-year stay in Japan. The descriptions cover a diverse range of topics from the nation, government, and Japanese culture, to common household life and traditional Japanese events. He writes his candid opinions about Japan, which he referred to as a "strange country that has experienced the most beautiful era within [his] lifetime", so we can say that this is a valuable resource for learning about the image of Japanese people that was held by Westerners.

Extra Edition: Luís Fróis, “The First European Description of Japan”

Luís Fróis was a Jesuit missionary who came to Japan in 1563. He earned the trust of the prominent Sengoku Period (1467-1590) military commander Oda Nobunaga and conducted missionary work around Kyoto. He wrote many works about Japan, but among them, his comparison of Japanese and European customs of the time, called “The First European Description of Japan”, is a valuable source material that is counted as the oldest work in the comparative study of Japanese and European cultures. This is a work written over 400 years ago, yet it depicts many things the modern Japanese people still understand, reminding us how people don’t change so easily.

So, what do you think? These books have been published in English as well, so you should definitely try reading them. They are a key to learning about modern Japan, Japanese people, and understanding foreign cultures in general.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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