Publisher: Interlink Books
"A Traveller's History of Japan" isn't a book I would ever purchase for myself. I was warned on my very first day in the East Asian Studies department to be wary of any books including the words "Japan: A History" or "A History of Japan." I consider it to be good advice, generally speaking.
Then I somehow inherited this one. When I arrived in Shikoku two years ago, my apartment was fully furnished and full of things left by my predecessor, her predecessor, and likely countless others. "A History" was on the shelf next to "Lonely Planet: Japan" and "Making Out in Japanese". Both of those went straight into the trash can, but this one seemed just promising enough to get shoved into the back corner of the closet.
Having ignored the book completely for nearly two years, I'm a bit shocked to find that it's really quite good.
Everything the book is gleaned from other, more in-depth works, but on the whole, it's a remarkably straightforward and readable summary of the major events that have shaped Japanese history. The pace is brisk, the topics are fairly complete and the editing is great. The author approaches Japan and the Japanese from a refreshingly informed and realistic viewpoint. Unlike many other books in it's genre: it hasn't been written by an unabashed Orientalist who thinks Japan can do no wrong. The spare, quoted and implied criticisms included are not only honest: but often hilarious.
Cramming as much as 1,000 years into a single page leaves a bit to be desired in the details department, but for armchair historians or those just looking for a quick review of their old EAS curriculum: you could do far worse.
Also included is a fabulous annotated bibliography, a glossary of romanized Japanese terms, a timeline of Prime Ministers, a timeline of Emperors, a Chronology of major events, a rundown of Japanese holidays, appendices for cultural notes, etc.
For those who have already studied Japanese history in depth and are looking for a small, portable refresher or reference for dates: this is a great choice.
For those looking to get their feet wet without committing to a much larger, more scholarly tome: it's also a good choice.
So I suppose, in the end, I'm recommending a book with the words "A History of Japan" in the title. I only hope my old professors will find it in their hearts to forgive me.