I lost track a loooooong time ago of how many and what books I’ve read, thumbed through, or seen snatches of online in GoogleBooks preview format. Many of them contributed very little to my research, and at first the process was so informal that I wasn’t even taking notes. However, I have kept information about the books that I refer to again and again, that made history real for me, or that shaped the story in definitive ways. These are a few that may appeal to a wider audience. All are non-fiction and many are written by people who lived in the time period.
The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa: The book that started it all. Fukuzawa’s the one who got me started on realistic samurai who don’t quite fit the whole brave/noble/perfectly honorable type. He’s a bit disorganized in terms of dates (it goes by topic, and he references events out of order as they relate) but quite entertaining. Considered a “giant of a man” at five feet, nine inches tall (my own height) and a talented swordsman, he gave up his samurai rank and focused on Western methods of education instead. He seems like the sort of elderly gentleman who would have been a blast to hang out with and talk to.
A Daughter of the Samurai: Written by a girl who grew up in Echigo shortly after the Restoration (her father was nearly executed during it) who was later educated in Tokyo and married a Japanese businessman living in Cincinnati, OH. Etsuko shares the details of samurai daily life, household rituals, and charming stories and legends. This book made me cry; I loved it!
The Progress of Japan 1853-1872: More of a “history” book rather than an autobiography/biography, this is the one to go to if you actually want a thorough, factual, pretty unbiased account of how, why, where, and when the Meiji “Restoration” happened. Excellent. I wish I’d found this earlier in the process, because I was getting snippets and snatches all over the place but really couldn’t find a decent overview of the Bakumatsu period. This book tied everything together coherently and completely.
The Narrative of a Japanese: What He has Seen and the People He has Met in the Last Forty Years: Joseph Heco, as he was later called, was a Japanese peasant boy who, on what was supposed to be a routine trip to and home from Yedo by coastal junk, was blown out to sea and stranded with the other members of the crew, where they were rescued by an American vessel and taken to San Francisco. Heco spent several years in the US and was baptized a Catholic in Maryland before returning to Japan, where he was granted samurai rank by his lord, the daimyo of Hizen. Heco gives a view of events that looks for the good in both Japanese and foreign ways, as opposed to the blatant cultural imperialism of many contemporary foreign writers.
The Mikado’s Empire, Volumes 1 & 2: The first volume is at times yawn-inducing, as it is a history of Japan from time immemorial and often the footnotes are more interesting than the text, other than a few gems on Buddhism/Shinto and notions of honor. The second volume was tremendously more interesting because it details the year W. E. Griffiths spent in the province of Echizen (just south of Kaga) as a chemistry teacher. The year was 1871, which saw the abolition of the classes, the retirement of all the daimyo to Yedo, and started out with an attempted assassination of two foreign teachers at the Imperial University only a couple days after Griffiths arrived. The only real downside is Griffiths’ thorough anti-Catholic prejudice, so his chapter on “Christianity in Japan” is nearly worthless. He also tends to lapse into florid Victorian metaphor occasionally.
A Diplomat in Japan: Sir Ernest Satow, at the time a low-ranking British diplomat, is at times so minute as to be tedious (he literally counted the number of cannon shots during the Battle of Shimonoseki), but he does know his subject. From him I first learned that a kago, usually translated “palanquin,” has about as much in common with the common American perception of a palanquin as a piece of luggage has with an automobile. However, I have never read anything by anyone more convinced of the superiority of his own race. His snobbishness is at times almost unbelievable.
Japanese Girls and Women: Alice Mabel Bacon was a progressively minded American who came to Japan to teach at the invitation of 3 friends from her youth: Japanese girls who were sent to America for 10 years for their education. Her book is thorough, sympathetic, and at times both charming and amusing. A treasure heap for a researcher but an easy read for the curious.
Daughters of the Samurai: The story of Alice’s 3 friends – Sutematsu, Shige, and Ume – and their backgrounds, time in America, and return to Japan. This book is quite recent but is amazing. The author, Janice Nimura, stumbled across a different book written by Alice in a library, much as I stumbled across Fukuzawa, and with the help of her Japanese in-laws and her own research tracked down the rest of the story. Well written, astonishing, and fascinating, this book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand Japanese-American relations in the time period.
Women of the Mito Domain: Yamakawa Kikue took down the stories told by her mother and grandmother to create a picture of everyday life in the domain of Mito (near present-day Sendai) during the Bakumatsu. I was surprised to find that several of my supposedly wilder plot points were actually feasible….and had been tried before by real people!
Pacific Pioneers: Officially, Japanese laborers did not begin emigrating to the United States until the 1880s and ’90s. However, there was a small but significant trickle of sailors blown out to sea, clandestine students, political exiles, and hopeful farmers who reached American shores much earlier. John Van Sant fills in the blanks as to who these people were, their contributions, and general history.
Everyday Life in Tokugawa Japan: While I did do some “editing” of a few of the pictures in my own copy, this handy book served to tie up a lot of loose ends that would otherwise have been hard to find. Divided into convenient chapters on the different classes of people, how they lived, and paraphernalia of daily survival. Many illustrations.
Mile High Fever: First there was the Gold Rush, which brought people to California. Then there was the Silver Boom a decade later that made California rich. Dennis Drabelle introduced me to the movers and shakers of the West Coast – Bonanza Kings and Railroad Barons, politicians and bankers.
The Illustrated Dictionary of the Old West: Just that, but with informative text about famous outlaws, methods of law enforcement, settlers, towns, cattle drives, and more. Worth its weight in gold for the photos of actual period weaponry – guns, ammo, holsters. Real nitty gritty stuff rather than fancied-up movie props.
The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream: Not recommended for younger readers due to several sections covering the seedier side of life, this book is nevertheless essential for understanding how and what California came to be, and its influence on the eastern states. Did you know that California choose not to secede from the Union primarily because all of its satellite silver mines were out in Nevada, beyond the defensive barrier of the mountains? They figured they could have secession or the silver, and they chose to keep the silver.
Savory Suppers & Fashionable Feasts: What Victorian Americans really ate, and with what silverware! Susan Williams takes on the task of establishing dining patterns based on silverware, dining room furniture, and the like to paint a vivid picture of how the wealthy differentiated themselves from the lower classes. More interesting than you would think at first glance and often amusing.
The Life of David Belden: This is a free ebook that you can download from Google Play. As the first judge of the 20th District Court in California (which included Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties), Judge Belden was a widely known public figure with a long career of political service. He seems to have been a decent chap. What I found fascinating are his outspoken defenses of Catholicism against its Protestant calumniators – even though he himself was not Catholic! He seems to have been at least acquainted with Archbishop Alemany. Also included is an account of he and his wife’s trip to Europe, their impressions of several Catholic sites of interest, and their audience with Pope Pius IX.
Everyday Life in Victorian America: Covering the period from the 1860s to the 1890s, using descriptions of family life and values at various points of change, this book reveals that Americans living almost 150 years ago were much closer to modernity than many of us realize – and conservatives today will find that they have much in common with them.
1877: America’s Year of Living Violently: This book is fairly recent, and author Michael Bellesiles finally tied some very important economic considerations together for me with his fascinating overview of strikes, corporate shenanigans, and America’s first Great Depression – which started in September of 1873. The accounts of what Radical Reconstruction really was, and how it was eventually forced “out of business,” were sobering and quite different from the narrative usually found in history books. Highly recommend it for anyone interested in the Civil War or American industrialization.