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‘A Brief History of Japan’: Jonathan Clements guides readers from ancient lore to otaku obsessions

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Ask any Japanese high school student which is their most difficult subject, and chances are they’ll answer Japanese History — a consequence of the endless litany of dates, names and battles they need to memorize. Pity then, that they don’t use this little book in class, because it manages to make thousands of years of Japanese history both accessible and enjoyable.

A Brief History of Japan, by Jonathan Clements.
304 pages
TUTTLE PUBLISHING, Nonfiction.

From Japan’s mythical beginnings, through the divine kamikaze winds that saved it from invasion, then the centuries of rule by emperors descended from the gods, right up to Hello Kitty, Abenomics and the rise of otaku culture — it’s all here, in under 300 pages.

Along the way, you’ll encounter a cast of wondrous characters. Who, for instance, were the Shrimp Barbarians? Or the Earth Spiders? Who was Japan’s first blogger? You’ll learn all the answers, plus everything else you need to know about Japan.

Jonathan Clements is the author of several books on Japan. He also presents National Geographic TV’s “Route Awakening” series about Chinese historical icons. Intended for the general reader, “A Brief History” zips along in a style that’s both witty and informative.

And, while the closing Cool Japan chapter paints a grim picture of modern-day Japan, Clements recognizes that: “Japan confounds all expectations. It never fails to surprise.” And therein lies one of the book’s big take-home points: Japan’s perennial ability to rebuild, adapt, innovate and, above all, fascinate. This book helps you understand how it all came about.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.