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General Japanese history, myth and legend
1. "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan"
Robert Whiting, ISBN 0-375-72489-3
2. "The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family"
Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, ISBN 0-552-14709-5
3. "Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697"
W.G. Aston, Tuttle, ISBN 0-8048-0984-4
The definitive accounts of the creation of Japan and the Japanese, with the foundation of the Imperial family, and descriptions of the foundation and expansion of the first kingdoms of Japan (cast of myth, but with the history visible between the cracks). Extensive footnotes, and only one of many available editions.
4. "Giappone" (in Italian)
J.D. Bisignani, IdeaLibri [ISBN 88-7082-390-3]
A massive 1000+ pages "Cultural Tourist Guide to Japan", short on the tourist side but rich in historical and Mythological references, with a penchant for legendary and uncanny events. Covers practically every popular Shinto festival, every weird local legend, every ancient landmark, one prefecture at a time. A lot of highly detailed maps, sketches and pictures. Ideal writer/keeper companion (pity there's no English equivalent that I know of!)
5. 上田正昭, 講談社学術文庫, ISBN4-06-9215-7
(Kodai Nihon no Jotei, by Ueda Masaaki, Kodansha)
Theories and facts on the early queens of Japan, including Pimiko, with much discussion of evolution from oracles to oracle-queens to state queens (ie, without religious aspects). Lots of quotes and commentary from ancient Chinese histories mentioning Japan.
6. "Japanese Postwar History"
Gary D. Allinson, Cornell University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8014-8372-7
The basic Contemporary Japanese History and Society textbook here at Turin University. Features a handy, year-by-year chronology of events (1932/1995) and a huge bibliography. Chapters cover broad periods (1932-1945, 1945-1955, 1955-1974, 1974-1989, 1989-1995) and the book is good for researching quick-and-dirty, sidebar-like "background information" on social and political evolution. Great pictures an added bonus.
7. "Supernatural and Mysterious Japan - Spirits, Hauntings and Paranormal Phenomena"
Catrien Ross, Yenbooks, Tokyo, 1996, ISBN 4-900737-37-2
And it's amazing the amount of weirdness you get for the money, in such a slim volume. The end result feels like a night-time talk with a well-informed traveller; the whole reads more like a quick set of notes or travelogue than an in-depth look at the current state of the supernatural in Japan, but it's absolutely crammed full of facts and names and stories so that, despite a pair of drawbacks, this is required reading for anyone running a horror/conspiracy campaign set in Japan. The drawbacks are the lack of a map, of a proper index and of a bibliography, the latter being the worst problem (you can just get a map from a guidebook and 160 pages are few enough for you to browse looking for what you need, but tracking resources can be a pain). It's slim and it's rambling, jumping from place to place and from haunting to haunting, but it's hard to finds a page that does not contain at least a good campaign hook.
8. Holtom, D.C., "The Japanese Enthronement Ceremonies," Kyobunkan (Tokyo) 1928.
This is an excellent description of the ceremonies for the enthronement of the Taisho Emperor in 1928, with numerous illustrations and a few photos. It also has extensive write-ups of the symbology behind a number of the important artifacts and ceremonies, all written by a Westerner who respected the rising Japanese military society (remember, this is pre-WW2). Quite interesting, but only if you're into long ceremonial description.
9. 秋庭俊、帝都東京・隠された地下網の秘密 (Imperial Tokyo: Secrets of the Hidden Subway System, by Akiba Shun), Yosensha, 2002, ISBN 4-89691-680-8
The author has collected a stunning array of old maps (including a lot from GHQ), and makes a strong case that there was a subway system in Tokyo before World War 2. As evidence he presents all sort of highly useful information (useful in the CoC sense). Probably not all that interesting for people who haven't ridden the Tokyo subway, though…
1. "Zen at War"
Brian Victoria, Weatherhill, ISBN 0-8348-0405-0
Written by someone who obvviously knows where all the skeletons are buried, and with excellent research backing it all up. He provides precise names, dates, places, references and background detail to demonstrate that the Zen monks of Japan supported japan's militaristic growth, very actively at times. He also points out people and organizations against such support for imperialism. A very good look into one largely-forgotten facet of WW2 in Japan.
2. "Zen and Japanese Culture"
Daisetsu Suzuki, Princeton-Bollingen, ISBN 0-691-01770-0
Thought-provoking explanations of how Zen became an integral part of traditional Japanese culture, how important it was to forming Japanese culture, and how important it still is in many arts and social venues. Interesting enough, Suzuki was also a key proponent of Buddhist support for Japanese Imperialism and military conquest in WW2.
3. "The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan"
ed. William Theodore de Bary, Vintage, ISBN 0-394-71696-5
An overview of the birth, development and spread of Buddhism, with extensive translation into English of key documents. Covers the pattern of growth and transmission more than the essentials of the religion.
4. "Thank You and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan"
David Chadwick, Penguin/Arkana 1994, ISBN 0-14-019457-6
A realistic look at the monastic life from the inside, by an outsider. Touchingly humorous.
5. "The Unfettered Mind "
Takuan Soho, Kodansha [ISBN 0-87011-851-X]
Three essential treaties on Zen by a zen master, each written in the form of instructions to practitioners of kendo. Includes the "Sword Taia" commentary, useful for Dreamlands magic.
6. "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones"
Paul Reps & Nyogen Senzaky (eds.), Shambhala, [ISBN 1-57062-063-6]
The essential Zen collection, includes stories, koans and miscellaneous writings. The "Centering" Sanskrit manuscript is open to a number of Mythos/Dreamlands interpretations.
7. "青年地球誕生" (in Japanese)
春木秀映 and 春木伸哉; 明窓出版
(Seinen Chikyu Tanjo, by Haruki, Shuei and Haruki, Shinya, Meisou Shuppan) [ISBN4-89634-011-6]
Written by the head priest of Heitate Jingu Shrine in Kumamoto, the book provides a wealth of information on myths and legends related to the Shrine, notably relating to Amaterasu and the Imperial line, especially Meiji and Showa. The authors also manage to incorporate a host of theories on many things, including Atlantis, Mu, aliens bringing the Japanese Imperial line to the earth 1.7 million years ago and the Lost Tribe of Israel as the origin of the Japanese.
1. "You Gotta Have Wa"
Robert Whiting, Random House/Vintage 1990, ISBN 0-679-72947-X.
Baseball in Japan: history, social effects, foreign players…but so much more. Although (perhaps because) it focuses on a very narrow aspect of culture, it accurately reveals more about Japanese culture as a whole than any other book I've read.
2. "Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation"
Karl Taro Greenfeld, Harper Perennial 1994, ISBN 0-06-092665-1
Each chapter deals with a different character — a bike-gang member, an aspiring yakuza punk, a porn star, a shop girl, a foreign hostess-club girl, a high-school dropout, an obsessed computer nerd — all people who don't fit the usual stereotypes of Japan. Although Greenfeld has been accused of fusing fact and fiction, the characters and events in the book are all believable.
3. "Confessions of a Yakuza"
Junichi Saga, Kodansha [ISBN 4-7700-1948-3]
Memoirs of a yakuza man, collected by his doctor, from his early apprenticeship to his rise in the structure. Lots of details about the inner workings of "classical" (i.e. pre-war) Yakuza.
4. "Ore Giapponesi" (in Italian)
Fosco Maraini, Dall'Oglio [ISBN 88-7718-638-0]
Also known as "Zuihitsu Nippon", this is the second edition of ethno-anthropologist Maraini's introduction to Japanese culture (the English version of the first ed., "Meeting Japan", has long been out of print); built as a memoir of Maraini's own experiences in Japan during the 40s, the late 50s and the late 70s, the book covers everything, from architecture to Shinto rituals, from everyday life of the salaryman to the condition of foreign political prisoners during WW2. Extremely rich in details, anecdotes and with an eye always out for the larger picture.
5. Pink Samurai - Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan
Nicholas Bornoff, Pocket Books [ISBN 0-671-74266-3]
As the title implies, this is a book covering sexual attitudes in contemporary (1990) Japan and their deep roots.
1. "Ribellarsi e Giusto - Arti Marziali, Filosofia e Pensiero Rivoluzionario dal Compagno Mao a Bruce Lee" [Rebelling is Right - Martial Arts, Philosophy and Revolutionary Thinking from Chairman Mao to Bruce Lee] (in Italian)
Riccardo Pedrini, Castelvecchi [ISBN 88-8210-036-7]
The book looks at martial arts from an informational and ideological point of view.
Outside Japan proper
1. "Foreign Devils on the Silk Road"
Peter Hopkirk - - U. of Massachusetts Press [ISBN 0-87023-435-8]
Tagged as "The Search of Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia", this includes extensive data on Indiana Jones-style archaeology and espionage activities in Central Asia between the early 1800s and the 1940s. Extensive section on Japanese activities and details of the fabled collection of antiques of Count Otani Kozue (Jodo Shinshu sect leader and a spy-master of sorts).