2023 Anniversary Special Post: Top 10 Books on Sengoku History

Mōri Motonari’s official game artwork from Samurai Warriors 3

Since another year has passed, that means the website is another year older. For this year, I’ve decided to do two top ten lists on The Blog. For this list, I will be talking about the top 10 books I’ve found to be extremely informative on Sengoku history. Now, when it comes to this list, it can be about anything relating to the Sengoku Jidai, not just books about samurai (although, let’s face it, that will be the majority). I will rank them based on their usefulness to the research for the website, how often I find myself going back to it, and of course, personal preference.

Please note, while there will be links to these books within this article, none are affiliate links. I’m just sharing my favorite books and providing a link for those who wish to check it out for themselves later on.

10. The Samurai Sourcebook by Stephen Turnbull (2000)

I can hear the complaints already but hear me out. This was one of my very first books I ever got regarding the history of the samurai. Basically an encyclopedia, this book dives into the figures and battles from the nine centuries that the samurai were active, as well as focuses on specific battles in ‘case studies’ and talks about the daily life of a samurai and the weapons used.

This book is great for starting out, especially if you’re struggling to remember who’s who, however, this book is only great if you’re sticking with the well know figures of Japanese history. Once I began looking some of the lesser-known figures and even battles, information became hazy or even nonexistent. On top of this, much of the content from this book has been put in Wikipedia articles, almost word for word, on those who do not have much other sources in English outside of this book. Honestly, it’s on this list merely for nostalgia.

9. Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives by Sachi Schmidt-Hori (2021)

I couldn’t have written the article Mori Ranmaru and Wakashudō without this book. While there are books out there that talk about the practice of wakashudō, I really wanted to understand where and how this practice came about. This book talks about chigos, young boys who had sexual relationships with Buddhist monks, and the stories about them, known as chigo monogatari. One of the most recent books on this list, Schmidt-Hori does an excellent job of talking about a subject that tends to be overlooked by historians.

Since I have only used this book for one article, it is much lower on the list, but I still highly recommend it for anyone wanting to dive into the more ‘intimate’ aspects of Japanese history.

8. African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan by Thomas Lockley and Geoffery Girard (2019)

The article on Yasuke was the second article to be posted on the website but when I originally wrote it, this book was not out yet. I wish I had it sooner. Yasuke has become a popular topic in recent years, especially since it was rumored that Hollywood was going to be making a film about him starring the late Chadwick Boseman. This book came out around the same time, and it almost feels like it was written with a movie deal in mind, for throughout the book, we are treated to a historical narrative of sorts as the reader follows Yasuke’s journey to Japan and service under Oda Nobunaga. This will make it more interesting for those who find academic books dry and boring.

Yet, looking at the book critically, the book contains a lot of filler. The reason for this is simple: Yasuke was not in Japan for very long, coming in 1581, right before Nobunaga’s assassination the following year. On top of this, Yasuke’s life while in Japan is a mystery, not even knowing what really happened to him after Honnōji. Regardless, a lot of the information in this book focuses on the Jesuits and their influence in Japan as well as the Oda clan and their rivals. While it’s a book I would recommend for those wanting to learn more about this part of Sengoku history, understand that much of it does not really focus on Yasuke.

7. They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 edited by Michael Cooper (Reprint: 1995)

Coming from the Center for Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan is a great book for anyone wanting translations of firsthand accounts of the missionaries who came to Japan, looking at the country during this age through the eyes of Westerners. These works come from Japan’s ‘Christian Century’ and contain translated written accounts from foreigners such as Alessandro Valignano and Luís Fróis. There are commentaries from daily life ending with their persecution following the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is a fantastic book for anyone who is wanting an outsiders’ perspective on Japan during the Sengoku Jidai and for those studying the history of Christianity in Japan.

6. Haunted Japan: Exploring the World of Japanese Yokai, Ghosts and the Paranormal by Catrien Ross (2020)

One of my first loves, way before Japanese history, is ghosts. In fact, one of my first books was one I begged for my parents to buy me while my family was on a trip to Canada: Ghost Stories of America by Dan Asfar and Edrick Thay. I was only five. So, naturally, I decided to find out if there were any that came the Sengoku Jidai, and what I found were haunted locations. With the help of this book and another that’s on this list, I wrote the Sengoku Hauntings articles, Orian Buchi being the most popular on the website to date. This book isn’t just focused on ghost stories, however, for it also talks about the legends of otherworldly creatures and other paranormal activity. For those who love frightening reading, this book comes recommended from someone who’s loved ghost stories her whole life.

5. Yurei Attack!: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt (2012)

Yet another collection of ghost stories, this colorfully illustrated book is packed full of ghost stories and haunted places from all over Japan. This was another huge help when it came to writing the Sengoku Haunting articles, and the only reason this book ranks higher than the previous is because this isn’t the only book on this list by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt to appear on this list. There are actually a few mentioned in their book that have yet to be covered on the website…perhaps more to come in the future? For those that want a fun book about Japanese ghosts with history and more, this is a book for you.

4. Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt (2012)

The last book before we get to the top three is another book that I’ve had for years. This book has been extremely helpful regarding ninja, also known as shinobi. From fictional tales to those that truly existed, there’s more to this book than meets the eye. Long before African Samurai, this book contained information on Yasuke! This book was all I had to go on when writing the article on him for the first time, so again, there’s some nostalgia tied to this one. This book will continue to be used in the future, for there are many I have not yet covered that deserve some recognition on this site.

3. The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga by Ōta Gyūichi, Translated and edited by J.S.A. Elisonas and J.P. Lamers (2012)

Rounding out the top three is a book that is hard to get your hands on yet is extremely informative. This is an English translation of the history of Oda Nobunaga, as close as you can get to a firsthand account as you can. Written by the historian Ōta Gyūichi, this tome of a book contains the life of Oda Nobunaga, broken down by meetings, events and battles. The translators have made things easier for the reader, by clearing up title names and even providing context to certain events via footnotes. Despite having it a few years myself, I have yet to make it through the whole book. If you are able to afford a copy, I recommend it, yet just be prepared for some difficult reading. It’s very factual, which can make for some dry reading.

2. The Battle of Sekigahara: The Greatest, Bloodiest, Most Decisive Samurai Battle Ever by Chris Glenn (2021)

Coming in at number two is one of the newest books on the list, only being published in 2021. Though only 204 pages total, the book details the Battle of Sekigahara hour by hour and gives us an updated and current account of the battle as it unfolded. The best part of the book is that it doesn’t focus just on the famous major players, but also gives some lesser-known figures some time in the spotlight as well, making it an eye-opening read for anyone, like me, who has to rely on English sources because reading Japanese is still a ways off. Highly recommend this book, especially if you are wanting an extremely detailed look at the six-hour bloodbath that was Sekigahara.

Not every book could make it on this list, so here are a few honorable mentions:

1. Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan by Danny Chaplin (2018)

If someone asked me which book should they start with if they want to learn about the Sengoku Jidai, this would be the one I would recommend. Don’t be daunted by its size. This book contains some context, aka ancient history, that helps provide some perspective to how Japan got to its age of civil war in the first place and then focuses on the Three Unifiers. Packed full of footnotes, appendixes and a great selected bibliography, Chaplin’s book is my go to for much of my research and one I would recommend if you’re just starting out. Younger me wishes there was a book like this when I first got into the Sengoku Jidai. This just shows how far we’ve come.