These are the books I have read and mostly recommend on the subject of The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), Heian and Kamakura period literature, and about Japan in general. There are brief reviews of some movies too.
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, by Yasunari Kawabata and Donald Keene. Japanese and English. Illustrated by Masayuki Miyata.
Written in the late ninth or early tenth century, Taketori Monogatari is referred to in The Tale of Genji as "the ancestor of all romances."
Tales of Ise : Lyrical Episodes from 10th Century Japan, Helen Craig McCullough.
The tenth-century collection of poems and prose that was already a classic by the time Murasaki wrote The Tale of Genji. The tales (Ise Monogatari) are mostly about the amorous exploits of legendary lover, Ariwara Narihira, who authored some of the poems.
The Ink Dark Moon : Love Poems by Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani.
Poems of passion and longing from two of the Heian era's most famous poets.
The Gossamer Years : the Diary of a Noblewoman of Heian Japan, translated by Edward Seidensticker.
Fascinating diary of the minor wife of Fujiwara Kaneie (Michinaga's father). Kaneie became regent of Japan and had a string of mistresses. Although the author was one of the three great beauties of the day, there was little she could do about Kaneie's philandering. Jealous and frustrated, she wrote about Kaneie, the relationship and her various pilgrimages to mountain temples. The diary (Kagero Nikki) is thought to have had some influence on Murasaki when she wrote The Genji.
The Tale of Genji [Box Set], translated by Royall Tyler. Illustrations. Notes. Box set.
The latest unabridged version of The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari).
The Tale of Genji (Penguin Classics), translated by Royall Tyler. Illustrations. Notes.
The latest unabridged version of The Tale of Genji in a paperback edition.
The Tale of Genji, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Illustrated.
The unabridged version of The Tale of Genji.
The Tale of Genji, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Hardcover.
The unabridged Everyman's Library version of The Tale of Genji.
The Tale of Genji (Tuttle Classics), translated by Arthur Waley.
Arthur Waley's original translation of The Tale of Genji.
The Tale of Genji, animated VHS movie directed by Gisaburo Sugii. English subtitles.
Beautiful and slow-moving anime version of Genji's early life and amorous exploits, paying great attention to detail and authenticity. An unusual production aimed at adults, rather than children.
The Tale of Genji: Legends and Paintings, Miyeko Murase with illustrations by Mitsuoki Tosa.
An introduction to illustation of The Genji, with summaries of all 54 chapters and colour plates of original paintings from the Tosa school.
Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, translated by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi. Illustrated.
Published in 1920, this book was out of print for many years but can now be found in a paperback edition and online. It contains The Sarashina Diary, The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu and The Diary of Izumi Shikibu - all diaries of court ladies in the Heian period.
As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams : Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan, translated by Ivan Morris. Illustrated.
The diary (Sarashina Nikki) of a young woman - known as Lady Sarashina - who travels from the provinces to Kyoto and dreams of living the romantic life of a heroine from The Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu was Lady Sarashina's aunt.
The Diary of Lady Murasaki, translated by Richard Bowring.
Part of a diary written by the author of The Tale of Genji. It is the least interesting of the Heian court ladies' diaries for the general reader.
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated by Ivan Morris.
Diary (Makura no Soshi) of one of Murasaki's contemporaries at court. Full of tart, witty observations and excruciating detail about the minutae of everyday life at court.
The Poetic Memoirs of Lady Daibu, translated by Phillip Tudor Harries.
The poetry collection (Kenreimon-in Ukyo no Daibu Sho) of a Heian court lady with some prose forming a loose narrative framework. Notable mainly because Lady Daibu witnessed the fall of the Taira clan and the end of the Heian era. Her lover, Taira Sukemori, died in the final battle between the Taira and the Minamoto, and she knew several of the Taira leaders who were slain. The translator's introduction is more interesting and easier to follow than the memoir.
The Tale of the Heike, translated by Helen C. McCullough.
Classic tale, based on fact, of the power struggle between the Minamoto and Taira warrior clans, culminating in the defeat of the Taira and the end of the Heian period. Much of the early action in Heike Monogatari takes place in Kyoto, Nara and Uji.
Classical Japanese Prose : An Anthology, Helen Craig McCullough.
An anthology of Japanese prose, mostly from the Heian and Kamakura periods. A great place to sample the literature before buying the books.
Okagami, the Great Mirror : Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and his Times, translated by Helen Craig McCullough.
A historical tale devoted to the life and times of the great Fujiwara Michaniga. The section on the Imperial Annals is rather tedious, but the following sections on the Fujiwara clan are fascinating and contain an unusual amount of dialogue for what is essentially a history.
Tale of Flowering Fortunes : Annals of Japanese Aristocratic Life in the Heian Period, translated by William H. McCullough and Helen Craig McCullough.
Another history of the life of Fujiwara Michinaga and the Heian Era. Known in Japanese as Eiga Monogatari. The first volume is a detailed but fascinating account of the rise of Michinaga and the workings of marriage politics at the Heian court. Since Michinaga becomes a monk at the beginning of Volume 2, it focuses on Buddhist ceremonies and the funerals of aristocratic plague victims. It's doom, gloom, and drenched sleeves all the way.
The Changelings: A Classical Japanese Court Tale, translated by Rosette Willig.
The best of the few remaining examples of giko monogatari, a genre written in imitation of the classic tales. The Changelings follows the complicated lives of a brother and sister who preferred to live as female and male respectively. Many of the characters and events have a parallel in The Tale of Genji, particularly in the Uji Chapters.
Ages Ago: Thirty-Seven Tales from the Konjaku Monogatari Collection, translated by S. W. Jones.
A small selection of tales from the 11th century Konjaku Monogatari, divided into three sections: Indian, Chinese and Japanese tales. Some of the Indian and Chinese stories are Buddhist Jataka Tales and are generally the most interesting. The selection includes stories about Yang Kwei-fei, Bodhidharma and how there came to be a hare in the face of the moon.
The Tale of Murasaki : A Novel, by Liza Crihfield Dalby.
Liza Dalby's wonderful fictionalized biography of Murasaki, based on Heian-era diaries and historical documents. Includes the "missing" last chapter of Tale of Genji.
Dragon Scroll, by I. J. Parker.
First book of the Sugawara
Akitada detective series, set in 11th century Japan. A minor
official at Kyoto's Ministry of Justice is sent upcountry to
investigate the disappearance of imperial tax convoys, but he soon
uncovers a string of murders that may be connected to a sinister monk.
Based on solid research, the Heian world and its inhabitants are
vividly brought to life in a fascinating whodunnit. Dragon
Scroll is followed by
Island of Exiles,
The Convict's Sword and
The Masuda Affair.
The series is closely modelled on Robert van Gulik's wonderful Judge Dee series, which begins with The Chinese Gold Murders, The Chinese Lake Murders, The Chinese Bell Murders, The Chinese Maze Murders and The Chinese Nail Murders.
Tale of Genji : A Reader's Guide, by William J. Puette. Illustrated.
Companion and guide to The Tale of Genji.
The World of the Shining Prince : Court Life in Ancient Japan, Ivan Morris. Illustrated.
Guide to Heian-era Japan and the world of Genji.
The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of the "Tale of Genji", Haruo Shirane. Illustrated.
Detailed commentary on The Tale of Genji.
Ukifune : Love in the Tale of Genji, edited by Andrew Pekarik. Photographs.
Collection of essays on Ukifune and the Uji chapters of The Tale of Genji.
History of Japan to 1334, George Sansom. Illustrated.
Slightly dated scholarship from this British scholar-diplomat, but still a superb history of Japan from the earliest times through to the Kamakura period.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji - A Student Guide, Richard Bowring.
A very useful guide to The Tale.
A Floating Life: The Adventures of Li Po, Simon Elegant.
Fictionalized biography of the rambunctious T'ang Dynasty poet, Li Po, who was an eyewitness to the Yang Kwei-fei affair which so entranced Heian courtiers in Japan.
Relates the famous love story about an emperor and his concubine, and how the affair led to the fall of the T'ang Dynasty in eighth-century China. In Murasaki's novel, both Genji and his father are compared to the emperor, and the story is mentioned in several other works of Heian literature.
The Magnificent Concubine (aka "Yang Kwei Fei"), DVD directed by Li Han-hsiang. 1960. Mandarin with English subtitles. Remastered.
Lavish Chinese production recounting the final events in Yang Kwei-Fei's life: the frivolous intrigues, the emperor's obsession with her and his subsequent neglect of affairs of state. Li Li-hua plays Lady Yang just as one imagines her - voluptuous, attractive and strong-willed. But ultimately she pays the price for being the means by which her corrupt brother becomes Prime Minister.
Onmyoji, DVD directed by Yojiro Takita. Japanese with English subtitles.
Fictional tale of real-life yin-yang sorcery master, Abe no Seimei, a Heian-era contemporary of Murasaki. Although a fantasy tale of sorcery, romance and revenge, Onmyoji occasionally provides some of the flavour of Tale of Genji. The sequel, Onmyoji II, continued with a Heian take on the Japanese creation myth.
Shonen Onmyouji Vol 1, DVD of TV anime series. Japanese or English soundtrack with English subtitles.
The fictional adventures of yin-yang master Abe no Seimei's young grandson as he trains to be a great Onmyoji. The series features authentic Heian-era settings, clothes, and some historical characters such as Fujiwara no Michinaga.
Wonderful retelling of the Tale of the Heike and the life of Taira Kiyomori during the final years of the Heian era.
Taira Clan Saga, DVD directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Japanese with English subtitles.
Surprisingly gripping movie about the early life of Taira Kiyomori, covering the first half of the book, The Heike Story.
The Confessions of Lady Nijo, Karen Brazell.
The remarkably frank memoir (Towazugatari) of a Kamakura-period court lady who was daughter of the chieftain of the Minamoto (Genji) clan and concubine of Retired Emperor Go-Fukakusa. The first part of the story reads like a racy version of Tale of Genji. The second part details Lady Nijo's travels as a nun, her longing for her previous life at court, and her complex feelings for the emperor, who she eventually meets again at Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu and at Fushimi-inari. Highly recommended.
The Tale of Saigyo, Meredith McKinney. Illustrated.
A partly fictionalized biography of the poet-monk Saigyo, including his poetry. Saigyo's travels were later to inspire the Edo-period haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, who retraced several of his journeys.
The Clear Mirror : A Chronicle of the Japanese Court During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), translated by George W. Perkins.
An account of Japanese history from 1185 to 1333 (the Kamakura Period), as told by an ancient and fictitious nun. Known in Japanese as Masukagami, the narrative is at its best when describing the exile of emperors who defied the shogun.
Princess Mononoke, colour DVD animated movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Dubbed in English or French.
Probably the greatest animated feature ever made. Set in the medieval period, it depicts the encroachment of technology - in the shape of iron forges and guns - into rural communities, and the effect that has on the gods and spirits of the forest. Aimed at teens and adults.
History of Japan, 1615-1867, George Sansom. Illustrated.
Comprehensive history of Japan covering the Edo period up the the Meiji Restoration.
Samurai William : The Englishman Who Opened Japan, Giles Milton. Illustrated.
Rip-roaring tale of William Adams, who in 1600 became the first Englishman to set foot in Japan, and subsequently rose to the highest levels of the shogun's court. Based on real people and events, this is a book that's hard to put down.
The Life of an Amorous Man, Ihara Saikaku.
First published in 1682, this Edo-period novel is almost as well known in Japan as The Tale of Genji. It follows the erotic adventures of a merchant in and around Kyoto. One episode involves a young lady "accidentally" getting her robe caught on the hero's sword at Ishiyama-dera temple, but the author seems to run out of ideas after the first third of the book.
See also Shank's Mare, Japan's greatest comic novel of travel and ribaldry, by Ikku Jippensha.
Musui's Story : The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai, Katsu Kokichi, translated by Craig Teruko.
A lively and amusing autobiography of a low-ranking Edo samurai who ran brothel protection rackets, lied, cheated, stole, begged and brawled in the streets. But Katsu had a heart of gold and his son Rintaro later became commander of the shogun's navy and a key figure in the Meiji Restoration.
The Tokaido Road, Lucia St. Clair Robson.
A gripping novel about an Edo-period aristocrat's daughter trying to avenge her father's death. Based on the tale of the 47 Ronin.
Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Matsuo Basho.
Linked prose and poetry as Japan's most famous haiku poet, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), follows in the footsteps taken by Heian-era poet-priest, Saigyo. Also known as Narrow Road to the Interior.
See also Basho's The Narrow Road to Oku with illustrations by Masayuki Miyata.
Chushingura, DVD directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. Japanese with English subtitles.
The famous tale of the 47 Ronin who avenged their insulted lord, in colour and with Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura in strong supporting roles.
Samurai Trilogy, DVD box set directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. Japanese with English subtitles.
The true story of Musashi Miyamoto, Japan's most famous swordsman, in colour in three parts: Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Duel at Ganryu Island.
Drunk as a Lord: Samurai Stories, Ryotaro Shiba.
Four fictionalized tales of powerful daimyo and their part in events leading up to the Meiji Restoration.
Ryoma : Life of a Renaissance Samurai, Romulus Hillsborough. Photographs.
Literary biography of Restoration hero, Sakamoto Ryoma, the swaggering swordsman who helped engineer the downfall of the shogun and the return to imperial rule.
Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration, Marius B. Jansen.
The story of the Meiji Restoration and the part played in it by Tosa samurai, Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro.
The Last Shogun : The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Ryotaro Shiba.
Fascinating portrait of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and last shogun of Japan, who relinquished his title and retired to a life of relative obscurity, enabling the transition to imperial rule in 1868.
A Diplomat in Japan, Sir Ernest Satow.
Remarkable memoir by an interpreter at the British Legation in Yokohama during the Meiji Restoration. Satow knew many of the key figures in the Restoration and to some extent was a player himself. He wrote an "unauthorised" pamphlet which anti-Shogun samurai believed was a message that the British government supported their aims.
The Yamato Dynasty : The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family, Sterling Seagrave, Peggy Seagrave. Photographs.
Racy account of the Japanese imperial family since the Meiji Restoration, with particular emphasis on World War II and its aftermath. Depends too much on second-hand sources, gossip and innuendo, but is difficult to put down.
The Rape of Nanking : The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Iris Chang. Photographs.
Harrowing but even-handed and well-researched examination of the facts surrounding Japan's occupation of Nanking in the 1930s and the subsequent atrocities that took place.
Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, John W. Dower. Photographs.
Meticulously researched account of how the Japanese coped with the aftermath of World War II and the American occupation. The book won a Pulitzer Prize.
The Rise of Modern Japan, W. G. Beasley.
A detailed study of political and economic change in Japan since 1850.
A refreshing and sometimes amusing look at the cause of Japan's current economic and cultural malaise, from the author of Lost Japan.
The Enigma of Japanese Power, Karel Van Wolferen.
The book to read if you want to know who runs Japan, what they are trying to achieve and why the country is in such a mess. Highly recommended.
Japan : A Short Cultural History, George Sansom. Illustrated.
The history of Japanese culture. Provides a fascinating insight as to what makes Japanese the way they are. Large sections are devoted to the Nara, Heian and Kamakura periods.
Chrysanthemum and the Sword : Patterns of Japanese Culture, Ruth Benedict.
A well-known study of the political, religious, and economic life of Japan, with special reference to the Pacific War.
An enlightening examination of the essence of Japanese culture by a German academic who taught in Tokyo during the turbulent 1930s.
Pink Samurai, Nicholas Bornoff.
An exploration of Japanese attitudes towards sex and relationships from the earliest myths and legends to present-day prostitution. Everything you could ever want to know about the erotic side of Japan.
Japan : True Stories of Life on the Road, edited by Donald W. George.
An excellent selection of tales about foreigners' experiences in Japan, by authors such as Donald Richie and Alan Booth.
Lost Japan, Alex Kerr.
A revealing personal view of contemporary Japan, by someone who has spent 30 years there.
Speed Tribes : Days and Nights With Japan's Next Generation, Taro Greenfeld.
A hip and totally absorbing look at the fringe elements of contemporary Japanese society - yakuza, right-wing militarists, porn stars and biker gangs.
The Lady and the Monk : Four Seasons in Kyoto, Pico Ayer.
The charming story of how Time Magazine essayist Pico Ayer went looking for Zen in Kyoto, but found romance. The author subsequently made his home in Nara.
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur S. Golden.
Arthur Golden's skillfully crafted novel about a young geisha infatuated with a much older man. Based on many years of research into the life of Kyoto geisha.
36 Views of Mount Fuji : On Finding Myself in Japan, Cathy N. Davidson.
Refreshingly different viewpoint from a female American teacher who spent several years in Japan and found the culture both baffling and charming.
Learning to Bow : Inside the Heart of Japan, Bruce S. Feiler.
A wonderful story of an American exchange teacher's year at a small-town high school north of Tokyo, with an inside view of how Japanese children are taught to be Japanese.
A Japanese Mirror : Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture, Ian Buruma. Photographs.
A fascinating look at Japanese culture through its popular heroes and villains.
A comparison of attitudes between German and Japanese people towards their countries' actions in World War 2.
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, Jake Adelstein.
Riveting true-life tale of the yakuza from a Japanese-speaking American investigative journalist.
Booth retraces three journeys through Japan originally made by literary and military figures.
The Roads to Sata : A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, Alan Booth.
Booth walks from Japan's northern-most point to its southern tip and tells us much about the places and the people along the way.
The Inland Sea, Donald Richie.
Donald Richie's observations on Japan's Inland Sea and the people who live there, recently republished after 30 years. This is Richie at his best. A DVD documentary on The Inland Sea is also available.
The Traveler's Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages, Ed Readicker-Henderson. Photos. Maps.
An excellent guide for those contemplating the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage or the Kobo Daishi pilgrimage on Shikoku.
Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku, Ian Reader. Photos.
Everything you need to know about the 88-temple Shikoku Pilgrimage.
Exploring Kyoto : On Foot Through the Ancient Capital, Judith Clancy. Photographs. Maps.
Incredibly useful guide to the temples, shrines and places of historical interest in Kyoto. Full of excellent maps and ideas for walking tours. A good companion to a Lonely Planet type of guidebook.
Gateway to Japan (Kodansha Guide), June Kinoshita, Nicholas Palevsky. Maps and diagrams.
The best all-round guide to Japan, its history and culture. Has a good section on what to see in Kyoto, but was last published in 1998 with no new editions in sight.
Lonely Planet Kyoto Travel Guide, Chris Rowthorn. Photographs. Maps.
Sixth edition (September 2015) of the best guide to the area of Japan where The Tale of Genji was set. This latest edition includes information on day-trips to Osaka.
Kyoto-Osaka a Bilingual Atlas, by Kodansha.
Very useful book of bilingual maps covering the Kyoto-Osaka area, plus Kobe, Nagoya, Nara, Lake Biwa and rail systems.
Indispensible guide to the ancient Buddhist statuary found in the Kyoto-Nara area of Japan, with notes on the various deities' distinguishing attributes and mudras (hand positions).
The Buddhist Tradition : In India, China and Japan, by William Theodore de Bary.
The definitive story of Buddhism's spread from India to Central Asia, across China and finally to Japan. The story is presented as a series of important Buddhist texts with linking commentaries and explanations, with India, China and Japan each taking up about one third of the book. Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Tendai, Shingon, Pure Land (Amidist), Zen and Nichiren schools and sects are all covered. Probably the best work available describing how and why Japanese Buddhism developed.
Bodhisattva of Compassion : The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, by John Blofeld. Photographs.
A personal investigation into the tradition of worshipping Kuan Yin (the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, known as Kannon in Japan) and the Pure Land faith in China.
A History of Japanese Religion, by Kazuo Kasahara. Photographs.
A complete guide to religion in Japan.
Shinto - The Kami Way, by Sokyo Ono.
An excellent introduction to the uniquely Japanese faith of Shinto.