Note: This is (largely) not an academic reading list. Good, readable sources with varying degrees of original work have been included. Where the works are overly academic or polemical I have left them out, as I have left out writings too light in their understanding of events.
Japan, Imperialism, Militarism and Expansion
Frank Beasley, Japanese Imperialism – covers a wide period and challenges the notion of a an early Japanese conspiracy to take over Asia.
Masanobu Tsuji, Singapore: The Japanese Version rare translated version of Japanese staff officers version of the war.
Edward Drea, The Japanese Imperial Army 1868 – 1945 – good overview of the rise of the Japanese army, heavy on admin and political details but essential to understanding the factionalism. There is no other book like this available in English.
Sue and Mierion Harris, Soldiers of the Sun – Readable account of the rise and fall of the Japanese army. More approachable than Drea’s above.
Cambridge History of Japan: Vol VI, Japan in the 20th Century – this volume sorely needs to be updated, but does have some invaluable information and data on the Japanese economy, culture and education system; all of it invaluable in explaining the rise and inculcation of mass nationalism. It also shows the immense amount of change the Japanese legislative and bureaucratic system was able to implement in very short periods of time. One thing often forgotten in the modernisation of Japan is the almost constant experimenting with official policy in all aspects of society. The constant reorganisation of the Japanese Army is a salient case.
War in China and the Asian Mainland
Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally – the current standard on the Second Sino-Japanese War in English
Peter Harmsten, Shanghai: Stalingrad on the Yangtze – brilliant exposition of why Chiang chose Shanghai to make his stand.
Peter Harmsten, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City – continued edition of the above.
Alvin Coox, Nomonhan – perhaps one of the best historical books ever written on Asian history. This is Coox’ opus major where he spent some 20 yrs researching with mainly Japanese sources. Although the focus is on the Japanese-Russian confrontation the book chronicles the rise and fall of the Japanese Kwantung Army in north China even describing how it was destroyed by Soviet forces in 1945. Now hard to find and costly for older editions.
Daniel Jackson, Fire Sword and Famime: The War in Southwest Yunnan –perhaps the only book in English to cover this region during WWII.
Dick Wilson, When Tigers Fight – 1980s first attempt in English to describe the war between China and Japan. Slender volume by one of the journalists from the older Far Eastern Economic Review. Well written but dry at times and suffers from lack of detail because of limited sources.
Shanghai Badlands, – Description of the contretemps of the Japanese and foreign police, spying and using Chinese gangs from 1937 -1941. Offbeat and interesting.
S.C.M. Paine – The Wars for Asia 1911-1949 – Best work on analysis of the wars in Asia. Also see his most recent The Japanese Empire.
J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun – Booker Prize winner in the 1980s of a young boy interned by the Japanese in Shanghai. Based upon Ballard’s boyhood.
Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China – the traditional interpretation of the conflict between Chiang’s and American objectives in China – now dated and somewhat flawed but a brilliant read.
Johnathan Fenby – Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, a reappraisal of the role of the Nationalist Forces and Chaing’s role.
David Bonavia, China’s Warlords another badly neglected topic in English. Bonavia sadly died much too young in the 1980s and this slender novel attests to his ability to write good engaging history. This is the only account in English I know of.
Oxford’s Professor Rana Mitter on the War and its Legacy. He is the leading researcher in the Sino-Japanese War.
COLLAPSE: ASIA PACIFIC THEATRE
Ronald Spector, “The Eagle Against the Sun” – one of the best single-volume accounts on the Pacific Theatre.
Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal – a definitive Account of a Landmark Battle – Wonderful ranging opus doing justice to the entire campaign. If such rigour could be expanded to other battles.
Eugene Sledge, With the Old Breed on Peleliu and Okinawa – Graphic and brutal account of war in the Pacific. The Robert Graves of the Marines.
William Manchester – Goodbye Darkness – Manchesters Account of his days as a Marine
Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword – the definitive study of the Battle of Midway. Very good use of mostly Japanese sources tells the battle from the Japanese perspective. Blows away many traditional understandings of this turning-point battle.
Yahara – Battle of Okinawa – account of the defence of Okinawa by a staff officer who actually lived through the battle.
John Wukovits, One Square Mile of Hell – definitive account of the battle for Tarawa.
Brian Garfield, The Thousand Mile War – the only definitive account of the Aleutian Campaign. Still in print.
Dan Van Der Tat – The Pacific Campaign – good introductory overview of naval dimensions of the war in the Pacific.
Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind – originally published early 80s but still definitive account on relations between British Commonwealth and US in the war against Japan.
Peter Brune, A Bastard of a Place – the Australians on Papau New Guinea. Extremely good account and the section on Milne Bay, the first land defeat of the Japanese army is riveting.
“Hell in the Pacific I-IV” No not the Lee Marvin, Toshiro Fumie Movie by the same name, but a 2001 British documentary about the dehumanisation of the war. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkfNfgsqWLE
COLONIALISM – INDEPENDENCE, PAN-ASIANISM AND JAPANESE RULE
Richard Bayliss, Forgotten Armies, brilliant account of the twilight days of Colonialism and the effects of war on minorities and independence movements.
Eri Hotta, Pan-Asianism – very good account of a now forgotten ideology.
Pankaj Mishra – From the Ruins of Empire, chronicles the psychological effect on other Asian nations of the Japanese victory at Tsushima over the Russian Fleet. Uses Muslim and Chinese thinkers on what and how independence for Asian nations meant and how to get there. Some may find Mishra a little too “left wing” but writes well, argues logically and provides vital food for thought and challenges presumptions.
CHINA: BRITAIN AND COMMONWEALTH, AMERICA AND THE WAR TO THE FINISH ON MAINLAND ASIA
Bill Slim, Defeat Into Victory – Burma front from start to finish.
Louis Allan, Burma, The Longest War – perhaps the best history of the Burma war with good emphasis on Japanese motives
Bernard Ferguson, Beyond the Chindwin – history of the first Chindit expeditions in Burma
Frank McGlyn, The Burma War – good modern narrative.
George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe out Here – one of the best accounts of the average British Soldier in the latter stages of the Burma War.
Brian Cull et al, Bloody Shambles, Part I,II, and III describing the air operations over SE Asia during the war
Colin Smith, Singapore Burning, Fast paced and comprehensive narrative of the Japanese invasion and capture of Malaya and Singapore. Perhaps the best so far written.
Colin Smith, Fire in the Night – Biography of controversial leader Orde Wingate. Well written and engaging.
Fergal Keene, Road of Bones – good modern account of the Imphal–Kohima campaign but BBC’s current premiere correspondent in SE Asia.
Donovan Webster, Burma Road – American-centric version of the events in Burma and China (CBI in American terms) containing some factual errors.
“World At War: A Lovely Day Tomorrow” – flawed, dated, lacking in essential details but still perhaps the finest war documentary and evocative film with perhaps the best narrative voice over ever. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBPmyx_V7x0
WAR CRIMES AND MORALITY IN TIME OF WAR
Yui Tanaka – “Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in WWII” – very good analytical study of Japanese war crimes in their historical context. Basic thesis is that while Japan was certainly brutal in the way it prosecuted the war, their actions were capricious and culturally centred.
George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War – only general history I know of the subject in English. There are more journal articles, but the study is hobbled by lack of historians publishing in English who are comfortable with Japanese, Korean or Chinese language sources.
Sheldon Harris, Factories of Death, deals with Japanese biological experiments and American cover-up after the war in attempts to use data obtained.
Dower, John War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War, Study of both ideological and prosaic racism both before and during the war. Looks at both Japanese and western racism and their role in the nature of fighting in the Pacific War.
Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking – Prior its publication there was and continues to be little in English about Nanjing. At times the book is lacking strict historical rigour on some statements and sources, it is still a valuable philip on the actions of the Japanese army in China.
The Nanking Attrocity – Complicating the Picture, ed Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, Asia-Pacific Studies vol II. This account is perhaps the best on what we know and do not know about the Nanking Massacre. A very specialised academic study with articles from Japanese and Western historians.
It should be noted that there are almost no books for the General reading public on the “Comfort Woman” issue. And while there are perhaps several tens of books published in English about the Pacific war in English and then translated into Japanese whole years go by without a single book translation of the 1000s of Japanese books which exist on the war in China and the Pacific. Lack of sources and the language challenges shape our understanding of the war. A simple comparison of WWII themes in the local bookstore and the number of European-centric books vs. Asian themed books says a lot.