The tracings of Japanese culture go back some 10,000 years - speaking conservatively. Since then there has been a remarkable continuity of inhabitation on the Japanese islands, which has resulted in one of the richest and complex cultures in the world today. Originally heavily influenced by the neighboring Chinese culture in the period from 300 BC to 300 AD, the islands quickly found their own way and over the ensuing years have developed a breadth of integrated experience that is often baffling to the outsider or curious student.
Paul Varley's book, in it's fourth edition and showing no signs of losing its value, is an attempt to present the significant cultural and historical developments, covering the past two millennia. OF course, most of the focus is from the eighth century on as Japanese civilization shifted from day to day survival to a complex political framework with a great flourishing of substantive creative art.
Considering that my standard historical reference on Japan has some seven volumes and thousands of (often tedious) pages, Varley's task is considerable and his success worthy of note. In a mere three hundred pages of tiny print Varley manages to draw a picture of the Japanese people that, while far from complete, misses none of the key culture moments.
He does this in a plain, business-like writing style that pours out unending amounts of information with merciless patience. He is very readable, but not what I would call enjoyable, since the sheer quantity of information can be overwhelming. If simply read straight through, it is easy to lose track of the thread of ideas. But the book rewards repeated study and the reader will soon find that all this information contributes much towards an understanding of the Japanese experience.