Totman was born in Conway, Massachusetts. He studied at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and he earned a Ph.D. in Asian history at Harvard University in 1964. He enlisted in the army in 1953. He served with the 8th Preventive Medicine Control Detachment in South Korea arriving 5 June 1954, just after the Korean War.
Totman's published writings encompass 39 works in 145 publications in 4 languages and 7,885 library holdings.
- Politics in the Tokugawa bakufu, 1600-1843, 1967
- The collapse of the Tokugawa bakufu, 1862-1868, 1980
- Japan before Perry: a short history, 1981
- Tokugawa Ieyasu, shogun: a biography, 1983
- The origins of Japan's modern forests: the case of Akita, 1985
- The green archipelago: forestry in preindustrial Japan, 1989
- Tokugawa Japan: the social and economic antecedents of modern Japan, 1990
- Early Modern Japan, 1993
- The lumber industry in early modern Japan, 1995
- A History of Japan, 2000
- Pre-industrial Korea and Japan in environmental perspective, 2004
- Japan's imperial forest, Goryorin, 1889-1945: with a supporting study of the Kan/Min division of woodland in early Meiji Japan, 1871-76, 2007
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