Very Short Introductions: Modern Japan (英語) ペーパーバック – 2009/8/15
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Japan is arguably today's most successful industrial economy, combining almost unprecedented affluence with social stability and apparent harmony. Japanese goods and cultural products are consumed all over the world, ranging from animated movies and computer games all the way through to cars, semiconductors, and management techniques. In many ways, Japan is an icon of the modern world, and yet it remains something of an enigma to many, who see it as a confusing montage of the alien and the familiar, the ancient and modern. The aim of this Very Short Introduction is to explode the myths and explore the reality of modern Japan - by taking a concise look at its history, economy, politics, and culture.
ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.
A wonderfully engaging narrative of a complicated history, which from the beginning to end sheds light on the meaning of modernity in Japan as it changed over time. An exemplary text. (Carol Gluck, Columbia University)
With remarkable clarity and breadth of coverage, Goto-Jones introduces the major topics and themes of the modern history of Japan, giving particularly thoughtful attention to the complex and tortured efforts of figures seeking to define and defend a properly Japanese modernity, and those striving to come to grips with the trauma and shadow of World War II. (Andrew Gordon, Harvard University)
Lively, lucid, and full of insight, this is an outstanding exploration of Japan's troubled modern past. (Stephen S. Large, Wolfson College, Cambridge University)
The book is most solid when reviewing the major events and figures in Japanese political history from the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate to the to the 1960s or so. The author (CGJ) shows that contrary to the popular image, Japan wasn't entirely closed to the West prior the the Black Ships' visit. He also describes how samurai from the Satsuma and Choushuu regions were to play important roles into the early 20th Century, though the book fails to include maps with these and other older place names, which may confuse some readers. Unfortunately, no light is shed on the role of the Shouwa emperor (a/k/a "Emperor Hirohito," though he was never known as such in Japan) in the lead-up to WWII; but events of the post-WWII occupation, including the rise of Communist and Socialist parties, are covered fairly well. CGJ emphasizes the importance of the Korean War for igniting Japan's economic boom. Once past the mid 1960s, though, a few decades' worth of prime ministers are mostly ignored until Koizumi Jun'ichirou (2002-2006), despite the importance of some of them, especially Tanaka Kakue, the most powerful politician in Japan during the 1970s and much of the '80s.
Another area in which the book does relatively well is in describing various Japanese thinkers' theories of nationalism and "Japanese-ness" (a genre known as "nihonjinron"). This is a somewhat academic topic, however, based on the published writings of a handful of authors. Little or nothing is said in the book about how ordinary Japanese view themselves, or about their political attitudes.
More attention to popular sentiment might have kept the author off some thin ice, such as when he discusses Japan's apologies for its wartime actions (Chap. 5). He points out that Japan has apologized officially numerous times, but that its Asian neighbors don't believe it is sincere. He also points out that a narrative of wartime victimhood that's become prominent in Japan may justify some of those doubts, and questions whether a country may be said to have the same psychological traumas as an individual. And yet he commits the same fallacy of personification when he refers to "Japan's reluctance to formally acknowledge (or pay reparations to) the so-called 'comfort women'," i.e. Korean, Chinese and other sex slaves of the Imperial Army (@136). Who is "Japan" here? If it's the Japanese government, maybe fair enough. But CGJ never mentions that many thousands of *individual* Japanese don't have any difficulty in acknowledging these misdeeds, and in reaching out to Koreans and others through friendship organizations to make amends.
Given the strong political emphasis in this history, I'd have like to have seen some mention of actual political life and the deficits in democracy that persist even under the US-authored 1946 constitution. These include, e.g. the extreme conservatism of the Supreme Court, the tendency for seats in the Diet to become de facto hereditary, and Japanese voters' frustration with their system. I was also disappointed that CJS's interesting distinction between power and authority just before the Edo period (warlords like Nobunaga and Hideyoshi having power and the emperor having authority) was not picked up again during the discussion of 20th Century Japan. Nonetheless, since there are limits to how much can be stuffed into a VSI, even one as generous as this (about 150 pages of text), it would be ungenerous to call these sins of omission.
The book's sins of commission, though, are unfortunately too frequent to ignore. It's not so reliable as to cultural and social matters. A sampling: CGJ refers to kabuki theater "serving a double function as the home of actresses qua courtesans" during the 18th Century (@32), but women were banned in kabuki from 1629, and all female roles were (and are today) played by men. He refers to the "new species" generation (shin jinrui) as choosing the "furiita" (freelance work) lifestyle instead of lifetime employment (@117), but the furiita trend affected people at least 10 years younger than the "new species" and today is not a free choice but imposed on many young people. (The fiction of furiita continuing to be a lifestyle choice is a favorite trope of free market advocates in Japan.) CGJ's use of the term "moga" (from "modern girl") to refer to a women's "movement" in the 1980s and 1990s is entirely anachronistic (@118); the term belongs to the inter-war period of the early Shouwa. The June 2008 stabbings in Akihabara were not an outgrowth of "otaku" (geek) culture, as CGJ says @147; while it is true that Akihabara is famous for its otaku, on the weekend of the incident it was crowded with shoppers of all types, and the perpetrator was actually a temporary worker who was angered by his belief he was going to be fired from his job.
Much else about Japanese society in the book seems to have been gleaned from the press and bookstore shelves in the West. The only fiction authors discussed in any detail are the "literary" ones who've been translated into English: Murakami (Haruki, not Ryu), Yoshimoto Banana, Mishima, and Kawabata most of all. While Murakami Haruki is made to seem like a seer for his diagnosis of the anomie of Japanese youth, very down-to-earth alienating factors like the growth of economic inequality, and the Labor Law revisions under Koizumi that helped make folks like the Akihabara killer members of the precariate, are never mentioned. Sensational and exceptional phenomena that got a lot of press in the West, such as enjo kousai (compensated dating) and a 14-year-old's decapitation of an 11-year-old in 1997, are made to appear mainstream or symptomatic of the country's predicament. (Decapitations by children did not become more common in the 12 years between that incident and the book's publication.)
Finally, the book's attempts at synthesis were often forced and less substantial than they seemed at first glance. In Chapter 1, CJG asks, "[W]hich elements of the modern are essential, and which are culturally contingent?" (@7). This sounds deep, but is a red herring, not least for the reason that, as CGJ admits on the next page, there isn't any consensus about what "modern" means. (Moreover since "modern" is a quality of a culture or of cultural artifacts, rather than of nature, it's hard to see how it could be anything *but* cultural. The book's conclusion notes that "Like many other such societies at the start of the 21st century, a pressing question for Japan is what happens after modernity, and what will be Japan's role in finding out." This is just padding -- after all, what is your role in finding out what the rest of your life will be like? The zinger for me, though, was at the end of the last chapter before the "Epilogue," when CGJ asks (and not in the context of immigration, BTW): "Unlike the USA, which has managed to attract people from all over the world to its brand of the 'American dream', Japan has yet to offer a vision of itself that attracts others to it" (@139). Why does it need such a vision? What is the corresponding "vision" of the UK, or of Germany, say? This profound-seeming but actually superficial and poorly-posed question epitomizes what I found frustrating about the book as a whole. Best I can say, in sum: something more than 3.5 stars' worth of concise, useful background about historical events from a "top-down" perspective.
Some other reviewers seem to have been looking for something simpler, a more linear presentation of dates and names, with less analysis and more emphasis on "facts" -- in other words, exactly the kind of thing that drives my history professor friends crazy. But to me, the thoughtful approach taken in Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction is far more rewarding. I'll definitely be buying other titles in this series.