From The Asian Reporter, V13, #28 (July 8-14, 2003), page 11.
An informative account of Japanís modern history
A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the
By Andrew Gordon
Oxford University Press, 2002
Hardbound, 384 pages, $35.00
By Oscar Johnson
True to its title, A Modern History of Japan is a
straightforward account of the nationís past 200 years: from the ebb of
a two-century iron-fist rule by Tokugawa military shoguns in the 1800s to
both the flagging economy and the weak public confidence in government
that ushered in the new millennium.
Itís a plain but fascinating chronicle of a history reminiscent of
the histories of modern Western nations, but unique in its own right.
Unlike the West, for example, Japanís social and political revolutions
tended to come from the ruling class itself, not the masses or an elite
bourgeoisie. Even before modern times, its centuries-old monarchy rarely
exercised real power, yet maintained public loyalty. And the governmentís
hands-on approach to private industry has been a source of Japanís pre-
and post-war economic miracles and disasters alike.
Andrew Gordon details a wealth of dramatic political, social, and
economic shifts, and the events that led up to them, in a matter-of-fact,
textbook tone. The book is a no-frills easy read that makes up for its
plain prose with the sheer volume of its concisely presented information.
It is as judiciously sprinkled with charts, maps, and statistics as it
is with telling art and photographs. This is the kind of book that remains
on the shelf as a valuable reference long after itís read.
Gordon, a Harvard professor and author of other books on modern Japan,
warns of making too much comparison with the nationís western
counterparts when reviewing its history.
He is remarkably evenhanded in applying this caution when writing about
a country whose major modern historical events ó from catapulting itself
into industrialization at breakneck speed to prewar designs of hegemony
over its Asian neighbors ó were so entwined with the West. But in at
least one case more of a comparison may be in order.
Regarding an ever-shifting Japanese emphasis on tradition, Gordon seems
reticent in discussing the context ó that the country has changed in
decades what it took western nations centuries to change. This would
naturally necessitate equally rapid shifts in tradition.
More than once, however, he quips that "people in Japan have
themselves been preoccupied, and sometimes obsessed, with defining and
preserving something called ĎJapanese-ness.í" He admits the
ethnocentric trait is not unique to the Japanese, but apparently rules out
the idea that this in itself may be part of a tradition.
In all fairness, nationalist rhetoric about tradition has been the
staple of many a government and Japan has been no exception, as the author
shows. Most notably, the nationís expansions leading up to World War II
relied heavily on a revamped "traditional" idea of the
"empire," as well as the conceit of "liberating" Asia
from America and Europe for public support at home.
Indeed, A Modern History of Japan ends with a summary of similar
issues affecting the nation at the turn of the millennium. It concludes,
ironically, on the subject of the nationís recent struggle to perceive
its historic role during the war.
This includes heated controversy over a new history textbook, approved
for school use in 2001, that de-emphasizes the atrocities Japan committed
during the war in favor of fostering more national pride in school