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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 Present

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 children.


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