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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #30 (July 20, 2004), page 14.

Informative yet taxing text on Asian politics

Comparing Asian Politics: India, China, and Japan

By Sue Ellen Charlton

Westview Press, 2004

Paperback, 336 pages, $35.00

By Oscar Johnson

Special to the Asian Reporter

Comparing Asian Politics: India, China, and Japan is a title better suited for a college course on comparative politics than an engaging pager-turner on the political landscapes of three of the world’s more populous nations. One thing that can be said for author Sue Allen Charlton, Colorado State University professor of political science: her book delivers what it promises. But it doesn’t do much more.

It offers a sound enough rudimentary survey of the histories, workings, and developments of politics in these three countries to school in the basics those new to the field. The book draws on the few similarities that the author can muster (between what is often only two of the three nations) to examine such issues as the near-universal search for national identity that follows colonial rule or foreign occupation, and the way in which religion is co-opted to mobilize state (or party) support.

Because it does provide background information useful to emerging appetites for international politics, Comparing Asian Politics can be a reliable reference for the news junkie. It can, for example, help connect the dots in China’s more than half-century-old communist quest for principled prosperity: from the Great Leap Forward, in which 20 million died of starvation and malnutrition under a policy of production decentralization and forced rural migration, to the Mainland’s cautious yet more liberal economic leanings of today.

Similarly, this book sheds some light on the political melee surrounding the electoral comeback in India of Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party — the significance of the Gandhi-Nehru political legacy, as well as the long-standing war over what the identities of such national icons are, are not, or should be. It can also offer insights on Japan’s clinging to U.S. apron strings on current matters of national security — including risking its own to sidestep its constitution and send troops to Iraq.

But the same — if not more — can be said for similar books.

Charlton’s skim of both the redeeming and damning results of these nation-states’ political pushes for development — most notably, dam construction — hints that the book might pan out beyond its cursory just-the-facts format. But, as in discussions of how these political systems interplay with and impact issues of poverty, gender, and ethnic tensions, it never does.

As the title and price suggests, this is a bland college textbook. It finds enough similarities in the politics of Japan, China, and India to meet the minimum requirements of a comparing-Asian-politics course. It lacks not only original or even genuine insight, but a real theme (including that which is drably stated in its academic title, and methodically adhered to) with which to delve into an informative comparison.

Comparing Asian Politics is devoid of any spirited analyses and, frankly, is a read that would challenge the interest of even the most ravenous consumers of such literature. Its saving grace of being what it promises is often overshadowed by the author’s obsession with her own pedagogy: Tell them what you will teach, teach it, then tell them what you taught — ad nauseum.

Every section monotonously warns of what is to come in the ensuing pages and ends with an equally engaging recap (sometimes doubly, if it is the end of both a chapter and subsection). For the reader, each chapter’s content — much like the entire book itself — is likely to be overshadowed by the sheer elation of having made it through the previous pages without losing consciousness.

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