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Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles) [Paperback]

Ian Buruma
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov 2004 Modern Library Chronicles (Book 11)
In a single short book as elegant as it is wise, Ian Buruma makes sense of the most fateful span of Japan’s history, the period that saw as dramatic a transformation as any country has ever known. In the course of little more than a hundred years from the day Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in his black ships, this insular, preindustrial realm mutated into an expansive military dictatorship that essentially supplanted the British, French, Dutch, and American empires in Asia before plunging to utter ruin, eventually emerging under American tutelage as a pseudo-Western-style democracy and economic dynamo.

What explains the seismic changes that thrust this small island nation so violently onto the world stage? In part, Ian Buruma argues, the story is one of a newly united nation that felt it must play catch-up to the established Western powers, just as Germany and Italy did, a process that involved, in addition to outward colonial expansion, internal cultural consolidation and the manufacturing of a shared heritage. But Japan has always been both particularly open to the importation of good ideas and particularly prickly about keeping their influence quarantined, a bipolar disorder that would have dramatic consequences and that continues to this day. If one book is to be read in order to understand why the Japanese seem so impossibly strange to many Americans, Inventing Japan is surely it.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 194 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Reprint edition (Nov 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812972864
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812972863
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 12.4 x 1.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 414,125 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
When Commodore Matthew ("Old Matt") Calbraith Perry sailed into Edo Bay on July 8, 1853, with four heavily armed ships, on a mission to open up Japanese ports to American ships, he could be forgiven for thinking the Japanese were an ignorant people. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting and well written 16 July 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It is only when one begins looking for books on early 20th century Japanese history that one realizes just how little is out there. Ian Buruma's "Inventing Japan" nicely fills that gap. It is very readable and packed to the brim with information. The first half of the 20th Century was a uniquely fascinating time in the history of japan; this book lays bare our preconceptions about Japanese people and society.

The west harbors a number of popular myths about Japanese people; one such assertion is that the Japanese are inherently docile and conformist as a result of centuries of indoctrination and subjugation. Upon reading this book it becomes clear that this particular preconception is false. For example, an extreme form of emperor worship was not instituted until 1940, the idea of the emperor as a religious head was taken from Christianity, Japan experienced major labor upheavals both before and after the war.

The chapter on democratization read "Americanization" is a fascinating account on the lengths the occupation forces went to in their quest to instill freedom and democracy, censorship was a part of this, which included the banning of films and books that contained descriptions of poverty in America.

A very interesting and informative work, for anyone new to and interested in this time period in Japanese history.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great first step in learning about Japan 3 Jan 2013
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This is quite a short book but the information contained is very dense and there's no 'fluff' to pad it out. This book gives you a lot of insight into Japanese history and despite the title it does mention politics all the way up to the millenium. It has an extensive bibliography along with (very usefully) comments about each one so you can pick whatever time in history piqued your interest the most and read further. I found Ian Buruma's style to be very intimate too, often commenting on the thoughts and motives of many of the historical figures, making it a much more enjoyable and insightful read.
There's probably many books on Japanese history out there but if you start your journey into a richer understanding of the country here, you can't go far wrong.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 28 Aug 2014
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good book if you want to know more about Japanese history
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Creating Modern Japan 14 Dec 2003
By Jeffery Steele - Published on Amazon.com
It's difficult enough to write a comprehensive and readable modern history of a large nation-state like Japan, but it's a far more onerous task to attempt to do so in less than 200 pages. Ian Buruma's 177-page book manages to do so with an excellence rarely found in volumes three or four times the size.
"Inventing Japan" traces the history of Japan from the landing of Commodore Perry's black ships in 1853 to the 1964 Olympics, a time when Buruma claims Japan "rejoined the world". Buruma's writing is graceful and vivid. Despite covering over a century of history, his short book never feels attenuated. He knows what to focus on and, more importantly for a book of this length, what to leave out.
Buruma stirs up some hard feelings among Japan's partisans -- including some here! -- by writing very directly about what he perceives as modern Japan's negative national traits. These include an obsession with national standing, fanaticism, overconfidence and (ironically, considering the alleged overconfidence) an inferiority complex. Balanced against these, Buruma says, is a grace in defeat and an ability to rebound quickly after disaster.
I enjoyed Buruma's directness. He doesn't soft-pedal Japan's crimes. But he also doesn't dwell on them. This book could only have been written by someone with a profound interest in Japan and its people. Buruma ends on a hopeful note, saying he looks forward to the day Japan does not need black ships to break out of the destructive patterns it finds itself in.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction for the general reader 22 Dec 2003
By Paul Donovan - Published on Amazon.com
Buruma sets out with the ambitious task of summarising a century of Japanese history - and a turbulent century at that - in less than 150 pages. Covering the Meiji restoration, the militarism of the 1930s, war, defeat and reconstruction could (and for many authors has) take volumes, but Buruma manages his challenge extremely well.
This is not necessarily a book for a Japan expert - in so short a work, necessarily the discussion about the topics raised is fairly cursory. Even major issues like the involvement of the Showa emperor in pursuing the war are necessarily brief - though Buruma's opinion does come through fairly strongly on this topic. Facts are not comprehensively sourced, either - pitched as a "general reader" on Japanese history, Buruma clearly did not want the flow of the story to be interrupted. However, there is a good appendix on suggested further reading. Buruma also has a talent for highlighting key facts in a new context, and in doing so triggering a response from even the more experienced reader.
"Inventing Japan" makes a good job of dispelling the "uniqueness" myths that surround the country (promoted by both Japan's supporters and protagonists). Japan is, of course, unique - in the same way that France or Serbia is unique. It is not, as the militarists of the 1930s would have us believe, unique in a divine sense. This is something modern day nationalists and anti-Japan protectionists on the two sides of the Pacific could do well to reflect on. Perry did not "open up" an entirely isolated community, but instead visited a country that was already cognoscent with affairs in Europe and America. The Shinto rituals of the 1930s were not (all) hallowed traditions stretching back through the millennia, but were at least in part created to fit the purposes of the government of the day.
Overall Buruma gives an excellent précis of the development of Japan in a concise and well-written manner. This is a superb introduction for a general reader, but it is not something that the more informed reader should overlook.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Graceful Losers: The Emergence of Modern Japan 2 July 2005
By Omer Belsky - Published on Amazon.com
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Since Mathew Perry's Black Ships reached Japan and broke its self imposed exclusion from the world, the Japanese Experience has been extraordinary. Alone among the non Western nations it has mastered Western science, technology, and economic prowess, and had earned a place among the major world powers in the pre WW2 world. Then it has joined in with Hitler and Mussolini as part of the Axis power, unleashing a gruesome campaign against its weaker Asian neighbors and a suicidal one against the United States. Following its defeat, Japan reemerged as a pacifist democracy and an economic and cultural world leader.

Ian Buruma's fascinating little book about the century between Perry's arrival and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, has to cover a lot of ground in 160 pages (he has about 1.5 pages per year). His book is necessarily frustrating in its gloss of important aspects, but he nonetheless supplies a useful account of Japan's political history throughout the period (and, surprisingly, quite a lot about Japanese culture as well, particularly the Cinema).

It seems redundant to summarize the political developments in Japan; Suffice to say that, rather then a confrontation between traditionalists and modernists; Buruma sees a conflict between modernists of the Liberal and illiberal kind. The latter, drawing upon the German model, transformed Shinto into a state religion celebrating a divine emperor, created a highly militaristic state, and led Japan into a series of Military adventures, from the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, through the war with Russia in 1905, the 'Manchurian incident' in 1931, and finally to Pearl Harbor.

Following Japan's inevitable defeat, The American occupation force purged the hardliner military leaders, but maintained Emperor Hirohito (Buruma is inconclusive as to the level of his culpability in Japan's militarism). It created a new Constitution (dedicated to Pacifism), and partially, but not entirely, reshaped Japan's political culture. After some turbulence, the conservative Liberal-Democratic Party settled to rule Japan fairly effectively, partially betraying and partially fulfilling the Liberal hopes from the Post War era.

As interesting as Japan's political history has been, the extraordinary question of Japanese history is economic: How did Japan manage to twice rise from great disadvantages to a position as a world leader? How did Japan, alone among all non Western nations, manage to Industrialize as early as the 19th century, and how come it is today a leading member in the still almost exclusively Western club of developed countries?

Buruma hardly addressed these questions, and as such his ability to explain the history of Japan suffers greatly. As interesting as the political and ideological history is, that's not where the story of Modern Japan truly is; Japan's triumph, and current difficulties are hardly addressed, and Buruma mostly sees the enrichment of post war Japan as a distraction, "Opium to the Masses", so to speak, allowing the conservatives to shrink from fuller Liberalization of Japan (pp. 166-167).

The best insight Buruma offers to Japan's extraordinary success is in the Prologue, describing the Judo contest in the 1964 Olympics. The Japanese expected their smallish Judo champion, Kaminaga Akio to defeat his six foot six Dutch opponent, Anton Geesink. Such a victory would have signaled the "superiority of Japanese culture, of the Japanese spirit". (p.6)

But in the end, Geesink won. The Dutchman defeated the Japanese: "Once again, Japanese manhood had put to the test against superior Western manhood, and once again it was found wanting". But the humiliation subsided when Geesink showed the proper respect by bowing the traditional bow. "Geesink... would be treated as a hero in Japan forever after... One quality has stood out to serve Japan better than any other: the grace to make the best of defeat".

I think Buruma has hit upon a major element in Japan's success. Unlike many other traditional societies, Japanese were able to accept the victories of the West and to profit from them; I think people around the world have much to benefit by reflecting upon the Japanese capacity of Embracing Defeat.
153 of 211 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Biased book by a prejudiced man 24 Mar 2003
By Hitoshi Noguchi - Published on Amazon.com
This book is totally typical for Ian Buruma, a man who cannot read Japanese comic books without seeing ghosts of militarism ("Japanese Mirror" 1980) and who has defended British colonialism in his columns for The Guardian.

You will find yourself nodding in agreement thoughout the book if you already believe that Japan is intrinsically an evil society populated by people who are a hair trigger away from commiting war atrocities if a gun is handed to them. I cannot imagine what kind of an unhappy childhood he had spent in Japan.

This is an entertaining entry level book which is balanced on the surface. But he paints a century of Japanese history as if it was structurally destined to march into militarism. He neglects to mention that Turkey, Ethiopia, Thailand, Nepal and Japan were the only "colored" nations to remain independant until Pearl Harbor. Nor is there any reference to how close Japan was to becoming another opium infested European colony. He downplays that Japan's military build up was driven by fear of being colonized.

Like so many historians of the "Evil Japan" school, he misses the fascinating story of how Japan's initially defensive military transformed into a fearsome expansionistic force. Analysis of this development is crucial to keeping such things from happening again. But for Buruma, it was destined to be expansionist to begin with. Japan was always evil. Although Buruma rightfully criticizes Japan's colonialist past, he does not waste the opportunity to infer, ever so subtly, that Western colonialism was somehow more humane and civilized than Eastern colonialism.

Like all Japan demonizers, he attributes Japan's current ills, both real and imagined, to the fact that Emperor Hirohito was not executed after the Second World War. This bit of scapegoating is as worn out as the Kennedy Assasination. There was supposedly a dark conspiracy that involved Gen. MacArthur and some unnamed Japanese figures (always unnamed) that reached a closed-doors deal to save the Emperor. Like the unknown conspirators of the Kennedy Assasination, these shadowy figures are supposed to be lurking in the back corridors of Japanese power to this day. If they were power brokers in MacArthur's time, they must be quite marvelously venerable by now.

He concludes his book with the predictable alarmist dogma that Japan could become a militaristic nation one more time and threaten the Western world if it does not "confront its past". Apparently, 6 trillion yen in "aid" paid to China as unofficial and voluntary war reparations and some more to other nations - all with the consent of Japanese voters - does not count as confronting its past. Once again, there is no mention that Britain never apologized to Zimbabwe either. If his moralizing were to be applied fairly, every country that mistreated its colonies up to about the 1940s (a time when colored people - whether they lived in colonies or not - were lynched to death for such offences as voting) need to "confront their pasts" in ways that meet the standards Buruma sets for Japan. Nations that do not, by Buruma's reasoning, are a militaristic threat to the civilized world.

Shortly after the First Gulf War, Japanese professor Shiro Takahashi asked some 300 college students if they would fight for their country if Japan was ruthlessly invaded as was Kuwait. Only one answered that he would. All others answered that they would either surrender or run. This was the fruit of fifty years of pacifist education. Buruma turns around and calls this an "infantile dependence" on American military strength (which it may be), but I wonder how this reality fits into Buruma's picture of a dangerous nation that could plunge into militarism again. He does not seem to see the contradiction.

Another problem, which is all too common among so many Western specialists, is that Buruma presents Japan as a monolithic entity instead of a diverse and chaotic democracy. Japanese prime ministers may visit the Yasukuni Shrine, but none of them, so far as I can remember, have ever enjoyed the widespread popularity or support of, say, George W. Bush. Some Arab extremists have presented a monotone grasp of "America" as a monolithic evil entity without any regard for the existance of numerous people like Noam Chomsky. Buruma presents (and has presented throughout his career) the same monotone view of Japan, as if no Japanese has ever protested against official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. (This is ironic since Buruma, along with Herbert Bix, John Dower and many others, has basically lifted his ideas from the writings of all the "Chomskies" of Japan - while pretending that they did not exist) Just as the policies of president Bush is not the whole picture of America, the actions of much less popular Japanese politicians do not make up the whole of Japan. Academic writers are supposed to make people see that.

As long as professional hate mongers like Buruma can pass as experts on Japan, it is prudent that Japan remains in "infantile dependence" and avoid building its own defence capabilities. Who is to say that Japan will not follow the fate of Iraq and be attacked for suspicions of developing "militarist tendancies"?

It takes a detached reader to see how books like this are part of the cause of Japan's curious state in the world. Buruma along with Herbert Bix, David Bergamini, Iris Chang, Ivan P. Hall et al compose one view of Japan, but have you ever seen a book from the opposing camp? (A healthy diversity can be seen in the books about other nations. Buruma himself is a defender of Britain's colonialism even though he is critical of Japan's.) The overwhelming tidalwave of Japanophobia disguised as academic tretise shapes opinions on Japan around the world, and consequently shapes Japan. This book is worth reading only as an example of such a force.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Starting Point 20 Dec 2006
By A. Ross - Published on Amazon.com
This introduction to modern Japanese history -- from Com. Perry's 1853 naval mission to the 1964 Olympics -- is perfectly fine as just that, an introduction for those who have neither the time nor inclination to read an in-depth 500-800 page work. Of course, as is to be expected from such a gloss, the author skims lightly across major topics, and without the context of further reading or background knowledge, it's difficult for the average reader to know what to make of Buruma's interpretations, emphases, and omissions.

Certainly the span of time is well chosen, although as the book is clear to point out, the arrival of Perry's "black ships" to force Japan to trade with the U.S. was hardly the first significant contact with the West. For quite some time, Japan had contacts with the Netherlands, and a segment of Japanese intelligentsia pursued "Dutch learning." Still, it's a good starting point, as the American arrival heralded the end of the feudal era and the start of the Meiji Restoration. Aside from little snippets here and there (a section on 1920s Japan made me curious to read more about the era), much of the early part of the book revolves around Japan's military muscle-flexing.

The 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, which Buruma describes as a brutal dress rehearsal for World War I, starts the century off on an ominous note, as the Japanese taste of victory against a European power sparks delusions of grandeur. These delusions mount as the century moves forward, taking the form of expeditions into Manchuria and China (Rape of Nanking anyone?), and finally the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese militarism is portrayed as an outgrowth of a strange blend of overconfidence, inferiority complex, and sentiments of racial and national superiority. Such sweeping generalization of national character are bound to raise some readers' hackles, but to Buruma's credit, he doesn't dance around them.

Less familiar than Japan's military adventurism is the overview of the U.S. occupation and influence in the postwar years, and the crafting of a new constitution by low-level American bureaucrats. Another relatively less well-known area Burma sketches is the postwar Japanese domestic scene. This comes across as a relatively cozy balance of power between politicians and bureaucrats, with plenty of corruption to go around. One comes out of it with the dispiriting sense that Japan's democracy is a rather hollow one, mired in entrenched interests and overly dependent on the U.S. The narrative ends with the staging of the 1964 Olympics, an event that marks Japan's complete reassimiliation into the world community.

Ultimately, this appears to be a reasonable overview, perhaps best suited as one of several texts in an undergraduate course on Japanese history. Without some other guidance or supplementary reading, it's simply too full of interpretation to take at face value. Fortunately, Buruma does provide an excellent bibliography for those interested in further reading.
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