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Good recital of major events, short on insight (3.5-ish stars)
on 6 November 2011
The subject of this book is Japan during the 150 years or so from the 1853 visit of the American "black ships" to the early 21st century. The book's strength is in describing a couple of narrow aspects of this period: the major events in Japan's political history, and the dominant theories of Japanese nationalism. It neither is effective, nor seems to be intended, as a book describing contemporary Japanese culture, society or even domestic politics. So if you're mostly interested in manga and anime, or are anticipating your first visit to Tokyo, this book will probably disappoint you -- unless a visit to Yasukuni Shrine will be the highlight of your trip.
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, a fact often overlooked. 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. A narrative of wartime victimhood that's become prominent in Japan may justify some of those doubts, and CGJ 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 and some scholars, his statement may be 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 express regret.
Given the strong political emphasis in this history, I'd have liked to have seen some mention of actual political life and the deficits in democracy that persist today. These include, e.g. the extreme conservatism of the Supreme Court, restrictions on free speech and a free press, the tendency for seats in the Diet to become de facto hereditary, and Japanese voters' frustration with their system. 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.
Unfortunately, though, the book's sins of commission are too frequent to ignore. It's simply 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 actresses participated in kabuki only between 1603 and 1629, when they were banned; thereafter 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 phenomenon involved 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 auto worker who was angered by his belief he was going to be fired from his job.
Much else about contemporary Japanese society in the book seems to have been sourced from Western media. The only fiction authors discussed in any detail are the "literary" ones who've been translated into English: mainly Murakami (Haruki, not Ryu), Yoshimoto Banana, Mishima, and Kawabata. Themes from manga, anime, recent films and popular genre fiction might have provided material for social insight, but, other than the obligatory scholarly mention of Godzilla, these are ignored. Murakami Haruki is made to seem like a seer for his diagnosis of the spiritual and existential anomie of Japanese youth, yet very down-to-earth causes of their alienation are never mentioned, such as the growth of economic inequality, and the Koizumi-era Labor Law revisions that helped make folks like the Akihabara killer members of the "precariate". 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 widespread or symptomatic of the country's predicament. In fact, though, decapitations by or of children and similar spectacular mayhem did not become significantly more common in the 12 years between that incident and the book's publication. Japan's low crime rate? You won't read about it here.
Finally, the book's attempts at synthesis are often far less substantial than they seem at first glance. At the end of the next-to-last chapter, CGJ observes: "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). (This comment isn't made in the context of a discussion of immigration, by the way.) Why does Japan *need* such a vision? What is the corresponding "vision" of the UK, or of Germany, say? This "big question" rests on a dubious premise, and illustrates how the book is weakest when it strays from potted history. The book's conclusion itself is just empty padding: "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." Really, is it profound to ask what will be your role in finding out what the rest of your life will be like? CGJ also misses the opportunity to connect his good observation about the division between power and authority at the end of the Warriors' Era (before 1600, when warlords had power and the emperor had authority) to the parliamentary situation today (when sitting Prime Ministers have authority, but former ones, and other "shadow shoguns" like Ozawa Ichiro, have power). The best I can say, in sum: 3.5 or so stars' worth of good, concise background from a "top-down" perspective about modern Japanese political history and its interpretation by some intellectuals -- but not really much about modern Japan.