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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.
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I have read numerous `Very Short Introduction...' books and some have been as dry as a mouth full of crackers in a desert, but thankfully `Modern Japan' isn't one of those books and kept me interested and engaged throughout. This looks at the period of history from the early 1800's until the present day and Japans development as a modern nation. It goes to great lengths to distinguish if being modern equates to being westernised and explores whether Japan can be modern (or even postmodern) whilst retaining it's inherent eastern spirit and identity. This looks at the demise of the Samurai and lords, the growth of a central government, Japans imperial exploits, WW2 and it's aftermath and Japans post war economic resurgence. Each chapter is clear and lucid and makes its point eloquently, backed up with various sources. There are also assorted illustrations and maps doted throughout which add to the text. This is a brief and informative look through Japans recent history and I found it thoroughly engaging and fascinating throughout. If you have even a passing interest in Japan then this is worth a look at some point.

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VINE VOICEon 15 January 2013
Christopher Goto-Jones' short introduction to modern Japan is an ideal "first read" and paves the way for a more searching exploration of the history of this fascinating country. The book has all of the excellent qualities of the highly regarded series of "Very Short Introductions" and more. Indeed the book confronts the reader at the outset and challenges any preconceptions he or she might have about the subject. Thereafter the author constructs a clear and forthright account of Japan, beginning at the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate, in 1600, but places the greatest emphasis upon the period 1850 to the present day.

Despite the brief nature of the book it addresses cultural and social issues, as well as purely historical and, in the later period, military concerns, and offers a good introduction to the reader who wishes to pursue the subjects raised throughout. There is a good 'further reading' list. Highly recommended.
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Modern Japan is one of the most enigmatic and intriguing countries in the world. A highly sophisticated society and an economic and technological superpower, Japan has maintained many aspects of its traditional values and lifestyle well into the twenty-first century. Part of the mystique of Japan lays in the fact that even though it has been officially open to the World for over a century and a half, Japan is still a very insular society. Not many people in the West get to travel to Japan, and Japanese popular culture (with few notable exceptions) is not all that familiar to Western audiences. In light of that, it is very helpful to get a better sense of Japan from a very authoritative short introduction such as this one.

The book is arranged chronologically, and starts with a brief history of Japan prior to its opening up and modernization in the nineteenth century. It proceeds with the arrival of commodore Perry and the subsequent Meiji restoration. The book is good in that it doesn't reinforce the conventional wisdom on these events, but it tries to give its own much more nuanced analysis of these events. Likewise, most of the twentieth century Japanese history is presented from a critical angle that tries to take into the account Japan's own perception and understanding of those events.

One of the particularly pleasing traits of this book is the attention that it gives to cultural and artistic developments. Many of Japan's most famous writers and artists have been spotlighted. However, I would have also liked if the book mentioned some of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century like Yukawa and Tomonaga, who have helped put Japanese science in the World map.

One problem that I have with the book is that in its effort to adopt the scholarly naming conventions it oftentimes makes the names of some Japanese historical figures unnecessarily confusing. Thus, Japanese emperor during WWII, who is known to the generations of westerners as Emperor Hirohito, is consistently referred to as Emperor Sowa. Likewise, the book also uses the convention in which surnames precede given names. This may be the correct way of rendering them and probably in line with Japanese convention, but to those of us who have been acquainted with Japanese cultural icons for many years it sounds quite a bit strange.

Overall, this is an interesting and informative book on Modern Japan. It is a very helpful first step in getting oneself acquainted with this fascinating country and its culture.
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on 13 January 2013
An excellent overview on the last 150 years of Japanese history and provides a real insight into what it means to be a Japanese citizen. The main theme that resonates the through the book is the insecurities about national identity that Japan has, but also the how it values the perception of the rest of the world. The book demonstrates the transitions of identity that has flowed through japan over the course of modern history: from a backward feudalist imperial state into an internationally recognised world power that has developed a cultural identity of its own. I would recommend the book as a great beginning to understanding japan as a nation.
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on 9 November 2013
A very clear introduction. Good overview of quite a long historical period. As someone with no knowledge of Japanese history I found this very useful
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on 13 January 2012
By focussing and pinpointing the historical, political and cultural development that Japan went through in this period, (initially in response to its sense of humiliation in the face of the so-called great powers of the western world), this book demonstrates how the nation freed itself from the unequal treaties imposed on it and how it successfully adopted the ideas and trappings of modernity and how with this success a new found national confidence soared. Whilst some sectors of society embraced the whole philosophy of modernity, that it came as a complete package, that in choosing the technical innovations that were abundant in the west, you also adopted the social manners and cultural practices, other sectors began to use this newfound confidence to challenge the notion that modernity and westernization had to mean the same thing. With this notion of Japan as a modern nation in its own right, the question shifted from what it meant to be "modern in a modern Japan" to what it meant to be Japanese. This question seem to take two paths, the first was something that could be identified as the romantic response - intellectuals, writers, artists looked to some past (imagined or otherwise) for some sense of what the "essence of Japaneseness" might be. Whether this was in some reinvention of bushido, or Shinto as a national religion and Emperor cult, or the rediscovery of a particular appreciation of a fragile shadowy beauty that characterised Japanese aesthetics. The second was how to confront this process of modernisation and asserted Japan's superiority over western nations, which was in risk of being polluted and weakened under the guise of progress. This book takes these two standpoints and follows them into the twenty first century, through the historical figures, artists and writers, showing how this has affected Japans image in the rest of the world and its self image.

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on 11 October 2015
Very quick and easy read.
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on 26 May 2015
Good book. Fairly extensive for such a small back. Additionally, over half of this book is filled with words and pages - unusual.
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on 31 December 2011
I was waiting with great curiosity for this book. It was exactly what I was looking for, a brief introduction to the history of Japan. I am very disapointed: the text is interesting, but in such small letters, that it turns out to be unconfortable to read it. I just put the book aside after some pages...
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