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Some strange approach
on 17 January 2010
For anyone somewhat familiar with Japanese history wanting to deepen their knowledge, the first striking thing in this book is the way the historical eras of Japan are divided. For example, the consensus is to divide Japanese history in the Heian period (794-1185) and then the Kamakura period (1185-1333), since the different political changes that take place around 1185, such as the rise to power of the warrior class, are important enough factors to make them distinct periods. However, Mr. Totman chooses to divide Japanese history from 400 BC to 1250 AD, a seemingly random choice, as there was no important event in the history of Japan in 1250 AD.
The choice seems to be based on the relationship between the environment and its resources and society. I cannot agree with this approach. It may be fashionable in the academia, but it was very misleading. The author downplays too much political events and motivations, and since he decides to divide each period in a "political narrative" and then gives an explanation of different issues (with an exaggerated emphasis on the environment), it is often not clear which political event was linked to this or that development, since there is often no sense of chronology.
For example, since he chooses to give the name of "Age of intensive agriculture" to the period from 1250 to 1890, it is never clear if the Heian period ended in 1185 or in 1250, and the fact that from 1185 power shifted from the court to the military class is completely downplayed, instead paying attention to the relationship of society with natural resources. Maybe an interesting choice for those in the academia, where breaking with tradition is often the most fashionable choice, but not for the layman who wants to know about the history of Japan, often in traditional terms, since that is the way the Japanese themselves know their history.
A similar random choice, again based on the relationship with resources is choosing to set the beginning of the modern era in 1890 rather than at the beginning of the Meiji reformation in 1868. It makes sense from the author's point of view, since it is in the 1890s when Japan started to industrialize, but it completely ignores the political events of the 60s, with the end of the shogunate and the (to some, limited) restoration of Imperial power.
On the other hand, it's one of the few books dealing with pre-Meiji Japanese history and the analysis of some economic, social or environmental developments is deep and thought-provoking, but clearly it's not for beginners or for people who prefer a more traditional approach to history.