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4.2 out of 5 stars

TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 December 2006
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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on 27 January 2011
Britain prides itself on our special relationship with America. Of course it is special in that it is our unique relationship with the World Superpower. Yet the British Isles have many other relationships. As does America - not least with archipelagos further East such as the Philippines (see America's Boy), and with Japan.

This thoroughly concise book describes how Japan could have fared far worse than the American stewardship they underwent after the war. The book describes how feudal Japan has been, and remains despite its "Economic Miracle". Business centres of power co-exist uneasily with government. The book concludes with the observation that many young Japanese feel that fresh American interference now would do the country a world of good.

Japan has long thought of itself as a Western style power transplanted in Asia. Yet the truth is that Japan's snazzy cultural fabric is cut from very different cloth. This book cuts through the surface illusions and lets us appreciate a beguilingly Other people. A people that compete and co-exist with the rest of the world in their special way, as do we.
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on 8 January 2004
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.
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VINE VOICEon 11 July 2007
This is a short and very clear guide to the political evolution of a country which remains a mystery to many in the west. If you've ever wondered why the emperor wasn't brought down by the war, or why the Japanese were so cruel to their enemies, or what role samurais played in politics, this is a fascinating book which ties up a lot of loose ends. It's such a quick read, it obviously cannot contain everything, but for a balanced and well-informed overview of the century from Commodore Perry and the Meiji Restoration to the post-War period and the 1964 Olympics, this is a great place to start. The bibliography is excellent, the glossary is useful, and each name is introduced with some biography and character traits, helping to give a human feel to what could have been a dry and academic study.
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on 26 June 2005
I liked this book as an overall review of the conditions that led up to Japan becoming an economic miracle, and it was an easily digestible historical documentary, but the author does not link the past of Japan to its current, but rather largely leaves it to the reader to make their own conclusions. On balance, this book would have been fine as an educational primer. If only he would have taken the word economics out of the title I would not have been disappointed, as the author lacks the steam to discuss the economic recovery postwar, indeed it feels like an epilogue to the book. Overall, a good read and one I would recommend buying for the right reasons - the sections on religion and state are fascinating snippets of insight.
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on 15 January 2006
Buruma’s books and articles are characterised by an easy writing style and a deep knowledge, even affection, for his topics. Hopefully this will persist even though he has now abandoned being a public intellectual and descended into the sad morass of academia. This book is short, but provides a clear and coherent history of how Japan modernised and how its desperate search for dignity led it into the blunders of fascism. The missing element for me was a stronger understanding of the cultural, rather than the political, forces that drove this process. Buruma is an expert on Japanese culture, and has written engagingly about it, but this dimension is muted in this book. However, you would be hard pressed to find a better introduction to a fascinating nation.
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