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A Starting Point
on 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.