Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Making of Modern Japan review

One of the reasons for reading is to answer questions. I had quite a few regarding Japan's place in history and world society so I decided to find out.

My questions were: Who are this Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Ieyasu persons and gang that I keep hearing about? How did the Western contacts happen? How did evangelization take place and why it was ultimately uprooted? What triggered Japan to pass from a 'backward' & 'closed' country to a preeminent player in the world stage ? How did it turn imperialistic? What were Japan's campaigns in the rest of Asia? Was it close to winning? How did the relationship with the other Axis powers came to be and how did it work? How did it rose from the ashes?

I was lucky to find just the book that addresses most of these questions in Jansen's Making of Modern Japan; donated by the Nippon Foundation to my local university library no less (along with some dozen other titles. Thanks!). Just shy of 800 pages, it is a large book.  It includes some maps and some two dozen pages b&w photos of people & events. 

There are undeniable difficulties in Japanese history. One of those is that at each turning point the players and events convulse making them hard to follow. By no means the sequence is  a clear-cut matter. A more forgiving historian might try to smooth things over for the benefit of the general reader.  In Making Jansen cuts almost no slack.The book starts fine with the unifiers and early Western contacts, but then the magic somewhat fails. He frequently goes into deep detail mode as he really wants to make sure the reader gets all what it took into the shaping of the country making him go out of his way as to not gloss over anything. The result is a fine analysis on one part, but also some numbing stretches, particularly on the Tokugawa period. That's fine, I guess, if that's your focus, but at least for me less could  have been more.

Once contact with the major Western 19th century powers happens, the narrative gets traction once again interest-wise. With the Russo-Japanese war it shifts into gear, culminating in the Pacific war and beyond. By the time of the contemporary era, one feels that one is reading an entirely different book as the setting and events are easier to grapple with.

The other main problem with the subject matter is that it is frequently difficult to sort who is who. For many of us Westerners this is our first acquaintance with any of them and a quick look at the index readily reveals some two hundred names.

On the plus side it touched upon most of my blanks so in the end it suited me well in this respect.  However, I had to plough through too much to answer my questions. A better approach  would have been to skim-read it, instead of obstinately trying for completion. In view of this,  I hesitate to recommend it for the  general reader. If you have a very special interest in Japan, you're in for a treat; otherwise, look for something easier.

I have coming up next In search of modern China by Spence.  Having learned my lesson, I'll now skip whatever doesn't readily interest me, read what does and go back to whatever I feel I missed.


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