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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Modern Japan – A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Goto-Jones (FP: 2009)

I have long been fascinated with Japan and especially with its rather strange cultural mix of the ultra-modern and the deeply traditional. But, as the author of this interesting and informative little volume explains in the first section, this is not a fault with Japan but with a fault within the west’s understanding on modernity. For whenever we think of the idea of the modern we think of European or American styles of government, architecture and culture rather than seeing it in a larger global context. This is why we find the idea of futurist samurai warriors quoting Buddhist texts in Anime movies so strange, why we see Japan as neon lit cities of the future whilst in the foreground we see the iconic Shinto arch.

Running from the enforced opening of Japan by Perry’s Black ships (though a very limited and controlled access to the country existed long before that), through the birth pangs of nationhood (already developing due to the pressures on constant warfare and an ever increasing population), the very important Meiji Restoration and the two major rebellions that followed (the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion being depicted in Hollywood fashion as The Last Samurai), the growth of militant and military led nationalism which led to Japan becoming a notable regional power especially after its defeat of Russian forces on both land and sea – the first time a western nation had been decisively defeated by an eastern one, followed quickly by military adventures in the Pacific during WW2 and decisive, indeed nuclear, defeat by the Americans, occupation and a radical shift from military to economic expansion becoming a technological powerhouse in the face of the growth of the communist threat exemplified by the Korean War.

By 1967 Japan was the world’s second largest car manufacturer with an economy between 1960 and 1971 growing at an astounding 12% per year. It is during this time that the Japanese workforce gained their reputation for truly amazing productivity – with all the problems that followed. It is no surprise that Japan has probably the highest suicide rate in the world – even amongst its teenage student population who struggle to pass exams that will determine the course of their whole lives.

The author points out that, for many years (indeed probably throughout the modern period), Japan has yet to come to terms and reconcile what exactly it means to be a modern Japanese nation. Actions in China before WW2, in the Pacific region during WW2 and the atomic bombings still loom large in the Japanese psyche and the effects of these events have yet to be fully processed. Japan is, in a real sense, still struggling to be modern.

Although anything more than a very basic overview (or a very short introduction) to a country over roughly a 150 year period in just under 150 pages is impossible I did think the author made a very good attempt to get to the heart of things not only discussing the historic events that led the country to its present modern state but to the socio-psychological forces released due to them that are still working their way through the Japanese psyche. If you have any interest in Japan then this is definitely something you should pick up. Recommended.

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