What I’m Reading: A Concise History of Japan

Because nobody got time for the unabridged 15,000 years.

First, this:

I felt it necessary to read up on the history of a country I was visiting for a month, especially when I only had a rough sketch from school (and no, the video above didn’t tell me everything I wanted to know). My understanding more or less went like this: samurai, the U.S. heroically opens Japanese ports, Japan modernizes, Japan modernizes too much and goes ballistic on the rest of Asia and Pearl Harbor, America sets things right, Japan makes televisions, not bombs, bubble bursts, Japan is stagnant.

For the most part, that was the right idea. If there’s anything that Brett L. Walker’s recent A Concise History of Japan (2015) provided to this story, it was early Japanese history and some themes that run through the entire history and perhaps world history in general.

What I appreciated first about this book is that despite appearances to the contrary, Japan and its history still matter.

Soccer mums in the US drive Toyotas, as do Jihadists in Afghanistan.

(You can add ISIS.) From China to climate change to economic stagnation, Japan is close to or at the center of many modern challenges. Also, it’s a cool country, so might as well know its history. Here are some key themes that emerged:

Relations with China. Japan, among other states, in ancient times viewed China and its emperor as the center of the universe. The Chinese emperor insisted that Japan (or the Wa Kingdom as it was then known) was subservient to him. Japan’s culture was also heavily influenced by Chinese in those early days. The view that Japan was inferior to China of course had inverted by the 19th and 20th centuries.

Place in Asia. By the 16th century, Japan already saw itself as special within Asia. Hideyoshi, one Japan’s great unifiers, declared “ours is the land of the kami,” the kami being lands under the influence of Buddhism, specifically Japan, China, and India. This of course was correlated with his invasion of Korea. As it modernized and after it won its war with Russia, other Asians saw it as special, too. Gandhi: “When everyone in Japan, rich or poor, came to believe in self-respect, the country became free.” Mao: “At that time, I knew and felt the beauty of Japan, and felt something of her pride.”

Japan seems similar to Europe–even before modernization. With its forests, castles, “knights” (samurai), and feudal kingdoms, medieval Japan reminded me a good deal of Europe. And because of frequent wars between the states. As a result, Japan was unappealing to invade for Europeans because its people were armed to the teeth. Which leads me to wonder whether technological development slowed in the 17th and 18th centuries after unification.

But Japan, of course, is unique. The author emphasizes how nature came to inspire nationalism in Japan. And I’ve seen this natural beauty in person, it’s easy to see why. In addition, Japanese held much more to tradition than European countries did.

Natural events matter. Obviously, earthquakes and other natural disasters matter to Japan. For one, these earthquakes are huge. As a result of the 2011 quake:

Japan’s main island of Honshu moved east 2.4 metres (8 feet), and the quake actually shifted Earth’s axis by as much as 25 centimeters (10 inches).

Holy shit. Some complained of this book that there was too much emphasis on climate change, especially the last chapter. I don’t agree: such an emphasis on the impact of natural events makes sense. For one, typhoons halted Mongol invasions. In some part, the 1923 Kanto earthquake led Japan from its functioning though somewhat corrupt democracy to its fascist imperialist state in the 1930s. In addition, the author points out that if climate change fears are correct Japan stands not only to suffer more Fukushimas but basically lose Tokyo in the next century or two. And Tokyo and other low-lying areas make up an enormous part of the economy.

Science. I appreciated how Walker weaved science into the historical narrative. I wasn’t expecting to learn much about medicine but stories of Japanese doctors choosing to follow the lead of the Dutch and dissect bodies to learn their true anatomies, rather than relying on Chinese inference, demonstrated how Japanese came to adopt Western ideas.

Society and culture. The book didn’t delve too much into culture but it helped me understand to an extent. “Vassalage encouraged the organizational conformity that evolved into Japan’s famous tendency towards corporatism. Throughout their centuries of rule, samurai balanced the pursuit of honor with their collective obligations.”




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