A Modern History of Japan by Andrew Gordon
When I was twelve years old, I participated in a student exchange program in Japan. I lived with a Japanese family for two weeks, went to school with the children, and visited Tokyo, Mount Fuji, and some very cool Shinto shrines. My lifelong fascination with Asia, and Japan in particular, originated from this trip. It was my first international travel, and it opened my eyes to how different, and how similar, the rest of the world is.
My interest in Asia has been largely contained to the cultural realm. I am a big fan of Asian cinema (from Kurosawa to Stephen Chow), went through a brief (but intense) anime phase, and have been deeply involved in Zen Buddhism since college. My historical knowledge of the region is must more limited. I got a heavy dose of Chinese history from the Teaching Company's "From Mao to Yao: 5000 Years of Chinese History" which I listed to during my commutes to Fort Benning last year, and a basic overview of contemporary China from Jasper Becker's very flawed The Chinese.
Japan's history remained more of a mystery to me. My knowledge of World War II gave me some sense of Japan's military history, at least in the post-Pearl Harbor years, but the rest was unknown. To remedy this, I purchased two books: Marius Jansen's very thick The Making of Modern Japan and Andrew Gordon's slimmer A Modern History of Japan. The books cover the same chronological period, from the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate around 1600 to the present day. While Jansen spends 333 pages getting to the Meiji Restoration, Gordon is there on page 61; Gordon seemed the better place to start.
I have previously discussed one of Gordon's major themes: the rise of Japanese nationalism and how it was shaped by tensions with the West after the Opening of Japan. As the turn of the century came and went, Japanese nationalism took a particularly militant turn, with wars against China, Russia, and the annexation of Korea in just a fifteen-year span.
While some blame must be laid on the West for the imperialist example it set, internal developments in Japan were of great significance. Furthermore, the rapid transformation of Japan in the late nineteenth century, from an isolated island to a world power, created new and exacerbated existing social, economic, and political tensions:
Three related projects of Japan's modernizing elite provided the context for the unexpectedly turbulent politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the drive for empire, the industrial revolution, and policies of nation-building.
Imperialism shaped domestic politics in large part because it was expensive... As the government mobilized people behind wars it unwittingly fostered the belief that the wishes of the people, whose commitment and sacrifice made empire possible, should be respected in the political process.
The rise of industrial capitalism in late nineteenth-century Japan brought on a related set of politically important changes... Industrialization then produced a growing class of wage laborers, skilled male workers as well as female textile workers. These people tended to cluster in the cities, especially Tokyo and Osaka. They played key roles in political agitations of the early twentieth century.
The impact of nation-building programs on politics was also profound... Electoral politics encouraged a vigorous partisan press, political parties, and other practices of democratic political systems: speech meetings and rallies, speaking tours and demonstrations. By the 1890s, hundred of legal, open political rallies were convened each year in major cities. This was something new in Japanese history.
Unfortunately, Japan's democratic institutions were budding at the same time its imperialist ambitions were rising, ensuring inevitable tensions between a heightened security environment and the instability of democratic politics. This instability increased dramatically in the early twentieth century, with the rise of popular protest movements (from socialists and feminists to hard-liners clamoring for expanded military aims) and violent riots on a nearly annual basis.
The domestic and international realms were further altered by the First World War, which brought dramatic gains to Japanese industry after Asia was largely cut off from European traders. These gains were temporary, however, and Japan's economy struggled in the late 1920s, only to be compounded by worldwide depression at the end of the decade. In the face of such trauma, the Japanese opted for stability and security:
[B]eginning with the years from 1929 to 1932, a combination of shocks--economic depression, intense social conflict, military expansion, and the assassination of prime ministers and leading capitalists--transformed Japan's political system. By the end of the 1930s, independent political parties, business associations, producer cooperatives, labor unions, and tenant unions were replaced by a series of state-controlled mass bodies intended to mobilize the nation for its "holy war" with China and bring harmony and order at home.
It is impossible to overstate just how much Japan's experience of World War II was primarily a conflict with China, not a conflict with the United States, contra the U.S.-centric view of the world. Thus many Japanese historians date the start of the "Fifteen-Year War" to the Manchurian Incident of 1931, which led to full-scale warfare with China by 1937. Animosity with the United States was an ancillary consequence of Japanese aggression on the continent:
Tensions between the United States and Japan had been building for some time. Throughout the 1930s, the Americans supported Chinese self-determination with strong words, but they had committed no significant resources to the Nationalists... But in July 1939, hoping to send a signal of resolve that would deter Japanese expansion, Roosevelt broke off the Japanese-American commercial treaty. This step freed the United States to place an embargo on exports to Japan, if deemed necessary.
It was deemed necessary after the Japanese used its Nazi alliance to gain Vichy France's permission to enter Indochina. When Japan fully occupied the peninsula in July 1941, the U.S. escalated its embargo and, with international cooperation, cut off Japan's foreign oil supplies. The Japanese responded at Pearl Harbor, of course, followed by the Pacific War, the atomic bombs, and the occupation of Japan. Gordon makes an interesting point regarding the long-term consequences of Japanese aggression within Asia:
Initial hopes among Indonesians, Filipinos, and Vietnamese that Japan would forcefully promote national liberation were betrayed. Even so, the brief interlude of Japanese control had an important long-run impact. Independence movements organized during the war, whether with inconsistent Japanese aid or in the face of Japanese repression, survived into the postwar era. They ultimately doomed the continuing hopes of the French, Dutch, and British for a return to the prewar system of colonial control.
Quite a bit of irony there. Militant Japanese nationalism was initially inspired by their experience at the hand of Western imperialists, led the Japanese on their own doomed conquest throughout the continent, but still ended up crippling the Western colonies in Asia. This is a particularly intriguing consequence knowing what we know about the subsequent history of the Indochine peninsula.
There are revelations like this scattered throughout Gordon's text, which gives an effective overview of modern Japan. These gems are often overwhelmed, however, by his semi-encyclopedic approach to the revolving cast of politicians, business leaders, and bureaucrats, and the movements they led. Fortunately there is a good index, as well as appendices listing the prime ministers as well as the post-1945 Diet elections.
Covering 400 years in 300 pages necessitates a quick chronological pace, but Gordon sometimes moves so swiftly that it is difficult to catch the thread of his analysis. While he does well to expedite the discussion of World War II, which is well covered elsewhere, I would have welcomed a better foundation of Sino-Japanese relations over the years, and a deeper investigation into the role (real and perceived) of the Emperor of Japan. In addition, Gordon's attention to religion tends to focus on the shifting balance of power between Buddhism and Shintoism, rather than the substance of those faiths and how they influenced the Japanese people and their leaders.
A good place to start for those interested in recent Japanese history, but I look forward to the depth of Jansen's book.