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From Tokugawa Times to the Present

by Andrew Gordon

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-19-511060-9
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A concise history with a textbook tone, covering Japanese civilization from about 1600.

Gordon (History/Harvard) chronicles Japanese social evolution during two dynasties, the Tokugawa and the Meiji. Superficially, he argues, the former bore little resemblance to the latter. But in terms of how they controlled Japanese society, the later regime was a logical extension of the earlier one. And both depended on the emperor for legitimacy. But while Tokugawa officials used the emperor as a mere sideshow to validate their real power, Meiji leaders placed the emperor at the center of Japanese culture, a move that helped the country grow authoritarian and militaristic. Unlike their isolationist predecessors, the Meiji decided the emperor was necessary because they felt something had to unify a Japan that was rapidly changing with the introduction of Western technology and manner of life. Women, for example, were becoming waitresses, and simple common folk (widely seen as literally stupid during the Tokugawa era) were questioning policies of the government, which for the first time had to react to worldwide economic trends. Like the Tokugawa, the Meiji dynasty didn’t trust the people, so in the Japanese constitution they placed the emperor as supreme commander of the army and navy. Because the emperor was a figurehead, however, nobody controlled the generals and admirals who believed Japan had to secure foreign resources in order to stay on par with the Western powers. The Pacific war followed. Gordon uses a textbook organization, dividing his subject into the political and social realms. (War buffs will be disappointed—there’s more here about intellectuals than about Pearl Harbor.) His discussion of contemporary Japan continues logically from his earlier observations, and the centered quality of Japanese society, he suggests—now in the thrall of business interests—has brought the country two steps forward and sent it one step back.

Asian History majors will find this one on their reading lists.