Cool, informed historical primer from journalist-novelist Buruma (The Missionary and the Libertine, 2000, etc.), tracing Japan from its opening to the West in 1853 through its transformation into a militaristic state to its reemergence as a peaceful, pacifistic host of the 1964 Olympics.
From start to finish, this concise narrative unfolds in dense ironies. In the 19th century, Commodore Matthew Perry’s interpreter observed that the Americans hoped to disturb Japan’s “apathy and long ignorance,” unaware that his reluctant hosts knew a good deal about American politics, geography, and science. In the 20th, Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Japan following WWII, compared its citizens to children. In turn, according to Buruma, the Japanese have exhibited seesawing “overconfidence, fanaticism, a shrill sense of inferiority, and a sometimes obsessive preoccupation with national status.” After the shogunate collapsed in the 1860s, Emperor Mitsushito began a regime that blended ancient Japanese myths with German authoritarianism and racism, transforming Shinto into an imperial faith, eviscerating intellectual dissent, and producing mass conscription. Buruma is particularly incisive in discussing the fateful period from 1931 to 1945, when 14 different prime ministers thrashed amid a scorpion’s den of courtiers, the military, and bureaucrats. With nobody accountable, right-wing junior officers egged on the government to escalate tensions with China and the US; later, they paralyzed its ability to change course. (Even after Nagasaki, no consensus on surrender was reached until Emperor Hirohito broke the deadlock.) While acknowledging the nation’s remarkable postwar conversion to a parliamentary government, Buruma bemoans “an intellectual culture stunted by dogmas of the Left and the Right,” which has left unexamined national war guilt and an economic engine sputtering after 40 years of governmental corruption.
A highly nuanced explanation of how a hybrid national polity and culture was created.