A tremendous history of the upheavals that transformed Japan into the world’s most successful of non-Western countries.
Jansen (Japanese History/Princeton) shows how the country at first reluctantly, and then enthusiastically, benefited from the changes of the modern era. The past 400 years of Japanese history are marked by centralization, the decline of isolationism, and the rise of the military: in 1600, after years of civil war, Japan hunkered down to two-and-a-half centuries of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate, which created an orderly economy that bound the nation together. With the rise of the Western powers, however, Japan realized it had to exploit the technology of the Industrial Revolution or become a semi-colony of the Europeans and Americans—like China, its traditional big brother in Asia. The Meiji restoration ended the shogunate, placed the Emperor back at the center of government, and pushed Japan into the European-dominated Great Powers system. Jansen weaves social and political history together while narrating this course of events, devoting more time to peasant life (he likens a Tokugawa village to a “well-regulated concentration camp”) than to battles. Much time is also given to court intrigue, giving the reader a sense of the enormous pressure that bore down on Japanese ministers (many of whom were assassinated by revanchists) in the 19th and 20th centuries. The author argues that the military was constitutionally outside politics, giving it a free hand to influence politics with arguments that its demands for more resources were objective and for the good of the nation. His analysis of the educational system is also fresh. The prestigious imperial universities that sprang up under Meiji rule were, like the military, more important in running the country than official channels of power might suggest. These forces contributed to the sense that Japan ought to flex its muscles and conquer Manchuria, a decision that led it on a collision course with the West that ended with WWII and the dazzling changes in society afterward.
A master work that will prove to be the definitive history of a dynamic society.