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The Making of Modern Japan
896 pages
Marius B. Jansen
Belknap Press
The history of Japan from unification to the present.
Overall Rating:

Animefringe Reviews:
The Making of Modern Japan
By Ridwan Khan

I'll admit it. I'm a history nerd. Blame my world history teacher, I had already read a few books on Japanese history before The Making of Modern Japan, so it was with excitement that I opening up this large volume... and large it is! Weighing in at a hefty 896 pages, I was hoping for quite a bit of detail from this book. I was not disappointed.

Jansen is professor emeritus of Japanese history at Princeton, so his qualifications are beyond reproach. An army langauge program, followed by a stint in Okinawa and Japan gave Jansen an interest in Japanese culture that is evident from the labor of love that is this text. It may seem odd to read Japanese history from the perspective of an American, but Modern Japan makes the often inscrutable history of Japan easy to access. In addition, coming from an American source, a reader doesn't have to worry about the author shirking around some of the darker aspects of Japanese history, including the military movements in Asia during World War II.

The text jumps right into Japanese history, in the 17th century during the Tokugawa period. Knowledge of earlier history isn't needed to read through Modern Japan. However, the book doesn't talk about it it all, though it doesn't claim to, so someone looking for a complete picture of Japan will want to pick up another book (I recommend The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan (Beasley, University of California Press)). It covers the three men responsible for the Tokugawa era: Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. These men unified the country in a feudal system with local rulers who were answerable to one powerful leader, the Shogun.

Following the three hundred years that the Shogun led the country, Japan entered the Meiji period (1868-1912). The emperor had been an institution in Japan before the rise of the Tokugawa goverment. The Shogun was in the bizarre position of needing to keep the emperor powerless, so he wouldn't be a threat to, but also of keeping him, since the emporer was divine and all authority came from him. The arrival of foriegners into Japan, including the Portugese, Dutch, and America's Perry, caused many changes. Ultranationalists, for many reasons, toppled the Shogun and restored the emporer as the supreme ruler of Japan. '

The book then describes Japan moving into World War II. The book remains neutral on the war, neither sympathetic or overly hostile to the Japanese during the Pacific War. After the horrors of the bomb, the American reconstruction of Japan is portrayed, as is the changing and insanity of Japanese politics.

Throughout, the book discusses social history - how people lived in these times. For a reader used to considering history as simply the politics of a nation, or one unfamilar with the position of the common men and women in Japan, Modern Japan is an eye opener. The book doesn't simply concentrate on the Western romanticism of the samurai, but it also covers the merchants and commoners - people who busily created Japanese culture as the aristocrats attempted to transplant Chinese culture in Japan.

The state of the common people during much of Japan's history is shocking; for many readers it will be bizarre tto read of life in the simple farming villages. The social aspects of history (including the arts: poetry, writing, painting, calligraphy, and theatre) are all covered at length in this book To this end, there are several insets of works of art and photos to help support the text.

At this point, some of you may be asking what any of this has to do with anime. for one example, the social history of Japan plays a large role and the anime and manga Rurouni Kenshin. Much of Kenshin's world, with all of it's beauty and brutality, becomes clearer when put into context: the restoration of the emporer and the following Meiji period. The rapid change and prevalent dissatisfaction is hard for a modern reader to grasp, but the text explains the reasons behind the era fully. The details of Japanese history often creep into anime today, in one form or another. Though not anime, I most recently was able to catch Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Kurosawa is known as one of the most important and influential film directors of all time and Seven Samurai is one of his masterpieces. It details seven wandering samurai protecting a farming village from bandits. Modern Japan fills in the information that perhaps have been common knowledge for the film's intended audience, Japanese people in the 1950's, that are simply unknown to most modern Westerner.

The Making of Modern Japan is an incredible look into Japanese history. It takes both aspects of history, social and political, and fleshes them out for a Western audience. This book, however, is not for everyone. If you're not interested in history, this will be close 900 pages of hell. Also, with a price well in the range of thirty US dollars, this might be one of those books that would be best borrowed from the library. For anyone interested in history or in historical anime/manga, however, Modern Japan will be read with gusto. Easily to follow and very informative, Modern Japan will impart a lot of knowledge to the reader.

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