Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A review of “A History of Japan” (by R. H. P. Mason & J. G. Caiger)



This might seem a strange way to begin a blog post about Japan; but in the politics of Islamic terrorism, some have claimed that a Western-style democracy would not work in most Islamic countries, because their values and beliefs are so dramatically different from those found in the West. A liberal friend of mine in college made this argument to me; and I pointed out to him that people had once said the same thing about Japan - which was another culture where suicide was glorified for religious reasons, and used as a deliberate tactic in wartime. People in the West would not have predicted that Japan would modernize as well as it did; and yet it became one of the world's great economies, with its economic success deeply rooted in Western-style democracy and free-market capitalism. How did the Japanese become so successful, it might be asked; when countries in the Islamic world languish in such poverty, and even factional conflict?




As with so many of these kinds of questions, the answers can get long and a bit complicated; and there are many factors operating simultaneously, that make it hard to isolate any one of them as a definite cause of Japan's progress. I suspect that at least a few of the answers, though, are deeply rooted in the unique history of this remarkable country; and important insights can be gained in a comprehensive study of this country's remarkable history. It was partly for this - and partly for wanting to know more about the Japanese position in the world today - that I decided to pick up "A History of Japan," written in English by two Australian authors who are genuine experts in their subject. I don't consider myself the kind of person that would normally seek out fundamental information from a book like this, when there is information available that can be easily obtained in the world of television; but since television histories of Japan are hard to come by in English (and I don't even know of any in Japanese), I was motivated to seek out this information from a book like this instead. (Any conclusions about being something of a lazy history buff are readily agreed with, at least when I've had a long day at work.)


Although this book's coverage of a number of topics would seem to increase as these topics get closer to the present day, I should note that the book is not just focused on modern history, but goes back in time as far as archaeological evidence will permit. Though the book makes use of written records as much as possible, the earliest periods in Japanese history (like the early periods of most history) tend not to have been recorded by any sort of writing until later, and so the archaeological evidence is all one has to go on for a primary account of some of these periods. Scholars today believe that the parent language of Chinese was written about a thousand years before Japanese, incidentally, and so there are some periods when the available written evidence is limited entirely to Chinese visitors to the Japanese home islands - something that makes it hard to reconstruct an "insider history" from a native point of view for these early periods. (Although the advent of writing in Japan was still early enough to give us insight into many other periods of the country's history, so there is still much to be gained from the written records of Japan.)


Chinese-imported character for "book," "writing," or "calligraphy"

Those who have studied the writing system of either language will have noticed striking similarities between the Japanese and Chinese writing systems, and there is a very simple reason for this: the Japanese writing system was heavily influenced by the Chinese writing system; and in more than one way, the Ancient Chinese are viewed by East Asians in the same way that the Ancient Greeks & Romans are viewed in the West: as the founders of classical culture, who had a tremendous influence on later developments in many areas (with writing just being the most obvious of these areas). The most important realm in which the Ancient Chinese had an influence on Japan, however, may have been the realm of religion - the Buddhist religion, to be specific; which Japan shares in common with many other nations of Asia (particularly East Asia). The Buddhist religion actually came to East Asia from India, I should note here; but it was indirectly (through nearby China) that it entered Japan; with the religious views of most modern Japanese people today being a mix of their native Shinto beliefs, and the Buddhist religion imported from outside. (The historical relationship between Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism has been complicated at times, I should note here, and it is sometimes influenced by occasional conflicts with other Buddhist nations - such as China, for instance; whose wars with Japan in the twentieth century pushed it further away from Buddhism and towards its native Shinto religion, identified with the Japanese homeland and thus "patriotic." World War II was thus something of a Shinto period for Japan, and it was not the only such period in this country's history.)


Emperor Meiji, whom the Meiji Restoration is named for

The samurai traditions of Japan are covered in-depth in this book, since they had an enormous influence on what Japan would become in later centuries. Of greater importance for the original question of this post, though, is Japan's initial contact with the West in the 1500's, which led to an increase in the country's international trade. The most important import from the European traders was probably the musket, a European weapon that would be adopted by the Japanese in their internal wars, and which thus had an enormous effect on the history of Japan through these military conflicts. But it was not until the Meiji Restoration began in the 1800's, however, that the modernization of Japan began in earnest - a modernization that would have important effects for Japan, in the twentieth century and beyond. It is ironic, incidentally, that the notorious dictator Hideki Tojo actually rose to power during World War II as Japan's prime minister - elected in a parliamentary government influenced by Western ideals, albeit one dependent upon the Emperor's approval at times - before he (Tojo) became the wartime leader of Japan responsible for Pearl Harbor, and steered his country to disaster by a war with America: the country that would have more influence on Japan than any others in its modern history.


Hideki Tojo, Japanese prime minister during much of World War II

To attempt to cover World War II in much depth here would probably not do proper justice to the subject, except to say a few basic things as background: One, that it began for the Japanese long before their famous attack on Pearl Harbor (or infamous attack, depending on your point of view), and the simultaneous attacks elsewhere in the Pacific on places like British Malaya - a situation which is covered in great detail elsewhere in this book. Some would date the start of World War II to the Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria in 1931, while others would date it to the full-scale war between Japan and China - a war that began with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937. Even this doesn't do the subject justice, though, since the Japanese imperial adventures in Asia and the Pacific began long before World War II, in places from Korea to Taiwan. To their credit, the Japanese people today have acknowledged their crimes in this period with sad regrets; and complain of little more during this time than the American bombings, both in the firebombings and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan is the only nation ever to have even one of its cities devastated by atomic weapons (let alone two cities), and the Japanese have something of a victim complex over this, which is about the only part of World War II that they still raise much objection to - a testament to the ability of the Japanese people to move on, and "let bygones be bygones" - forgiving trespasses (both real and imagined) in their relations with the Americans.


Aftermath of atomic bomb at Hiroshima, 1945

Before I close this post, however, one comment about what the peace accomplished might also be in order here; since the way that the United States handled the reconstruction of Japan after the war ended may have had much to do with the continuance of the peace since then. In addition to reconstructing its devastated former enemy economically, the United States also began a system of public education in Japan, which helped to undo much of the hatred that had been taught in previous generations, and bring Japan into the postwar boom as an economic power in its own right. Land was redistributed and women were given the right to vote, which was one of the greatest accomplishments of the postwar reconstruction. Although the Japanese progress since that time owes a lot to its native work ethic and ingenuity, the American aid may have gotten them started down that road; and it is well that we did not "shoot ourselves in the foot" with shortsighted "reparations" policies like those imposed on Germany after World War One - something which made another war with Germany a generation later almost inevitable, and which might have had similar catastrophic effects if imposed on the Japanese at this time. (Thus, it is fortunate that it wasn't - but that's a topic for another post.)


Constitution of Japan (adopted 1947)

Finally, let me close by repeating something that is said often in Japan today: "When America sneezes, Japan catches a cold" - a testament to how close our economic ties really are. To some extent, the reverse situation is true as well; with some economic ills in Japan finding their way to the United States in return. Thus, it is good that the United States continue working for the prosperity of Japan in the modern world, and ensure that the years of peace and friendship that we have enjoyed since then are continued in full vigor for years to come - one of the areas in which I would agree with the authors of this book, and which makes this book such a fascinating work to read.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Japanese Americans in World War II

Michael Wood's "The Story of India"

Why parts of China went communist, while others didn't


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