Book Review: The Making of Modern Japan

By Marius B. Jansen


For anyone who has ever thought that they’d quite like to get into Japanese history but didn’t quite know where to start, this book is a recommended starting point. The Making of Modern Japan is the product of six decades of scholarship, chronicling Japan’s political, intellectual, and economic life from 1600 to 2000.

Price: £17:56
Publication Date: 2000
ISBN: 0674003349
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The book is a delicate middle road between narrative review and critical essay. Drawing on the majority of the translated sources on Japan, as well as many in Japanese, it approaches Japan’s past first chronologically, then topically. The long section on the Tokugawa era (1600 to 1868), for example, looks first at the political system, then, serially, at foreign relations, status groups, urbanization, mass culture, and intellectual life, before moving to the dramatic changes of the mid-nineteenth century. The Meiji era (1868 to 1912), when Japan rushed to modernity, is treated similarly, as are the periods of war and recovery in the twentieth century. As a result, differences over time occasionally get jumbled, but the narrative surrounding each topic is richly nuanced.

The Making of Modern Japan is traditional history at its most fundamental, both good and bad. For instance, it abounds in stories. It opens with the tale of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu giving his daughter, as a dowry present, an eight-screen painting of his battle victory at Sekigahara in 1600. Nearly two centuries later, there comes the tale of physician Sugita Genpaku arranging for the nighttime autopsy of an old woman, to see if Dutch anatomical sketches were correct (they were, and Sugita became a founder of Western studies). And 150 years after that, in 1929, we see an angry young emperor Hirohito telling Prime Minister Tanaka Gi'ichi that he should resign for mishandling a case of military insubordination in Manchuria. Jansen has few peers in using the succinct story to illustrate the larger point.

A less satisfying aspect of his conventionality is the haughty focus on political and intellectual elites. Workers and women appear, but always on the margins, never speaking. The work’s general optimism about Japan’s political growth also follows traditional historical approaches. It takes Japan’s own writers seriously, argues that Japanese leaders typically acted rationally and looks respectfully on Japan’s positive reactions to imperialism in the nineteenth century and to wartime devastation in the twentieth. Jansen does not ignore Japan’s excesses and failures, but his attitude is captured in the conclusion that the Japanese are gifted, resourceful, and courageous.

While generally persuasive, this approach turns worrying in his treatment of Hirohito. Largely ignoring controversies about the emperor’s wartime role, Jansen pictures a benign figure forced into silence by an elaborate structure not of his own making. When the emperor scolded Tanaka, he had been too young to understand the system. When he spoke up to demand harsh punishments after a 1936 coup attempt, the situation was exceptional. During the war itself, however, his sense of duty and reserve made him a silent presence at every major council. That the emperor might have chosen to break the silence, that his reticence might have been irresponsible, never is seriously considered.

Beyond offering a plethora of information, the Making of Modern Japan is best when it puts gentle twists on old interpretations. There is the description of the Tokugawa seclusion policy as a bamboo blind rather than an iron curtain; the labelling of debaters over Matthew Perry’s 1853 challenge as defence intellectuals; the suggestion that the imperialist threat that followed Perry may in fact have been fortunate, since it eventually brought unity to a fractious political establishment; and the decision to call the immediate post-war period not the Occupation era but the Yoshida years, in deference to Japan’s prime minister. In each interpretation our standard understandings are challenged. One wishes Jansen told us more about the non-elite groups: farmers, comfort women, the press, the average Suzuki Taro from Sapporo. But to make too much of that omission is unjust. This is traditional history at its best: richly detailed, authoritative, and nuanced. A distillation of the knowledge and perspectives of Jansen’s astonishing life.