The Making of Modern Japan

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Read 22/08/2015-26/09/2015
Rating: 3 stars

Marius B Jansen’s The Making of Modern Japan is a thoroughly researched but approachable tome that debunks a few Western myths about Japan’s relationship with the wider world under the Tokugawa regime, and provides a good mix of economic, political and social history. A lot of work has gone into creating such an accessible piece of work, including extensive references to the existing canon of academic literature. As someone with largely received wisdom on the history of Japan, garnered from the media and website potted histories of places we’ve  visited, I found the book eye opening and exciting. I was most engaged with that earlier history than with the chronology from Meiji onwards, but there was plenty to keep me engaged in the 20th century story. The wealth of detail went a long way to making sense of my snippets of knowledge.

My five key things that surprised me are:

  • Japan wasn’t a completely closed nation during the Tokugawa period, it was a self-sufficient one that picked and chose how it interacted with other nation states and its brief period of almost complete closure in the 19th century was a reaction to an increased and aggressive interest from newly industrialised Europe and America
  • Geisha have only been around since the middle of the 18th century
  • The samurai code of behaviour and ranking was taken on by the founders of merchant houses and was then translated into employer loyalty, which explains why modern Japanese society is a vertical structure based on place, and a lot of the merchant houses became the big department store chains of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka
  • Kanda in Tokyo used to be a mountain but was levelled to provide the earth needed to infill parts of Tokyo Bay to create a port
  • Japan actively employed a dual economy during the Taisho and Showa eras, bucking the trend for replacing traditional domestically produced goods with cheap foreign imports. Domestic production continued to supply the domestic market, helping to maintain a strong domestic economy, while products necessary to the modernisation process were largely imported.
I appreciated the background to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rise to power at the start of the book, which helped set the scene for what followed. The breakdown of the political system Ieyasu imposed in order to control the warring factions was also useful, and the exploration of the internal power struggles instigated by the arrival of Commodore Perry and Townsend Harris put a different slant on events that led to the Tokugawa collapse and Meiji restoration.

I enjoyed how Jansen, throughout the book, reinforced the broad historical points he was making by reference to the specific and the personal. His willingness to frame things in social history terms made the book easy to read. Some sections lacked weight compared with other, meatier sections, and were a little dry, but they were important as bridges explaining the transition from one key set of events to another.

Possibly the most interesting part for me was Jansen’s description of Osaka’s development from Hideyoshi’s military headquarters to commercial centre and Kitchen of Japan status. It explains a lot about the nature of Osaka as a city today. Moukarimakka/ もうかりまっか (“Are you making much money?”) indeed! As someone who lives and works in Manchester, the self-styled First Modern Industrial Metropolis, I was struck by the similarities in the development of a warehouse system run by commoner warehouse managers, rather than by the ruling samurai class, and by the city’s importance as a distribution hub and trading centre. And all this a good 200 years before Manchester got its act together!

The second half of the book, dealing with Japan’s modernisation and emergence as a world power, was less intriguing for me, perhaps because the Tokugawa era is so different to Western economic and social progress, and the Meiji and other 20th century machinations seemed more familiar. Again, the research and detail was good, and Jansen outlines the path to military influence over decision making very well. There were fewer surprises, though, and it felt more bogged down in political machinations than the first half. There was also a sense in the latter chapters of both Jansen and his editor losing interest, with passages repeated and typographical and grammatical errors creeping in. Some of the syntactical quirks that would have been minimised by a little more punctuation forced me to reread sentences a few times before I got the gist of them.

Going into the book, I knew little about the Taisho era and was glad to learn more, but it was a little disappointing that Jansen opened the discussion with a complete dismissal of the Taisho emperor. Jansen’s reason seems to be based in a dislike for people with mental illnesses. The Taisho emperor is described by Jansen as demonstrating embarrassing signs of mental illness, of being unimportant in life and irrelevant in death. Wow. It seemed to me that many of the decisions made and paths followed were precisely because the Taisho emperor wasn’t as involved in government, so to say that he was unimportant and irrelevant seems overly dismissive. I would have liked more exploration of the lack of imperial leadership and the consequences for the nation. Although only 15 years long, Taisho was a period of interesting movements, particularly in the areas of suffrage and education, which spoke of a desire for democracy and equality. Perhaps those movements would have been more restrained had the Taisho emperor been more engaged politically. Jansen isn’t interested enough to comment.

I am biased, of course, because I am intrigued and bewitched by Japan, but Jansen’s exploration of Japan’s development over a 400 year period has made me feel closer to Japan and helped me to appreciate its culture and history even more.
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