Japanese history is a messy business. Debates still abound in Japan, and in countries that were victims of Japanese aggression, over the content of school history textbooks. But Ian Buruma's subject is the creation of the Japanese polity and he asks if there is something in its nature that led Japan to follow its dark path through the 20th century. He provides a compact and well-informed history that not only charts political developments but attempts to understand Japan's intellectual history.
Crucially, he is neither an essentialist nor an apologist.
What was at the root of Japanese nationalism? Buruma traces one source to the Shinto revival that occurred at the end of the Meiji restoration. Shinto was transformed from "a nature cult with many gods to a national faith that welded all Japanese together under one imperial roof".
The coronation of Emperor Hirohito in 1928 was peppered with newly invented Shinto rituals.
The other source was the imposition of Prussian dogmas "of military discipline, mystical monarchism and blood-and-soil propaganda about national essences" on Japanese myths. Why did Japan's rulers take their inspiration from Prussia? Why not from Britain and America, both greater powers than Wilhelmine Germany?
Buruma argues that "given the men who forced the Tokugawa bakufu out of power, it was never likely". These men were "steeped in the samurai ethos of loyalty, obedience and military discipline". But one has to question, to what extent? Is a kindred military spirit sufficient grounds for the construction of a state? It is equally likely that the Prussian model was followed because Japan saw in Germany another new boy who was struggling to catch up with its neighbours. If the book were twice its length, Buruma would be able to address these issues in more detail.
Where Buruma really comes into his own is on the subject of Japanese political responsibility. This is an issue that is still kept hidden in Japan. History textbooks have no mention of the rape of Nanking, nothing on slave labour save oblique references to "enforced work", and certainly no mention of Korean "comfort women". Japan's aggressive foreign policy was a response to the Great Depression and to the West's colonial empire. The Japanese detail the horrors of nuclear war and bask, as Buruma puts it, in "the warm glow of moral satisfaction" of being the first pacifist nation in history.
General MacArthur's protection of the emperor after the war denied the important political principle that the head of state is where the buck stops. Perhaps MacArthur's mistake was to assume that the Japanese were a nation of children who had misbehaved, when they were more like recalcitrant teenagers who needed to start assuming adult responsibilities.
Here, Buruma strikes an important chord: "The price of pacifism is a total dependency on others to defend you."
Politics in Japan is not much more than a talking shop; the welfare of ordinary citizens is in the hands of the companies that employ them for life, while the Americans take care of war and peace. It is this absence of political responsibility that led to educated young professionals filling their heads with the "murderous spiritual utopianism" of Aum Shinrikyo and the 1995 subway gas attacks.
Inventing Japan comes as a warning to the Japanese. Buruma writes as a good friend of Japan, who knows the country well. Japan would do well to heed some good advice from an old friend.
Hanako Birks is a former Japanese national who works as a publisher's editor in the UK.
Inventing Japan: From Empire to Economic Miracle 1853-1964
Author - Ian Buruma
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - £12.99
ISBN - 1 84212 687 3