To compress Japanese history into a single volume, while keeping the content informative and readable, is demanding. Simultaneously to retain the strengths of more conventional historiographical approaches, incorporate recent trends in scholarship and frame the whole within an innovative conceptual approach is a formidable achievement. A History of Japan is one of the most perceptive and illuminating studies of Japan's history to have appeared in English in recent decades, and is likely to be widely used by teachers, students and researchers.
Those familiar with Conrad Totman's more recent work will not be surprised to find a strong environmental concern framing this book. Its overriding theme is the need to reappraise the evolving relationship between people and their environment in a world that appears to be running out of the resources needed for growth, even for life itself. This environmental concern colours the book in two ways. First, it stimulates the adoption of an unconventional historical periodisation, in which Japan's development is seen as progressing from dispersed agriculture, through intensive agriculture to industrialism. Within the phases of dispersed agriculture (to c.1250) and intensive agriculture (c.1250-1890) a period of growth was followed by one of stasis. Whether the same will apply to the period of industrialism remains to be seen. Such periodisation transcends the political and other watersheds conventionally used to define the chronology of Japanese history.
Second, this focus generates coverage of a range of issues much broader than in many introductory textbooks. Totman seeks to analyse material production and its environmental context, distribution of what is produced and representation of the system, notably in what is referred to as "higher culture".
Crossing boundaries between economic, social, political, intellectual and cultural history requires knowledge and courage, but the author moves from ecology to politics, to art and to literature with considerable confidence. The environmental approach has an additional advantage: it helps free the text from constraints imposed by the persistent tendency to treat Japan as "different", an exceptional case in comparison with the West. Instead, the focus is on the Japanese response to shared human concerns of securing the resources required to sustain life. While Japanese strategies to deal with this have shifted over the course of the country's history, moving - even in the 20th century - from the military/imperialist option to one that relies on negotiating the most advantageous exchange of goods and services, it is resource acquisition that remains of paramount concern at the start of the 21st century.
However, the difference now, as Totman points out, is that while Japan has many problems that might hinder a constructive response to the resource issue, its future, like that of all other economies, is no longer exclusively in its own hands. In that sense, the story of Japan has to be seen as part of a common evolution towards global erosion of national autonomy, and hence as part of world history.
A History of Japan is that rare commodity, a good textbook that also has something to offer to specialists. While its length and complexity render it less suitable for use below higher-education level, it is likely to be of value in introductory and more advanced higher-education courses on the history of Japan.
Both text and appendices contain an enormous amount of information, but the book is structured to facilitate reading and consideration of individual sections relevant to the topic under consideration. However, those who content themselves with mining it for the next class topic or essay will miss out on the innovative approach that has been applied to its writing and on the nuanced analysis that this produces.
Janet Hunter is senior lecturer in Japanese economic and social history, London School of Economics.
A History of Japan. First edition
Author - Conrad Totman
ISBN - 0 631 21447 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £17.99
Pages - 620