Past haunts land of rising sun

A History of Japan, 1582-1941 - A Modern History of Japan
February 27, 2004

A number of authoritative textbooks on the history of early modern and modern Japan have appeared in recent years, so these two volumes face considerable competition in their quest to reach beyond the specialist market and find a niche in the wider undergraduate or high-school market.

Both titles are based on extensive scholarship in English and Japanese. Both are nicely produced, although L. M. Cullen's A History of Japan is marred by some erratic romanisation and personal names, and extraneous capitalisation in many footnotes. Both are chronologically organised and the prices bring them within the reach of student readers. There, however, the similarity ends. In objectives, coverage and approach, the two could hardly be more different.

Cullen is by background a specialist in early-modern trade, whose writings have focused mainly on Ireland and other European countries. The book is explicitly not comparative, although the author's expertise in trade allows Japan to be located in the broader pattern of international economic interaction from the 17th century and it offers some illuminating comparative insights. The focus of the book is the early-modern (Tokugawa) period, with the post-1868 period relegated to just two chapters.

The overriding theme of the coverage is the interaction between external pressures and the external environment on the one hand, and the internal unity of Japan, or its absence, on the other. In pursuing this theme, the author calls into question many of the conventional views of the sakoku years, during which Japan's external relations were strictly curtailed.

The book has some conspicuous strengths. The standard textbook fare of political structures and intellectual development is complemented by a full and authoritative treatment of the economic aspects of Japanese development in this period. In particular, what this book offers is an "outsider" approach to Japan's history, from a non-conventional angle. It will be an unusual specialist on Japanese history who will not be given stimulating food for thought by Cullen's approach, although specialists may well also be infuriated by his often-trenchant views on the state of scholarship and the sometimes unsubstantiated dismissals of the views of earlier writers.

Being an outsider also carries risks, however, and this book is unlikely to become standard reading for all but the most advanced students of Japanese history. The long, undivided chapters, the dense empirical detail and the extensive use of Japanese terminology are all calculated to deter the reader who does not already have a basic knowledge of the main issues of the period under consideration. The treatment will not attract the beginner who wants a concise summary of key issues or events, or the student in search of a direct and dispassionate summary of the state of historical debate. The author has a great deal of interest to say about the pre-1868 years (underlining the much more cursory treatment of the later years), but the main audience is likely to be specialists and advanced students.

In the conclusion, Cullen laments the "isolation" of historical scholarship on Japan, and in that context it is perhaps legitimate to wonder why he did not explore more explicitly the comparative perspective to which his expertise appears suited.

By contrast, Andrew Gordon's Modern History of Japan is a text written by one of the world's leading experts on modern Japanese history. It rejects the notion of academic isolation or national uniqueness in the study of Japan. Instead, the author depicts the country's experience as a part of modern world history, in which Japan has been faced with common issues of modernity but, like all other nations, has experienced those themes through particular manifestations and responded to them in a particular way.

Whereas in Cullen's volume the main emphasis is on the early-modern period, and the post-1868 years become a postscript, in Gordon's book, the Tokugawa period (pre-1868) is the precursor, with the main body of the text concerned with the period from 1868 to the present.

This book contains fewer surprising angles than Cullen's. It integrates a wide range of subject matter into a coherent national story, making use of the most recent scholarship and incorporating consideration of key contemporary issues such as race and gender.

The writing demonstrates an impressive knowledge of political, economic, social and cultural issues, as well as of key developments in international relations. It seeks to highlight both continuity and change in Japan's modern experience.

The lingering question of what "modernity" really is remains unanswered. Introduction of a comparative element also leaves unresolved tensions. Gordon rejects any explicit comparison of the Meiji restoration of 1868 with the French or bourgeois revolutions, calling instead for the restoration to be understood in its own terms, but his claim that the term "fascism" can be applied to Japan on the grounds that its response to the dilemmas of modernisation shared some similarities with those of other second-generation modernisers, such as Germany and Italy, is contentious.

However, these are issues to be discussed rather than criticisms. Even given the competition, Gordon's book is likely to find its way on to undergraduate reading lists. It offers a measured account of contemporary scholarship on modern Japan and is structured to enable students to make use of particular sections. Some students may progress to Cullen's book, but they will need to start with Gordon's.

Janet Hunter is professor of economic history, London School of Economics and Political Science.


A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds. First edition

Author - L. M. Cullen
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 357
Price - £47.50 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 521 82155 X and 52918 2

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