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Sunday, July 8, 2001

Survey offers solid treatment of history


By MICHAEL LEWIS
THE MAKING OF MODERN JAPAN, by Marius B. Jansen. Harvard University Press, 2000, 896 pp., $35 (hardback).

"The Making of Modern Japan," Marius Jansen's last work, is a reliable, solid and authoritative interpretation of Japan's recent past. It is a fitting testament to a learned man whose scholarly career might be described using the same terms: reliable, solid and authoritative.

As a pioneer in establishing Japanese studies as a modern academic field in the United States, Jansen guided successive generations of postwar students and scholars. The distance he traveled can be seen in his career's starting and end points. When he began studying in the U.S. Army in 1943, his subject was the obscure language of a supposedly enigmatic enemy nation.

As Jansen demonstrated in a survey of the field for the Japan Foundation several years ago, since the mid-1940s Japanese studies has become an established academic field, one replete with study centers in universities across the globe, conferences and specialized journals. Along the way, Japan and the Japanese have shifted from being the inscrutable other to subjects routinely and thoroughly scrutinized.

Jansen's writings on history have had much to do with laying out the boundaries of modern English-language Japanese studies. In the years since his army basic training followed by graduate work at Harvard, he produced works of wide compass. His prolific writings moved from Japan-centered history to increasingly engage the linked pasts of Japan, China and, to a lesser extent, Korea.

"The Making of Modern Japan" closes the circle. In it Jansen returns to reconsider Japan's transformation from an agrarian backwater on the rim of Asia to its establishment as the region's leading economic superpower, albeit one dogged by persistent problems. In recentering on Japan, he relies on grand narrative, a form that is itself problematic.

The themes that run throughout this text echo those struck by the author in earlier landmark studies. The first is Jansen's emphasis on the autonomy of Japan within Asia before the 1800s and the struggle to maintain its independence when confronted by aggressive Western powers thereafter. He acknowledges powerful intellectual and social influences from outside Japan, but stresses that samurai rulers and their successors were creative system builders ever attuned to the demands of Japanese circumstances.

This was as true for consolidating the realm in the 16th century as it was for building a modern nation in the mid-19th. He suggests that creative adaptability also helped in reforming Japan's government and society during the Allied Occupation and the decades that followed. He notes, however, that the glow of infallibility that once surrounded the bureaucratic elite who staff central ministries has dimmed in recent years because of scandals and failed economic policies.

A second major theme is Jansen's repudiation of stimulus-response historical interpretation, particularly Western stimulation and Japanese response.

Accordingly, he dismisses the notion of Japanese isolation during the Tokugawa period as an idea whose time has gone. He notes that: "One would think there were no foreigners and no foreign policy in Tokugawa Japan. In fact there was a foreign policy, and it is because it was concerned more with Asia than with the West that Western writers have used terms like 'seclusion' and 'isolation.' "

Jansen points out that Japanese separation and isolation from Asia in fact became pronounced not in the Tokugawa period but during the war years, both hot and cold, that extended from the 1930s through the 1970s. Japan's postwar alliance with the United States, cooperation in isolating China and the use of Okinawa as a stationary American aircraft carrier contributed to lingering estrangement from much of Asia. Jansen observes that by the time of the signing of the 1952 Treaty of Peace:

"Japan had regained its sovereignty and now re-entered the international order after a prolonged period of isolation, but it did so under very unusual circumstances. In Meiji times the price of full sovereignty after the abolition of the unequal treaties had been the admission of foreigners to unrestricted residence throughout Japan. A half century later the price proved to be virtually unrestricted use of Japanese territory by the United States."

Of course, the power of America's postwar military and economic influence on Japan is undeniable. But Jansen, reiterating the theme of autonomy, describes Japan's governmental leaders as not so much responding to Western stimulus as creatively and, to the extent possible, independently, succeeding on their own terms. In discussing Shigeru Yoshida's political and economic policies, he endorses the view that the Occupation's success was really the success of the Japanese people.

In short, Japan emerged as an economically rich and politically stable industrial state because the broad overarching trajectory since the mid-19th century was already one curving toward peaceful economic development and alliance with Western liberal democracies.

Jansen's third major theme is that of Japan's modern history as an example of successful and progressive state-led development. The wars of the 1930s and 1940s are treated as aberrations, although in accounting for the origins of expansionism he vacillates between international circumstances conspiring against Japan to real conspiracies hatched by the Japanese military. Jansen, however, is clear in exonerating Emperor Showa of any significant personal responsibility for the China and Pacific Wars.

In discussing history on either side of the wartime gulf, Jansen is sympathetic to the nation's civilian leaders and their struggle to build a modern state while contending with extremists of all stripes at home and dangerous rivals abroad. Although unrest sometimes forced police roundups of domestic dissenters, and international competition prompted Japan to act the imperialist in Korea as the U.S. acted that role in the Philippines, he contends the nation's leaders steadily and on the whole successfully worked toward their mission of creating an independent and prosperous society. Of the Meiji leaders who started the programs leading to Japan's emergence as a modern nation, he writes: "Their achievements, and Japan's, were real, though often built on the sacrifices of ordinary Japanese and at a cost to other Asians." Although his evaluations of the accomplishments of post-Meiji statesmen are more critical than his estimations of the deeds of the genro forefathers, he also credits latter-day leaders as having made substantial contributions to the Japanese success story. For Jansen, the glass of Japan's modern history is always at least half full.

In exploring the themes of autonomy, originality and success, Jansen is sometimes hampered by his medium. The sweeping historical narrative unavoidably lures him into making broad judgments confidently and without much qualification. The bolder and more unequivocal the statement, the easier it is to point to alternate explanations.

I wondered, for example, why Jansen associates "success" almost exclusively with those features of modern Japanese history conductive to the development of the state. Similarly, why, in discussing popular protest or dissent, does he give the benefit of the doubt to official authorities in most instances? Is it because the alternative to what happened in Japan would have been unthinkably bad? I am not asking for ahistorical "what if" analysis in this survey history, just the recognition that what occurred was not necessarily for the best. Surely the role of the Japanese state in the blood-soaked history of East Asia during much of the last century requires a more tempered approach than that of the national success story. A related problem perhaps attributable to the big-rig format of the historical survey is a kind of essentialism in which Japan and the Japanese seem almost like forces of nature. This may be hard to avoid in a general history; it is probably impossible when the tale is that of a making of the nation in which "the people" are players in a progress toward modernity.

These critical comments do not reverse the words I used at the beginning of this review to describe "The Making of Modern Japan." The work is reliable, solid and authoritative. Yet, it is also an interpretation whose assertions are not beyond question. If one agrees with Jansen's state-centered rendition of Japan's last century, or is willing to supplement this perspective with other views, the narrative might be profitably used as a college textbook. Jansen's inclusion of many fascinating but little-known facts and his reprise of past and present historiography, especially works available in English-language sources, also argue for his study's usefulness as a standard reference guide for modern Japanese history for the present and long into the future.

This review is excerpted from Monumenta Nipponica, 56:2.


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