Saturday, June 14, 2008

Modern Japanese Thought

Modern Japanese Thought
ed. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi
Cambridge University Press
ISBN 0-521-58810-3
403pp

I read books about Japan so that I can deepen my understanding of the place I live. After reading hundreds of books it gets harder to find ones that add much to what I already know, so it was a thrill to pick up and start to read this one.
The two main areas of interest for me are, pre-Yamato Japan, and the Meiji era. This book is about the latter. The bulk of the book is made up of chapters from the Cambridge History of Japan, with an introduction and a chapter on post-war Japan added. The introduction itself is excellent, and well worth the price of the book. The first chapter on Japan's turn to the West does a good job of introducing all the different strains of thought that began to influence Japan in the late Tokugawa period, and dismisses the overly simplistic notion that Japan was a "closed" country before Perry.
The second chapter on Meiji Conservatism documents the reaction of those who held power in Japan doing everything they can to resist any new ways of thinking that threatened their hold on power. The third chapter covers the chequered history of socialism, liberalism, and Marxism, in Japan, and the fourth "Japan's revolt against the West" covers the politics and philosophies that fed into the drive to colonial expansion and war. The final chapter covers the period after the end of WWII.
One thing that recurs again and again in Japan, in the late Tokugawa, early Meiji, early Showa, and Late Showa eras, in reaction to what is perceived as negative processes, is the looking back to the village, and "Folk" as the source of Japan. While reading about Yanagida Kunio, the father of Japanese follore studies, I gained a new repect for him. His views on the damage that State Shinto did to what he considered the heart of Japan is fully in accord with my own views.
If you are wanting to know why so many "western" notions, like democracy, or Human Rights, don't quite make a transition into contemporary Japan, this book will help.
Highly recommended.

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