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Review: Japan Story (1850-present)

Japan Story by Christopher Harding

Japan Story Christopher Harding

For any curious lover of history, searching for an enlightening but comprehensive history of Japan, there are many places to look. Just last year, Jonathan Clements published his excellent A Brief History of Japan, which does exactly as it says on the tin. Another book to capture the hearts of many a Japanophile is David Pilling’s Bending Adversity, a detailed discussion on modern Japanese politics, economics, and philosophies over the past half-century.

Neither of these books, however, scratch the itch of wanting to understand the most dramatic, and perhaps second most tumultuous period in Japanese history: the opening of its doors to the rest of the world, the wars and tragedies that it led to, and the modern Japan that we are left with.

To attend to this itch, we at last have Christopher Harding’s Japan Story, a fresh, detailed, intimate, witty, and captivating tour across the evolving landscape of Japan over the past hundred and fifty years.

‘Here was a nation wrestling with itself across more than a century and a half, searching for the right guiding story or stories. The process played out across politics and music, art and philosophy, conflict at home and abroad, family and work life, dance and religion […] It is still going on.’

The above quotation from the book’s prologue nicely summarises what’s in store for readers of this intense history, dense and impactful but told with compassion and with a storyteller’s wit and wisdom.

There is a real street-level style to the narrative in this book; even choosing to call it a narrative speaks volumes about the intimacy with which we are told Japan’s story. Each chapter has a focus on individual people, rather than places or groups. We learn of Marxist revolutionaries, Christian converts, modern philosophers, and feminist poets who all struggled through a time when the rhetoric of Japan’s government and bourgeoisie vilified all of the above.

‘Women’s rights […] continued to be something of a blind spot for many a male radical. Back in the early 1880s, a man had been so embarrassed at being slated to speak on the same stage as the female activist Kishida Toshiko that he faked a toothache at the last minute to get out of it – prompting Kishida to ask the crowd what kind of man would “get such a terrible toothache at the mere sight of a woman”.’

One of the great fascinations of the early parts of this book come from learning of, and possibly despairing at, the nation’s gradual move towards a more patriarchal right side of the political scale, despite its rejection of Christianity.

As the story progresses, we see the dark fruits of this attitude, which only grows and mutates as the decades pass. However, the attention paid to activism, new waves of philosophers, artists, poets, and radicals here is incredibly admirable.

At times it feels a shame that so much of the greater politics is ignored, such as Japan’s occupation of Taiwan, in favour of a magnified view of Japan. But what we are offered in exchange are so many incredibly detailed accounts of the individuals struggling against change, for better or worse, from all points on the political, religious, and moral slider.

‘Watsuji pointed his readers […] to the Japanese characters for ningen, “human being”: Nin is “person”; gen is “space” […] To be human, he concluded, is in fact to be, at one and the same time, an individual person and in a relationship.’

There is so much enlightenment to be found here, especially for those of us guilty of seeing modern Japan as an incredibly homogenous society. Often Japanese people today can be accused of being far too apolitical, or afraid to speak out against oppression, sexism, and homophobia. But to see the intense struggle of the people across the decades recorded here, from the soldier to the poet, it’s hard to ignore the fighting spirit not only hidden inside all of them, but proudly ablaze for all to see.

Published by Penguin.

penguin random house uk

Christopher Harding divides his time between Japan, as a researcher on religion and mental health at Keio University, and the UK, where he is Senior Lecturer in Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. He frequently writes and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service.’

Christopher Harding Japan Story

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Will Harris
Will Harris

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