Education About Asia: Online Archives

Japan in World History

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176 PAGES, 978-0195368086, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by John H. Sagers

This splendidly lucid text will delight teachers and students looking for a concise, well-written, and up-to-date introduction to Japanese history. Despite the title, this new book is unlikely to be widely adopted in world civilizations courses typically dominated by texts covering many regions at once. And while it contains a respectable set of maps, black and white photos, and a timeline, the publisher has kept costs down by sacrificing color and features like primary source boxes and study questions found in more expensive texts. It is also unlikely to replace the more comprehensive treatments of modern Japan in upper division courses. For introductory courses on Japan, however, this new book is hard to beat. Reflecting trends in current scholarship, it presents a solid framework for understanding Japanese history without overwhelming the reader with extraneous details.

This text’s particular strengths are its international focus, explicit use of evidence, presentation of multiple viewpoints, and its sympathetic portrayals of people in difficult circumstances. The author emphasizes, as much as possible, Japan’s connections with the Asian mainland and the rest of the world. For example, the section on Japanese prehistory states, “It also seems clear, from the scores of glass beads and Korean-style daggers in the ruler’s burial site, that the people of Yoshinogari were actively engaged in international trade” (9). Here we are told not only that scholars suspect important cultural interaction, but also that there is physical evidence to prove it. In a later section, the author notes,

Evidence of local vibrancy shows up in a variety of mid-Heian records. The archives of Kozanji temple outside Kyoto, for example, have turned up letters of travelers that describe monks doubling as commercial agents, buying and selling horses for local hunters (31).

In a brief sentence, the author gives us a glimpse not only of the commercial role of temples in local society, but also the sources that reveal this information. In its treatment of debate on modern Japanese gender roles, the text also clearly demonstrates that people did not speak with a single voice: “Writers for Seito and other journals debated gender issues vigorously, with traditionalists calling for a return to the good wife/wise mother ideal and progressives demanding equality and sexual freedom” (93). In a sympathetic presentation of the years leading to the Second World War, “it had become a matter of personal survival by the mid-1930s for citizens to make a show of their patriotism, to the point that even leading communists had begun announcing their conversion to nationalism” (102). When textbooks model how to evaluate sources, make nuanced conclusions, and try to understand why people in the past acted as they did, it is much easier to teach these core skills.

Teachers and students seeking a sophisticated, yet accessible, text covering the entire history of Japan should certainly consider this excellent book.