Education About Asia: Online Archives

Japanese Society in the Twentieth Century

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By James L. Huffman

Most American textbooks do a capable job of summarizing the political and economic facts of Japan’s modern history. The country, in their telling, modernized quickly in the late 1800s, turned militant in the 1930s, went to war in the 1940s, reemerged under American guidance in the 1950s, and became an ”economic animal” in the 1960s. In the 1990s, the bubble burst. Unfortunately, most of these textbooks ignore the rich and varied lives of the Japanese people themselves: their consumption patterns, their work habits and entertainment styles, the movements they joined, the way they lived. That story will be outlined here, a story that finds in each of Japan’s evolutionary periods tension- sometimes dynamic, sometimes debilitating- between bright forces such as freedom, affluence, equality, and progress, and the darker forces of control, poverty, and class division.