Education About Asia: Online Archives

Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Fifth Edition)

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Reviewed by Jason Morgan

Revisiting this classic textbook in its fifth edition, I am reminded of how well the late Mikiso Hane and, now, Louis Perez have told the complex story of modern Japan. Throughout this volume’s long life (the first edition, by Hane, appeared in 1986), critics have rightly focused on the way in which people—both high and lowborn, insiders and the marginalized—figure prominently in the book’s narrative. This is, indeed, one of the book’s perennial strong points and is doubtless a big reason for Modern Japan’s enduring popularity. But there are two other interrelated strengths that should recommend this textbook to students and educators at the secondary and postsecondary level.

First, both Hane and Perez have the ability to tell the intricate story of Japanese history in crisp, well-paced prose. Even when treating the extraordinarily complex network of shifting alliances, false friendships, and transnational intrigue that characterized much of Japanese politics, military strategy, and diplomacy in the late 1920s and 1930s, the narrative is never bogged down by the difficulty of the subject matter. Breaking key episodes down into paragraph-sized acts, the authors are able to cadence their fact-rich presentation into compelling historical storytelling. One secret to the book’s readability, I think, is the book’s famous attention to people in history. Whenever rhetorically possible, “the government” or “the army” are not the actors; rather, Lieutenant General Ōshima Hiroshi (1886-1975) champions a military alliance with the Axis powers (305), or Prime Minister Hara Kei ” allowed his minister of home affairs, Tokonami Takejirō (18671935),” to organize “labor contractors, their workmen, and ruffians to serve as strikebreakers,” supported by “right-wing nationalists such as Tōyama Mitsuru” (240). People drive the action, and both people and their actions are effortlessly woven into the wider tapestry of Japanese and world history. Students are likely to respond well to this kind of personalized writing, making Modern Japan an ideal textbook for the secondary level and beyond.

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