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Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Fourth Edition)

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578 PAGES, ISBN 978-0-8133-4409-6, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Jason Morgan

History teachers at all levels are always looking for solid bits of information that they can use in their lectures in order to shore up the essentially narrative structure of history instruction. If this premise is true, then Mikiso Hane and Louis G. Perez’s Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Fourth Edition), a treasure trove of figures and facts, will become perhaps the go-to book about modern Japan on the secondary and postsecondary educator’s bookshelf.

The chapter and section headings are clear and intuitive, following a straightforward chronological flow that allows the readers to position themselves back within the context of the particular period under discussion. Even those new to the study of modern Japan will likely find themselves easily able to situate their increasing understanding of the subject within the then current social, political, cultural, and economic milieu.

This classic style of history writing also serves to build a kind of dramatic tension; the reader, being presented with an array of historical facts (and, by extension, possible courses of action), is made to feel the gravity of the choices to be made by those presented with such a panoply of options. And, when we know that a particular historical actor was required to make choices without full access to the entire range of information now known to us, a sense of foreboding arises without the author having to belabor the point.

Indeed, in adopting this meaty style of history writing—the stolid progression of changes through time marbled with the diversity of quanta of information that complete our positions in a given historical context—the authors have valiantly refused to succumb to the temptation to replace true history-telling with the politically correct but often superficial style, foisted upon historical actors and events by kowtowing to unwieldy categories, such as “gender relations” and “interactions with the other,” which, though perhaps significant to a few people in any historical period, nevertheless many times distort beginning students’ understanding of the past. In other words, the authors of Modern Japan write history in order to provide a window to the past and not a mirror in which to practice commentaries upon themselves and their own time.1

This reviewer was also relieved to find that the authors of Modern Japan did not indulge in that distinctly anti-American tone that imparts a false seriousness and sense of balance to works that deal with World War II in the Pacific. When the Americans win a battle—as in the authors’ presentation of the Battle of the Coral Sea and Guadalcanal—Hane and Perez resist the urge to undermine these victories by inserting something along the lines of,“but let us not forget that the Americans were guilty of savagery and atrocities elsewhere.” The Pacific War was brutal and pitiless, but, clearly, the Japanese outclassed the Americans in butchery and in contempt for death. As for those who would try to use the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as trump cards to spread the guilt around evenly—the authors are having none of this tack: the horrors of nuclear war are presented in all of their nightmarish implications, but there is no mawkish moral equivocation of the suffering of civilians with the truths of governmental policy-making. Hiroshima was bombed, the citizens who survived the initial blast endured a hellish agony (more stoically than perhaps anyone else would have been able, as the authors point out), and yet the leaders of Japan would not surrender. This is clear, and the authors are careful to keep their narrative from being bogged down in maudlin eulogies, unctuous editorializing, or moral leveling across the divide of states at war.

I have only a few quibbles. The index is not as exhaustive or as cogently ordered as it perhaps could be. There is a paucity of maps, and the ones that are used do not reproduce well in black and white. In some chapters, the authors seem to have used the same handful of reference materials for the bulk of their research. However, anyone looking for a substantial introduction to the history of modern Japan from the Meiji Restoration to the very recent past could perhaps do no better than to begin with Hane and Perez’s rich, but highly accessible, text.


1. I follow here an enlightened review by Jonathan Chaves of A Wild Deer amid Soaring Phoenixes: The Opposition Poetics of Wang Ji, China Review International 11, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 189–193.