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Modern Japan: A History in Documents

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155 PAGES. PAPERBACK, ISBN: 0-765613-36-0



There is no shortage of fine textbooks on the history of modern Japan. But all—from the old standards authored by Peter Duus, Mikiso Hane, and Kenneth Pyle, to more recent volumes from Andrew Gordon, James McClain, and Conrad Totman—fol­low the same familiar formula. All are long, content-rich, chrono­logical narratives written in the dispassionate, authoritative voice of a detached, “objective” historian. As is typical of textbooks, the inter­pretation is done for the student reader, who is expected to be a more-or-less passive consumer of the historical information and analysis provided. Primary sources, the raw materials of history, are implicitly deemed supplemental by such traditional textbooks: it is left to the discretion of the instructor to identify, assign, and distrib­ute primary materials as additional course readings. With the vast majority of textbooks—including all of those Commonly used in modern Japanese history classes—students can only experience the practice of history vicariously.

Part of the inspired “Pages from History” series from Oxford University Press, James Huffman’s Modern Japan: A History in Documents is a welcome and very promising departure from the time-honored textbook format. Although some might characterize the volume as a collection of primary sources covering Japan’s tra­jectory from the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) to the present. Huffman’s book is no run-of-the-mill anthology of historical documents. Rather, with ample introductory material, substantive captions and sidebars, and a variety of illustrations, Modern Japan: A History in Documents is an exciting new take on the textbook, offering students both the sources and the context necessary to make their own rea­soned historical interpretations.

Huffman’s book begins with a short, lucid preface introducing primary sources and how they can be used by historians. This methodological discussion is basic though far from condescending, and alerts students to many approaches that instructors are liable to take for granted (“biased materials often give us as much insight as balanced materials do”(8)). The pitfalls of using translated sources—which make up the vast map wily of the passages in this hook are, unfortunately, not addressed.

The basic format of the chapters in the body of the book is con­sistent. All begin with broad introductions which, in Huffman’s hands, are models of clarity and conciseness. These are followed by a series of short primary-source passages, each individually intro­duced by a paragraph or two of historical context and information about the author, Sidebars to the text contain short, pithy quotations, explanations of terms, events, or people mentioned in the primary sources, and a variety of other forms of information, from economic statistics to poetry. The design is easy to understand, effective, and thoroughly “user-friendly,” and is about as close to hypertext as could possibly be achieved in a printed format. The book is well illustrated (regrettably only in black and white) with photographs, woodblock prints and other artwork, postcards, magazine covers, editorial cartoons, and numerous other images.

The innovative format of Huffman’s book empowers students to form their own interpretations and actively “do history” a goal we all espouse but which can be frustratingly elusive in the classroom.

Huffman does an adept job of balancing his chronological cov­erage of modern Japanese history. One background chapter on Toku­gawa is followed by a “picture essay” on the bakumatsu period of 1853 to 1868. A feature of all the “Pages from History” volumes, this picture essay (consisting mainly of captioned prints, pho­tographs, maps, and the like)  provides an unconventional—but ulti­mately somewhat unsatisfying—view of the crucial years before the Meiji restoration. Compared to the richness of the written primary source materials in the rest of the book, this primarily visual section seems rather thin. The Meiji period is covered in two chapters (bro­ken sensibly at 1890), while one chapter deals essentially with Taisho Democracy (1912-1930) and another with the early Showa period and World War II. Two chapters treat the postwar decades: one covers the Allied Occupation and the era of high-speed econom­ic growth, the other describes Japan’s political, financial, and social rollercoaster since 1970.

The written primary sources that Huffman arrays here are stun­ning in their variety and depth. Among the materials that Huffman quotes are diaries and memoirs, newspaper articles, government doc­uments (laws, treaties, etc.), travelers’ accounts, passages from peri­od textbooks, and fiction, including a good deal of poetry. Many documents are provocative and would provide good jumping-off points for discussions. A number are also very compelling emotion­ally—the testimony of a Filipina “comfort woman,” the journal of an A-Bomb survivor, the account of a victim of Minamata disease—and would resonate strongly with students. The length of the primary source quotations—the vast majority fall somewhere between 250 and 500 words—ensures they are more than just historic sound-bites, and are well attuned to the short attention spans of most contempo­rary audiences. This strikes me as a textbook that students would actually read and engage with.

Huffman’s historiographical approach is very much “standard” throughout. as one would expect of a textbook. His coverage of social history is strong and he integrates the history of women and left-wing political groups admirably. In what is a relatively compact volume (211 pages of text), some topics are inevitably (and necessar­ily) passed over or given minimal attention, although the major themes of Japanese political, economic, and cultural history are all addressed here. As can be said of many of the competing textbooks on modern Japan, more attention to Japan’s geographical context and to Japanese interactions with Asia would have been welcome.

Modern Japan: A History in Documents is an unconventional take on the traditional textbook, and one that offers tremendous pos­sibilities to instructors, especially those whose classes tend to be more discussion-oriented and less “top down.” While some teachers might prefer to use Modern Japan as a supplemental source in addi­tion to a more familiar narrative textbook, it could easily stand on its own in advanced high school and introductory college courses, as well as in National Consortium for Teaching about Asia seminars. The innovative format of Huffman’s book empowers students to form their own interpretations and actively “do history,” a goal we all espouse but which can be frustratingly elusive in the class­room. I look forward to trying it out with my own students.