The History of Japan
© 1918, 1947 Kenneth Scott Latourette
In Fall 2009 I took a class in Japanese history and enjoyed it tremendously, but given that it’s been well over a year, I figure I’m due for a refresher. My home library carried this slim narrative, which did the trick despite being a bit dated — the most current revision was written in 1946, only months after Japan surrendered and ended the last conflict of the Second World War.
After describing the initial settlement and climate of the Japanese islands (complete with lovely photographs), Latourette begins the long story of the Japanese empire (legendarily declared thus in 660 BCE, around the same time Egypt and Assyria were arguing over who should rule Egypt). It’s remarkable to me that a single institution has managed to survive over 1500 years of history, though largely in an impotent fashion. Japan was more strongly unified under the varying shogunates — military administrations — but emerged as a world power only in the late 19th century, when the warlords were ousted and the Emperor “restored”. Modernization — and westernization, for the new government formed itself by drawing from various European powers like Germany and France — followed, and Japan shifted from late-medievalism to modernity in scarcely more than a couple of decades, a remarkably dramatic transformation. Japan also pursued economic growth in the tried-and-true way of Europe’s great powers and the United States — invading other people, borrowing their resources, and turning them into markets for goods. This eventually led to war, defeat, and revival — though the book doesn’t cover Japan’s resurgence.
Latourette is a generally fair author, easy to read for the most part. He doesn’t have the patronizing tone I would’ve expected from an author of this period, though his partiality amused me at times. He cheerily reports the ‘peaceful‘ Perry expedition’s role in opening Japan up to the west by saying it was fortunate that this was led by the United States, who had no interests in the Far East. When writing on the increase of tensions between the United States and Japan, he finally admits the presence of American interests by saying it was the ‘unavoidable result of the force of circumstances’ that the United States happened to be all over the Philippines and Guam. I’m not sure I carry his meaning. Did a freak storm carry the US Navy all the way across the Pacific where it bumped into the Spanish navy and accidentally threw invasion troops into the islands, where they were trapped for four years? Did Spain refuse to treat in peace with the United States unless America agreed met them on the field of battle in Manila? Inquiring minds want to know what this unavoidable force of circumstances was.
Aside from that, which elicited more laughter than anything else, the book proved amply adequate (by which I mean it skirted the line between average and above average) at reminding me of what I’d learned in class previously. Indeed, it supplemented my knowledge because it placed more emphasis on Japan’s rivalry with Russia than I’d witnessed in class, and the author frequently paused in his general narrative to explain how Japan was transforming from decade to decade, economically as well as socially. It’s thus useful, but dated — and apparently obscure, because I couldn’t so much as find a cover for it.
- A Modern History of Japan (Andrew Gordon)
- Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan, by Mikiso Hane. These two books were used in my course, along with Kokoro, but that’s a novel.
- The Japanese Experience, W.G. Beasley, which I read in preparation for said class.
- Our Oriental Heritage, Will Durant, which covers the ancient-to-modern histories of India, Japan, and China along with the ancient-era Mesopotamian history.