Friday, October 28, 2011

OUP, Very Short Introductions – Modern Japan.

At first glance, the origins of what is perceived as modern Japan, coincides with the arrival of United States Commodore Perry & his black Steam-powered armada (1853). Before his arrival, to all outward appearances Japan was a basic feudal monarchy, hiding behind 250 years of self imposed isolation and yet, within 50 years, the nation went through a massive transformation in the process developing a modern industrial economy, a constitutional government and the beginnings of a colonial empire. Although this makes a neat cut off point, European ships had been trying to crack open Japan  for at least  50 years previous to Perry, with the Russians making an appearance in the northerly island of Hokkaido in 1792 & the British sailing into Uraga  Bay in 1818 – both  were rejected. Leaving a tiny enclave of Dutch traders who had been permitted  to stay on the tiny islet of Deshima near Nagaski (1641) since foreigners were forbidden from the mainland under Sakoku (The official policy of isolationism).


So where do we pinpoint that spark of modernity in this nation? Well most of the institutions that characterized Japan in the mid-19th century were established around the start of the 17th century by the founders of the Tokugawa regime. In 1600 Japan was finally unified following the epic battle of Sekigahara*, establishing the Tokugawa Period - 1600-1868, with its government in Edo (Tokyo).

Resulting in over 250 years of peace and stability in a system of centralized feudalism. Government was centralized under the Tokugawa shogunate* but with considerable autonomy reserved to the 260 individual domains,  and by establishing a complex system of controls to prevent rebellion among the daimyo*, the founding shoguns sidestepped radical change in the interest of preserving political order. The result was the Pax* Tokugawa, with the Emperor side-lined and in seclusion in his palace  in the official capital in Kyoto, whilst the Tokugawa bakufu* ruled  a peaceful Japan from it’s seat of power in Edo – which by the end of the 17Th century became the largest city on the planet with a population in excess of a million.


So when Commodore Perry arrived in Japan, he was faced with a complicated and conflict-ridden society, with many of the features of a modern nation. It had a nation-wide state apparatus under the secular  control of the bakufu, with it’s religious authority  provided by the imperial house in Kyoto, which also legitimised the regime. It had a sophisticated domestic market, although partially outside of the  the regional Asian market and it’s national culture was blossoming, especially in the larger cities. However there were dark clouds gathering – social tension simmered between the classes caught in a system that allowed no movement, there was also no centralised  or coherent taxation system and no way to mobilize a national force. Making Japan’s ruling Shogunate* weak and unable to control it’s own domain, much less defend against external forces, which showed up in the guise of Commodore Matthew Perry and a squadron of the U.S. Navy demanding that Japan open commerce with the West. The end result was a series of treaties, unfavourable to Japan as they were forced to concede special economic and legal privileges to the nations of the west. Perry’s arrival acted as a catalyst. Convinced that the only way to save their nation was to modernise and that meant abolishing the old feudal regime, a group of  middle ranking samurai overthrew the government, ending in the fall of Edo in 1868 ,the restoration of the Emperor (Meiji) and  the start of the Meiji period. The Meiji Restoration became a  genuine  transformation, the  new leaders studied the political, economic and social institutions of the western powers and selectively adopted those that suited their purpose. In fact, the tone for these changes was set just after the establishment of the emperor in Edo, when he introduced the Charter Oath (Five-Article Oath), in which the new government made these radical pledges:

Meiji (1852-1912), emperor of Japan (1867-1912), born Prince Mutsuhito and the 122nd emperor in the traditional count, whose accession to the throne marked the beginning of a national revolution known as the Meiji Restoration.


1)To establish Deliberative assemblies in order to involve the           public in decision-making;

  2) To involve all levels of society “highest to lowest” in the affairs of state;

  3) To abolish restrictions on the occupation and function for all people;

  4) To abandon the superstitions of the past and to embrace rational  laws of nature;

  5) To seek knowledge from around the world to strengthen Japan.



In 1889 the Emperor promulgated  the constitution which established a parliamentary government (Imperial Diet), which came into effect on November 29th 1890. The organizational structure of the Diet reflected both Prussian and British influences, most notably in the inclusion of the House of Peers (which resembled the Prussian Herrenhaus and the British House of Lords), and in the formal speech from the throne delivered by the Emperor on Opening Day. The second chapter of the constitution, detailing the rights of citizens, bore a resemblance to similar articles in both European and North American constitutions of the day. Although the classes were declared equal, so that samurai and their lords lost their feudal privileges, while the role of merchants - formerly despised as profit hungry - began to be respected, The Imperial Diet was still accountable to  the Emperor rather than the people and in it’s wording it was ambiguous, and in many places, self-contradictory. The leaders of the government and the political parties  were left with the task of interpretation as to whether the Meiji Constitution could be used to justify authoritarian or liberal-democratic rule. It was the struggle between these tendencies that would dominate the government of the Empire of Japan.


Very Short Introduction - Modern Japan

By focussing and pinpointing the historical, political and cultural development that Japan went through in this period, (initially in response to its sense of humiliation in the face of the so-called great powers of the western world), this book demonstrates how the nation freed itself from the unequal treaties imposed on it and how it successfully adopted the ideas and trappings of modernity and how with this success a new found national confidence soared. Whilst some sectors of society  embraced  the whole philosophy of  modernity, that it came as a complete package, that in choosing the technical innovations that were abundant in the west, you also adopted the social manners  and cultural practices, other sectors  began to use this newfound confidence to challenge the notion that modernity and westernization had to mean the same thing. With this notion of Japan as a modern nation in its own right, the question shifted from what it meant to be “modern in a modern Japan” to what it meant to be Japanese. This question seem to take two paths, the first was something that could be identified as the romantic response – intellectuals, writers, artists looked to some past (imagined or otherwise) for some sense of what the “essence of Japaneseness” might be. Whether this was in some reinvention of bushido, or Shinto  as a national religion and Emperor cult, or the rediscovery of a particular appreciation of a fragile shadowy beauty that characterised Japanese aesthetics. The second was how to confront this process of modernisation  and asserted Japan’s superiority  over western nations, which was in risk of being polluted and weakened  under the guise of progress. This book takes these two standpoints and follows them into the twenty first century, through the historical figures, artists and writers, showing how this has affected Japans image in the rest of the world and its self image.

japanese women

Most westerners image of Japan exists somewhere between PlayStation/Nintendo and the dystopian megacities of some cyberpunk novel or the Ume blossom, Sumo, samurai and geisha world of some ancient past – part history/ part myth, it is how it melds these seemingly disparate images that make this nation and it’s literature fascinating to me and to a lot of other individuals and this book – A very Short introduction to Modern Japan - by Christopher Goto-Jones, gives a great insight into this country, it’s history and it’s literature.

Meiji shrine was built to honor Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shōken. Emperor Meiji was the first emperor of modern Japan and helped with the Meiji Period a period in which Japan  modernized itself and gained power in world affairs.The shrine was completed in 1920, eight years after the death of the emperor. During World War two bombings the shrine was destroyed, after the end of the war the shrine was rebuilt by public donations.

Very Short Introductions Series (or VSI series) is a book series published by the Oxford University Press publishing house since 1995. Books in the series offer concise introductions to particular subjects, intended for a general audience but written by experts in the field. Books in the series range from 96–224 pages in length, with most between 120–180, and all contain suggestions for further reading. Authors often present personal viewpoints, and the books are intended to be thought provoking, but also "balanced and complete”.

As of September 2011, there are 284 titles in the series, with 38 more and one revised edition scheduled for publication by mid 2012. The publisher states that "the series will encompass every major academic discipline, offering all students an accessible and abundant reference library”.This my second in the series, the first was on Spanish literature  and for all it’s erudition, and professorial learning, I didn’t find it a dry read, it made me realise that although works such Don Quixote are a major literary signpost, that's all they are and not the be all & end all of Spanish Literature. Tokugawa Ieyasu

*Battle for the Sundered Realm(Sekigahara)




*bakufu / Shogunate

Oxford University Press-VSI Catalogue

Christopher Goto-Jones

Christopher Goto-Jones (Leiden university)

Modern East Asian Research Centre

White Rose East Asia Centre


Anonymous said...

A wonderful distillation Parrish! I studied the Meiji Restoration at school and it was an interesting period precisely because of all the changes.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. The Far East have always interested me, both good and bad.

Have you read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (my thoughts:, I thought this epic, because no other words can describe it, was smart, deliberate and fun. The aspects of Japanese society were very interesting.

@parridhlantern said...

Thanks Sakura, I found it very interesting to check stuff out, like the idea about the Samurai, always being thought of as noble, which turned out to be not strictly true etc.

Hi Man of la Book,Thanks for your comment, have not yet read that Mitchell, although it's on my TBR, my last Japanese book was Kobo Abe's The Face of Another, which I hope to post on soon. Will check out your post.

Unknown said...

The dual nature of modern Japanese society which you pointed out is what drives a lot of J-Lit too. Many writers try to reconcile the picture-postcard elegance of traditional Japan with the brash, Westernised version - not always succeeding...

Mel u said...

A wonderful summery of Japanese history-thanks very much for the hard work behind this great post-

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Tony, even when both writers hark back to some part mythical traditional past, they don't always share the same hymn book, a perfect example would be Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's "In praise of Shadows" in which he is saddened by how the brash products of western modernity clash against the aesthetic traditions of Japan and something by Yukio Mishima & his extolling of the martial aspects of the Samurai as representing the real Japan, both writers with an image of traditional Japan, yet with totally different philosophies & images.

Thanks Mel, glad you enjoyed it. said...

Thanks again for enlightening me on a segment in history I am not to familiar with. Makes me want to learn more, especially the Charter Oath and why they chose those pledges. Your summary was very thorough. Thanks for sharing.

Rise said...

A great synthesis, Gary. Impressive for how it contextualized modern Japanese literature.

Anonymous said...

these very short intro series books are very tempting I need to read another after loving the spanish lit one I seen a few that appeal ,this sounds great nice review gary ,all the best stu

@parridhlantern said...

Thanks Rise, a lot of my reading of Japanese Literature seems to revolve around this central dilemma from the likes of Juni'chiro Tanizaki & Yukio Mishimo,Yasunari Kawabata Through Kenzaburo Oe, Murakami (Ryu & Haruki) & to Writers like Shuichi Toshida, they all in one form or another touch upon this issue.

Thanks Stu, Here's one to tempt you, it's out in the new year -
Modern Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction, this sounds like one that would appeal to you.

gina said...

This series is always prominently displayed by the cash registers at one of the bookstores nearby. I always find them a little intimidating but it seems like there's a wealth of information packed into the pages.

I've just thought of something that I never thought to ask--what sparked your interest in/love for Japanese lit?

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Gina, this is my second & have found both to be educational, but without being over dry & stilted, enjoyed reading them both in fact have plans for more.As to my love of J-Lit it was built with kindling such as Koji Suzuki's Ring,lit by Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the shore & others, the were flames fanned by Taichi Yamada's Strangers & turned into a giant conflagration by Japanese Literature Challenge 4 and the wealth of new to me writers I discovered there.

Novroz said...

Ow wow...I like this post. Very educative.
You know,I sometimes wished that Japan is still in Tokugawa era...they will still have their traditional root but of course they will lose their technology