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Posted June 6, 2011
Modern Japan is one of the most enigmatic and intriguing countries in the world. A highly sophisticated society and an economic and technological superpower, Japan has maintained many aspects of its traditional values and lifestyle well into the twenty-first century. Part of the mystique of Japan lays in the fact that even though it has been officially open to the World for over a century and a half, Japan is still a very insular society. Not many people in the West get to travel to Japan, and Japanese popular culture (with few notable exceptions) is not all that familiar to Western audiences. In light of that, it is very helpful to get a better sense of Japan from a very authoritative short introduction such as this one.
The book is arranged chronologically, and starts with a brief history of Japan prior to its opening up and modernization in the nineteenth century. It proceeds with the arrival of commodore Perry and the subsequent Meiji restoration. The book is good in that it doesn't reinforce the conventional wisdom on these events, but it tries to give its own much more nuanced analysis of these events. Likewise, most of the twentieth century Japanese history is presented from a critical angle that tries to take into the account Japan's own perception and understanding of those events.
One of the particularly pleasing traits of this book is the attention that it gives to cultural and artistic developments. Many of Japan's most famous writers and artists have been spotlighted. However, I would have also liked if the book mentioned some of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century like Yukawa and Tomonaga, who have helped put Japanese science in the World map.
One problem that I have with the book is that in its effort to adopt the scholarly naming conventions it oftentimes makes the names of some Japanese historical figures unnecessarily confusing. Thus, Japanese emperor during WWII, who is known to the generations of westerners as Emperor Hirohito, is consistently referred to as Emperor Sowa. Likewise, the book also uses the convention in which surnames precede given names. This may be the correct way of rendering them and probably in line with Japanese convention, but to those of us who have been acquainted with Japanese cultural icons for many years it sounds quite a bit strange.
Overall, this is an interesting and informative book on Modern Japan. It is a very helpful first step in getting oneself acquainted with this fascinating country and its culture.