Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, by Andrew Gordon

As some of my readers may be aware, my training as a historian has definitely been fairly Eurocentric, a definite focus of history over the past four hundred years or so. After all, the field of history in the United States has been dominated by white men who are often most interested in...white men. As a result I can sing a song listing in order all the monarchs of England from 1066, but I can't name off the top of my head more than perhaps three important Japanese people in all of Japan's fifteen hundred year history. Aware of this particular gap in my knowledge I found this book at my used-book store that was a general overview of Japanese history from the creation of the last shogunate in Tokugawa times to the year 2000. This proved to be a very good resource for giving me a basic grounding in information about Japan and hopefully will help further readings into Japanese history in the future.

This book operates in a very big-picture and broad-strokes perspective, which I find very helpful for two reasons. First of all, knowing only a few hazy generalities about Japanese history a very broad and general history providing more specific details about this country was an excellent way to being reading and learning about history. Very often history texts tend to have a very narrow focus and may not talk fully about various other events that tie into the focus of the text. A broad view is very good for an introduction to new material and can help facilitate research into other areas. Secondly, I myself tend to be a very big-picture sort of historian, liking to look at large events and ideologies shaped over decades, rather than focusing on the day-to-day drama that often becomes very popular in biographies. So overall I found this book rather useful for my purposes in learning more about Japan.

On the flip side, because this book is a very general history of Japan it does not spend terribly much time talking about any one subject. The book is rather ambitious in its scope, going from the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States Period, of the 1500's and the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 to the year 2000 in only a little over three hundred pages. Obviously libraries have been filled with texts delving into the complexities of these five hundred years of history, but to cover it all in one smaller text results in quite a lot of detail being left out. This definitely should be expected in such a general work and while unfortunate, is a necessity of the very big-picture approach of this sort of text.

I will say that there was one point where Gordon started interjecting into the text with the personal pronoun "I", offering personal opinions on historical events. I was of course a little frustrated because in doing historical research and writing you should never make personal statements or assertions like that. If nothing else it violates the ideal of detached historical research. The goal of a historian is to research primary and secondary sources, and then construct and defend an interpretation of events based around those sources. Historians ideally refrain from passing judgement, as tempting as it is, but this is very complicated issue which remains a subject of debate even today. I personally suspect it was just a slip-up on the part of Gordon or his editors in some part of the process from transferring notes to manuscript because it was only that one forgivable instance and the text remains historically sound throughout.

If you know little to nothing about Japan and seek to learn more about a nation that has so greatly influenced the twentieth century then A Modern History of Japan is a good place to start reading. I recommend it as general material to become more familiar with the course of Japanese history and offer inspiration for other topics which you may seek to learn more about.

- Kalpar

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