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Modernization seen from the bottom up

by Jeff Kingston

A MODERN HISTORY OF JAPAN FROM TOKUGAWA TIMES TO THE PRESENT, by Andrew Gordon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, 384 pp., $35 (cloth)

In this superb book, by far the best in its genre, Andrew Gordon, director of the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies at Harvard University, provides a richly detailed and engagingly analytical perspective on the past 200 years of Japan’s history. He draws on a variety of sources to evoke a textured ambience of the times, describing not only the experiences of Japan’s elite but also those of average men and women in the rice paddies and factories, buffeted by societal traumas and transformations. The text is substantially enhanced by a Web site (www.oxfordjapan.org) with study questions, documents and online reference sources, making it ideal for classroom use.

In tracing the rise and fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, Gordon emphasizes that it did not “. . . solely rely on the coercive power of hegemon and henchmen.” The ideological foundations of the regime involved a synthesis of Buddhist, Shinto and neo-Confucian elements. It was a dynamic era of peace that spurred economic development and featured cultural diversity. From the early 1800s, however, it was a sclerotic system that was increasingly challenged from within and eroded by considerable local autonomy. The arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 hastened the collapse of an already crumbling regime.

The Meiji Restoration and subsequent program of modernization was led by former samurai who assiduously built a cult of the emperor to confer legitimacy on their initiatives. The loose ties that bound the central and local leaders during the Tokugawa Period were replaced by a highly centralized, authoritarian state that invoked the emperor to promote an ambitious set of reforms that helped create a sense of nation and nurture a strong economy and military. Most authors emphasize the pace and breadth of the Meiji modernization, but Gordon also enlivens the narrative with tales of uprisings and resistance by those who bobbed in the wake of “progress.” The socioeconomic, political and cultural reverberations of industrialization are carefully detailed and convey a sense of what it was like to live and work in those times. In addition to huge wage differentials between men and women in the factories, working conditions also left much to be desired. “Discipline was harsh and sometimes arbitrary. Sexual harassment by male supervisors cannot be documented with numerical certainty, but it was a constant theme in the songs of these women. Finally, the poorly ventilated mills were incubators of disease, especially tuberculosis, which was the AIDS of its day.”

The discussion of the Meiji Constitution, the establishment of state-sponsored Shinto, glorification of the emperor as a deity and the imperial rescript on education explore the nexus between ideology and institutions that spurred Meiji Japan’s emergence as a militaristic, imperial power. The trajectory to empire is portrayed as an outgrowth of capitalist development, nation-building, defense against the Western powers and emulation of patterns already established by them. It also reflected the growing political influence of the military, especially after the Russo-Japanese war.

There are fascinating glimpses into the chaotic world of popular protest throughout the Meiji Era and into the Taisho years. In response to chronic public disturbances and worker agitation, the government tightened its grip. Gordon also takes an irreverent look at state-sponsored ideology, questioning just how tight the links of the government with the people really were. A government survey in 1915, for example, found that only 30 percent of the people knew of the Yasukuni Shrine. He also quotes the novelist Natsume Soseki’s satirical jibe at the government’s patriotic cheerleading: the Japanese, wrote Soseki, are being told to “. . . eat for the nation, wash our faces for the nation, go to toilet for the nation!”

In elucidating the factors that are usually invoked to explain Japan’s sharp shift toward ultra-nationalism and military expansion, Gordon points out that Japan’s economy had already been locked in recession for much of the 1920s. Thus, the jolt of the world depression beginning in 1929 served to further alienate a people who already “. . . blamed the nation’s political leaders for lining their own pockets at the expense of the majority.” Along with a variety of other factors, this prolonged and worsening economic crisis helps explain the fragile nature of Taisho democracy and the abrupt and radical shifts in government policies in the 1930s.

The growing antagonism between Japan and the Western powers is partly attributed to the racist double standards of Western nations that seemed aimed at perpetuating Japan’s second-class status in the international system. However, the author points out that Japan was no passive victim of the international order, but rather asserted its national interests in bellicose fashion. In addition, he dismisses claims that Japan fought as a liberator of colonized Asians, since it is best remembered for trampling on the rights of its Asian neighbors. The key was the failure to understand and come to terms with the rise of Chinese nationalism; this is where the wider war in the Pacific began. He argues that the 1930s was an era of fascism in which “(t)he cumulative weight of a politics of assassination, repression and military-bureaucratic rule, a shrill cultural orthodoxy, and unilateral expansionism on the continent amounted to a sharp change in the character of Japan’s modern experience.”

“A Modern History of Japan” usefully unravels the nature of the “economic miracle” that occurred in the two decades after the 1950 Korean War, a period during which the nation enjoyed double-digit growth in GDP per annum. Gordon extols the achievements, but also notes that “(b)enefits were unevenly distributed between cities and country, between men and women, and between employees at large and small workplaces. Environmental damage was immense.” Such costs were the grist of subsequent political struggles in the postwar era.

The post-World War II economic and social transformations make for fascinating reading. For example, Gordon, a specialist in Japanese labor history, describes the initial surge in militant unions, and how they were tamed. This was just one of the many political struggles that animated an era of activism.

War memory is another area of controversy and has become more divisive, especially after the flood of revelations that followed Emperor Showa’s death in 1989. In Gordon’s view, “Asian hostility to Japan was kept alive not simply by old memories of the past. It was fueled anew by the unwillingness or inability of many Japanese people, including cabinet ministers, to look back on the past with sympathy for the experience of others.”

In assessing the implications of Japan’s current economic problems, and efforts to deal with them, Gordon notes that it is the lack of change that is most striking, especially given headlines trumpeting corporate restructuring and reform. He goes on to defend some of the key labor and management practices now often blamed for the malaise, concluding that, “It is hard to imagine that practices that valued accumulated experience and long-term vision were in themselves impediments to success in the information-intensive economy of the 21st century.”