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From West to East: Ian Buruma casts his light on the making of modern Japan

by Jeff Kingston

INVENTING JAPAN: 1853-1964, by Ian Buruma. New York: The Modern Library, 2003, 194 pp., $19.95, (cloth).

This is a satisfying hors d’oeuvre that awakens readers’ intellects while whetting their appetite for more substantial fare. It is a quirky, opinionated and selective narrative redolent of what is most alluring about Victorian writers. Some university dons will frown, but most readers will enjoy this lively account written with Ian Buruma’s customary panache and eye for telling detail.

Seven brief chapters are framed between a prologue and epilogue. The index is innovative, listing Japanese by their surnames. The bibliographic essay is useful as a guide for further exploration.

Perhaps only Buruma could get away with beginning such a book with an anecdote from the Tokyo Olympics. In a highly anticipated match, the giant Dutch judo champ defeated the plucky Japanese gold medal hopeful, dashing the dreams of a nation while winning their respect by showing good grace in victory. From there Buruma shifts to the Black Ships and the somewhat less graceful, and much less appreciated, arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry.

Popular images of Westerners were shaped by 17th-century encounters with Dutch merchants who were looked upon as “exotic beasts, who lifted their legs, like dogs, when they relieved themselves. Their hair was red and the eyes a devilish blue.” However, the impressive results of Western medicine and technology were respected, forcing Japanese to rethink their assumptions about Chinese superiority.

Unlike the Chinese court, the Meiji oligarchs did not have “illusions about the world revolving around Japan. They also knew that their political system, and the principle upon which it was based, had been imported from China, and there was nothing to stop them from borrowing from somewhere else when the old order was no longer working.”

The oligarchs proved to be reluctant democrats and ardent imperialists. They were also divided about how Japan should proceed. Buruma wryly comments, “If xenophobia, authoritarianism, and war marked much of the coming century, the road to more open, democratic arrangements was not completely blocked . . . . The enlightened side has to struggle everywhere, at all times. In Japan, alas, the battle was too often lost.”

It was, “The armed forces, and not Fukuzawa’s academy or free speech societies, [who] were the conduit for modernity for most young men in Meiji Japan.” As Japan responded to, and emulated the West, “National unity was armed unity. National education was military education.”

Buruma enlivens the narrative by drawing modern parallels and suggesting broader implications for the Japan experience. In discussing the rice riots of 1919, during the era of Taisho democracy, the author asserts, “When governments rule without popular representation or even consent, one form of rebellion is to be more nationalistic than the rulers. If the rulers are traitors to the nations, they should be overthrown. This is a pattern that has occurred over and over again in east Asia, and it is not very conducive to liberal democracy.”

The China problem confounded Japanese leaders and led them to seek a military solution. Japan’s war in China, however, proved inconvenient to its professed Pan Asianism by exposing its imperial ambitions. Similarly, the ongoing controversy over various atrocities continues to undermine assertions of a vindicating and exculpatory narrative focusing on Japan’s role as Asia’s liberator.

“Inventing Japan” ranges widely and provocatively, throwing out interesting observations for reflection. For example, “One of the permanent features of east Asian politics is the combination of murderous factionalism and highfalutin rhetoric of absolute unity. It is the vicious circle of all authoritarianism: One always goes with the other.” And, “The price of pacifism is a total dependency on others to defend you. This has kept rightwing revanchism alive and polarized political opinion on the one thing where there should have been consensus: the constitution itself.” Food for thought.

Buruma resists any urge to pull his punches, noting the long connections between the Liberal Democratic Party and mobsters while pointing out that the left might have been more successful if it wasn’t so dogmatic and always tearing itself apart. The story does not end in 1964, perhaps the heyday of a system based on expediency and materialism. The demise of this system and the shattering of public trust in Japan’s leaders has left people searching for answers. Buruma suggests that this unraveling has led to an emotional nationalism, one that resonates across the generations. In his view, “It appeals to young people, too, the result, I think, of an intellectual culture stunted by the dogmas of the left and the right. It is also the result of a political establishment that deliberately stifled public debate by opting for monomaniacal concentration on economic growth. And it is the result of an infantile dependency on the United States.”