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Recently the “London Review of Books” described the Khrushchev Thaw — the period, beginning during the mid-1950s, when Russia became a little more open and less draconian — as “expansive and repressive.”

Gender and Nation in Meiji Japan, by Jason G. Karlin.
University of Hawaii Press, Nonfiction.

How then to describe the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the watershed of Japan’s modernity? “Eager and repressive” perhaps. Eager because there was so much political and societal drive to open up and catch up with the West.

This era of change also led to a great deal of resentment and disillusionment as Jason G. Karlin shows in his richly referenced book on the Meiji Era.

There’s much to be gleaned in Karlin’s dense notes. For example, the political cheer “banzai” was a Meiji fabrication. As Karlin shows in his study of the zeitgeist, there was great upheaval and acrimony between classes and competing ideologies.

He begins with the phenomenon of ryuko, where foreign things are borrowed and adapted in a search for authenticity and progress. His examples range from high-collar fashion to Western-style dancing — and everything in between. This appropriation of new fads and fashions was often derided in local magazine Japan Punch and also Marumaru Chinbun. Readers will find that some of the sentiments back then still echo today, including the duel between domestic and foreign interests.

In another age, Karlin might have been known as a Japan hand. That age, like the Meiji Era, has long since passed, but its effects still linger.

The book is aimed at students and scholars and will prove a useful resource. However, it might also pay to have an English dictionary handy at times in order to aid understanding.

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