Those who write about history do so at their peril. The difficulties are manifest: how to contribute anything meaningful, to be divergent but remain credible and to research the past without losing sight of the present.

Japan and the Shackles
of the Past, by R. Taggart Murphy
472 pages.
Oxford University Press, Nonfiction.

Academic accounts are apt to view history as a yellowing bone fragment, a conveniently inanimate object that can be passed around for inspection, then returned to its glass case. R. Taggart Murphy, the author of “Japan and the Shackles of the Past,” is an academic himself (a professor at the University of Tsukuba), but writes with flair and an ear for style — qualities often absent in such circles. The author’s view that Japan remains a prisoner of its past is hardly new, but his contention that it is complicit in its own incarceration puts a rather different spin on the subject.

Outsiders have always had a hard time sensing the recurring patterns of Japanese history. The foreign economists of the 1950s, who suggested that Japan would be best advised to focus its manufacturing ambitions on the production of small toys and handicrafts, for example, had only to consult the advances of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), in which Japan had risen to be the most developed industrial nation in Asia, to see how preposterous their proposals were.

Nobody seriously doubts that the past impacts the present. Murphy suggests, however, that the advent of the Tokugawa regime in 1603 and its policy of seclusion removed Japan from the currents of world history — the developments taking place in Europe in political thought, science and technology. Its subsequent scramble to catch up with the advanced nations led to an obsession with surpassing them.

History has a habit of being cyclic. The savagery of Japanese soldiers in China and Korea under the control of the 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which discredited Japan’s image on the continent for centuries, would be replicated in the last century by rampaging troops in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. That war led, in Murphy’s view, to a capitulation of political independence from which the country has yet to recover, something that is self-evident in the way the government defers matters of foreign and domestic policy to Washington.

If the Japanese are truly shackled by the past, does that mean its leaders are exonerated from it, and not entirely responsible for their errors? Perhaps, but Murphy’s text would suggest that, far from being hostage to the past, they are proponents of a historical order that serves their own narrow vision of the future.

Murphy’s critique can be harsh. Discussing the corrupting effects of Japan’s cozy, entrenched political arrangements and the fresh revelations of the abuse of power during the aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, he writes, “Like swarms of cockroaches rushing for cover when the switch is turned on in a filthy apartment, those grown fat on the public interest flee in panic when catastrophes … expose collusion, malfeasance, and sheer incompetence to public view.”

The writer’s implications are clear: The persistence of institutions and practices with roots in the historical past are largely a matter of self-preservation for a privileged elite.

Hubris is a temptation placed in the path of all wealthy, technologically advanced nations. Japan’s inability to resist playing a major role — which it is unqualified for — on the international stage and the tragic consequences of doing so, both past and present, are better appreciated today by the Japanese public. But the government’s sense of entitlement in all matters of major public policy suggests a leadership that operates largely by fiat. A bureaucracy that has to be consulted at every stage of government decision-making may prove the most resistant to change. Dismantling such a firmly riveted system has proved virtually impossible given the multilayered interdependency it has created. This is only one example in the book of a past that keeps a chokehold on reform through the agency of a leadership grown adept at the “marginalization of dissidence into ritualized, harmless protest,” as Murphy terms it.

The prospect of a referendum on the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution — of a free vote similar to the one seen in 2014 on Scottish independence — is unthinkable in Japan. Leaders, as they have always done, dictate outcomes. The notion that Okinawans, in their tireless opposition to military occupation, could determine their own future is delusional. Murphy brings us right up to date in this book, to the administration of the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, the casus belli of the Senkaku Islands, imbroglios with South Korea, the state secrets law, and a hornet’s nest of other issues.

Any scholar worth his or her salt is capable of extensive research. What distinguishes the merely diligent historian from the innovative one is the ability of the latter to analyze, interpret and re-visualize existing material, to invigorate the past, as Murphy does, by means of imaginative reconstruction.

Perceiving history in its entirety is a little like trying to grasp the contours of Japan’s ancient, key-shaped burial mounds, such as the image featured in this book of the Nintoku Emperor’s enormous tomb in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture. It is so large that you can only see the complete outline of the tumulus once you get into the air.

Murphy’s elevated view of the past opens up that new perspective, releasing a breath of fresh air into the stale crypt of history.

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