Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, a conflict which many of Asia’s current foreign policy headaches grew out of. It’s strange then that the role East Asia played in the Great War has often been overlooked by commentators. In that context, Frederick R. Dickinson’s “War and National Reinvention” is an important link in the chain for readers of modern Japanese history.

War and National
Reinvention, by Frederick R. Dickinson
400 pages.
Harvard University Asia Center, Nonfiction.

The events are well-known: In 1914, Britain urges Japan, its ally, to invade German colonies in Shandong, China, and stop resources being used by Imperial Germany. Having made inroads into the continent over the previous two decades, Japan was happy to help and, in 1915, issued its “21 Demands,” forcing China to acknowledge Japanese sovereignty in Shandong.

Dickinson retells the story in flowing, dynamic prose, mixing hard-edged historical analysis with colorful vignettes and satirical cartoons of the day.

Drawing on previously unpublished official and private documents, contemporary letters and periodicals, he brings events to life in a way that many military and political historians fail to manage.

WWI, Dickinson argues, was a turning point rather than a step on the road to World War II, as other historians tend to view it. Without the acknowledgement of Japanese supremacy in East Asia, which WWI provided, what followed in the next few decades may have been very different.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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