Christopher Harding opens his comprehensive new history of Japan with the image of the novelist Jakucho Setouchi placed on the psychiatrist’s couch in the mid-1960s by Heisaku Kosawa, a pioneering figure in the introduction of Freudian psychoanalysis to Japan.

Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present, by Christopher Harding.
528 pages
ALLEN LANE, History.

The reception — lukewarm as it was — of psychoanalysis in Japan is a specialist topic of Harding’s, one that he infuses at intervals into this stylish history of modern Japan, as if placing the nation itself on the psychiatrist’s couch and sagely taking notes on the national narrative. Sometimes with spectacular success, other times unleashing the monsters of hell, Japan has neurotically struggled to cope with the demon of “modernity” over the past 150 years.

Harding’s reading is prodigious, wide-ranging and he does a fine job of synthesizing disparate materials. He also has considerable talent as a storyteller, shifting perspective from tales of medieval Kyoto monks to Japanese brides in Hawaii as he leads us chronologically from the Bakumatsu era (1857-67) to the present.

Most of all, he transforms his material into an ultra-progressive account of modern Japanese history. Shuffled to the back of the stage are the Meiji Era (1868-1912) patriarchs like Okubo Toshimichi, Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru — previously venerated as the men who pulled Japan out of backwater feudalism and into world-power status within a mere 30 years. Instead, ushered to the front are those that the so-called patriarchy attempted to repress: the maverick women, socialist thinkers and doubters of the state version of modernity.

There are, in fact, women aplenty in this history — not just the usual poster girls of early Japanese feminism such as Raicho Hiratsuka, Fusae Ichikawa and the poet Akiko Yosano, but also Beate Sirota Gordon, the American architect of the women’s rights section of the 1947 Constitution, and the jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, showing over 70 years ago that Japanese women could hit blue notes just as melodically as African-American masters like Hampton Hawes.

We also meet lesser-known figures of Japanese thought, such as Inoue Enryo, a key modernizer of Buddhism, and explore the world of the Christian socialist thinker Toyohiko Kagawa, who handed away, Jesus-like, the clothes on his back in an early 20th-century slum in the city of Kobe.

Some of the set pieces in this book — the historical background to the much-debated Nanking Massacre, the lively description of the avant-garde arts scene of the 1960s and the cataloging of the grim litany of pollution and environmental disasters, from Minamata disease to Fukushima nuclear radiation, are as good as you will read anywhere.

Harding also handles with skill the complex interaction over the ages of academic thinkers, government agencies, social pressure groups and activists, mass media and counter culture, enlivened at every turn with nuggets of information and flashes of wit — we learn that Gojira (Godzilla) was a fusion of the words for “gorilla” and “whale” (kujira) and that Japanese soldiers in China brought back to Japan a taste for gyōza dumplings.

The watchword throughout is “diversity,” and the book attempts to debunk the notion much advanced in nihonjinron books of Japan as a country that is culturally and ethnically monolithic. There are thousands of disparate “stories” of Japan, Harding wishes to tell, not just the conservative, mildly nationalistic default setting of Japan’s government that begrudgingly makes as few concessions to internationalistic notions of “diversity” as possible.

In the final chapters of the book, the country’s various social ills are laid side by side — from disaffected social recluses and disastrously low birth rates to egregious gender pay gaps — before surveying minority groups in Japan suffering prejudice and neglect: the people of Okinawa, the Ainu, the burakumin caste, Korean-Japanese and the LGBT community.

Yet, in the midst of it all, the resilient, beguiling appeal of Japan, in bad times as well as good, shines through. A British lawmaker visiting Tokyo and observing the stagnation of recent decades, wryly observes: “If this is a recession, I want one.”

There is much to recommend in Harding’s approach, but ironies do emerge. Because nearly all Harding’s sources for this book are English-language books, the perspectives seem overwhelmingly those of American scholars suffused with contemporary identity politics.

Despite the number of stories contained within the book, some of the most outstanding individuals in modern Japanese history, men and women — Ichiyo Higuchi, Hideyo Noguchi, Yumeji Takehisa and Mori Ogai, to name just a few — don’t make it into this particular “Japan Story.”

This is an enormously readable book, ambitious in scope and of-the-moment in approach, which will doubtless delight some and irritate others. Interestingly, for a writer so engaged with psychoanalysis, penetrating psychological insight is not offered on the individuals thickly peopled in this book. Perhaps for his next outing, Harding might match the breadth he has achieved here with psychological depth into the key characters.

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