Thursday, November 19, 2015

A History of Japan - R.H.P. Mason and J.G. Caiger

I've been meaning to learn more about Japanese history, so when I saw this book, it seemed worth picking up. It was apparently originally devised as one in a series of texts for Australian schools to familiarize students with influential countries in that part of the world (along with China, India, and Indonesia). It's been revised and updated a bit since its original publication in the '70s.

It's a general overview, from the earliest eras they have evidence of for organized governments, and runs up to around the end of the U.S. military occupation in the early 1950s (there's a postscript that details some of the developments up to the early 1990s). So it covers the rise of the Emperor as a position of power, the stretch where the Fujiwara family was largely running things despite the Emperor not necessarily being part of their family, the eventual pushback from the emperors, the rise of the shoguns, the Meiji Restoration, and so on. It is kind of strange to see how often the Emperor is a figurehead, not really making any decisions, yet still treated as the supreme authority. Like the Tokugawa shoguns might be calling the shots, but they still have to at least pretend they're doing so with the Emperor's blessing, and that he could revoke that at any moment.

I'm not clear on whether the average person knew that was the case or not, though. Still, where possible the book tries to describe how life is changing (or not) for the people not at the top of the ladder. The waxing and waning fortunes of the peasant farmers, the rise of the merchant class, who have to deal with the lack of respect given their occupation by a country at least partially following Confucian ideals. The difficulty for anyone outside the highest social classes to gain education or any sort of government post.  The shift in which religions were most influential. I was trying to figure out how Catholicism did so well when Europeans started arriving, but at least one of the forms of Buddhism described states life is an endless cycle of suffering, dying and being reborn until you achieve that perfect mindset. So compared to a belief system that says in all likelihood all you have waiting after death is another (probably miserable) life, one that says if you repent of your sins, you go to Paradise right off after you die might not sound so bad.

There's also discussion of various art forms emerging or developing, and the most notable practitioners. Which is the sort of thing that usually rolls right off me without registering, but I was interested by a note that mentioned that in the Heian period, men tended to publish their works in the Chinese written language, while women tended to use the recently developed Japanese written language. Up to then, Japan had sort of roughly modified Chinese written language to work with Japanese, and at this point, Chinese was still primarily used in government work, which is what most of those male authors were engaged in. I think Mason and Caiger do a better job describing what some of these art forms or styles say about the period they're in than others, which is the part I'm usually interested in. The technical details are mostly lost on me.

One thing I wondered about what the relative lack of mention of the Ainu people. I was under the impression they were the first people to reach Japan, but are (or were, there's been some intermarriage in an attempt to reduce the discrimination they've faced) ethnically distinct from the Japanese. But they get almost no mention in the book, outside of a couple of references to various emperors or shoguns not having much control of Hokkaido (the northernmost major island, which the Ainu heavily populated), or some battles between Japanese armies and the Ainu. I'm not familiar enough with the history of Japan to know how large an impact the Ainu have had on it, and so maybe in terms of explaining how Japan got to where it was as a society they were a huge influence. Still, writing a history of an area, and largely ignoring an entire group of people that lived there seems sketchy. Something for me to pursue in whatever book I next happen to see that catches my eye.

'Cloistered government (insei) is best thought of as a brilliant holding operation. It is true that under the retired emperors the court enjoyed an Indian summer of political tranquility and cultural lavishness, as both Shirakawa and Toba were good administrators and generous patrons of religion and the arts. Nevertheless the actual sovereign remained without any real power; and though the imperial family had freed itself from the Fujiwara yoke it had done so at a price. It could no longer hope to impose its authority through the public offices of a centralized and aggressively monarchical state, and seemed to have been reduced to simply a great family competing for power with other great families.'

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