Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Making of Modern Japan - Marius B. Jansen

So I realized that because of reading Rurouni Kenshin, I was curious about the civil war in Japan that ended the Tokugawa shogunate and lead to the Meiji Era. I asked my dad if he, having experience tracking down history books, could find me one good book on the subject. Just one. I specified because I idly asked if FDR interfered with her generals two and a half years ago and I'm still getting books on World War II. Better to stop him before he starts.

Even so, he couldn't restrict himself to fewer than two, this being the broader, more general history, running from the formation of the shogunate up to the modern day. I went ahead and read the sections on the shogunate, because I figured it would be useful to have an understanding of what it was doing that people found objectionable enough to rebel against, but stopped once I got to the end of World War II. I might read the last two chapters some other time, but they're outside the scope of my interest at the moment.

I don't know that the book really helped me understand what I was interested in exactly, but it did cover a lot of other things I didn't necessarily know or grasp. That Japan was still trading with China (or China through Korea) during those years when it was supposedly closed off to the world. Really, it was mostly closed off to Europe, because the power structure in Japan didn't see Europeans as a positive influence so much. Especially worried about Christianity. The whole peculiar aspect of the Restoration, where the Emperor is supposedly restored as the supreme power from which all authority is derived, but they don't want him to actually make any decisions. Because if he does, and they're the wrong ones, that contradicts the idea he's infallible. So you have various ministers in the government trying to maneuver to gain his approval for their plans, to essentially use that as a bludgeon against forces opposing them. The way the shogunate seemed more concerned with keeping all the domains under it from cooperating, rather than trying to bring everyone together as a cohesive nation.

Some parts of the book are more interesting to me than others. As usual, discussion of art and literature are not terribly engaging, although I did have the suspicion contributions by Japanese women were being short-changed. I know when I read that book on Japanese history last fall, women were quite influential in writing stories among other things. But here, women get almost no mention at all, which is the sort of thing I have to wonder about.

'By the same token, foreign borrowing in the nineteenth century could also be justified. Mori Arinori's debate with the Chinese leader Li Hung-chang in 1876 expressed this perfectly. Li, looking disdainfully at Mori's Western suit, asked if Mori's Japanese ancestors had dressed that way. No, Mori had replied, they had adopted Chinese dress, but it was no longer practical; Japan had always taken the best of other civilizations for itself, and it was doing so once more.'

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