‘unhurried … never boring, always lucid, with some of the most fluid prose imaginable and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation’
It’s difficult to write an original review about a book for which a review has already been written that I completely agree with. But that is how I feel as I set out to type this.
A New Take on a Familiar Story.
As Neil McGregor points out on the back of one of the loveliest dust jacket’s of 2018, there isn’t anything hugely different about this book but at the same time it’s unlike most of the history’s of Japan I’ve encountered before
Japan Story takes you on a familiar journey, but subtly guides you through it with a nonconformist perspective. The journalists who mocked the Meiji elite’s attempt to be more western than the west at the expense of Japan’s unique refinements.
The people who realised that they had not had a revolution but a restoration, agitators and terrorists desperate to find a way to make their voices heard.
The proponents of female suffrage who were at odds with the traditionally promulgated Meiji view that women stood as the ideal of home and society, and tellingly were therefore allegorised as a personification of Japan’s traditional values.
If there had been a revolution the wheel of change had turned as truly a Samurai revolution. An eastern version of the Restoration of 1660, and indeed that is exactly what it was, a restoration. Here Samurai is to be taken literally, it had been a revolution for the already entitled.
There is a common perception that Japan embraced modernity with a wholehearted vigour. That the people followed where the modernisers led without qualm or objection.
Japan Story blurs the edges of this neat perception of Japanese History, and shows us a more messy, conflicted and human background to it all.
Stories are how we Survive.
‘A modest Asian country rises rapidly and purposefully to a parity is sorts with the advanced seafaring empires of the west, briefly it descends into corruption and cruelty & is deservedly crushed; but then it soars again’
That is the nutshell story of Japan, a history that the author challenges. To give an example I will briefly focus on the part that I am most familiar with.
For about nine decades Japan could confidently assume that the eyes of the world are upon her. As a result the county put on the greatest mime show in history, which opened to rave reviews. But with that, the author observes, came a potent self consciousness quite opposed to the traditional view of self confidence.
Meiji reformers could not bear to draw condescending looks from the foreigners they had one made fun of, or in several cases literally tried to murder and burn out of house and home.
I’m more used to reading of Itō Hirobumi when he was a Chōsū rebel during the Bakumatsu. But in 1887 the one time arsonist threw Japan’s first masquerade ball in the lavish Deer Cry Hall (Rokumeikan).
It was a scandalous affair but the government and the upper classes wanted to look their best.
‘The tut-tutting of visitors … mattered. There were anxious calls for curbs on bathing naked in public or urinating in the street’.
Alright, that last one seems fairly sensible, but you get the idea.
These calls came not from outraged foreigners, but from the leaders of Japan. Put in this light, Harding reveals that for the average subjects of the restored emperor, everything was quickly turning transparent.
Japanese culture was simplified and sold to a very receptive international clientele, eager to prove the superiority of the western system.
As a case in point, he points out that the nationally accepted story of japan from the Meiji Era to the present is in itself inherently fabricated. Within that he points to the obvious and most recognisable legacy of Japanese history, the Samurai.
In so doing he points out that even Samurai culture was packaged up and put on show, proudly advertised as a Japanese equivalent of Europe’s chivalric tradition.
To the disappointment of many a documentary filmmaker and pop culture fan, Nitobe Inazō’s bestselling Bushidō: The Soul of Japan (1900) was ‘published in English, for foreign consumption’, but then again, stories are how we survive.
The other side of the coin.
Through this book we can see that, rather than Japan being doily and resigned to its march to the future there was something of a clash of ideas.
While the great and good espoused western fashions and pastimes, traditionalists spoke of the waltz much as Europeans did 80 years before.
A Japanese journalist is even quoted as bemoaning, in excruciating detail, the the wanton effect dancing had on ladies: ‘when a woman reaches such a state, were is the innate modesty of the virtuous maiden’.
Worship and reverence for the emperor was real, but so was the practical side of devotion to a figure the average Japanese person found as almost too legendary to actually be real.
Even then we find that attendance was poor for Meiji era Imperial processions. Allot of work went into encouraging turnouts as a patriotic duty and the short term answer was to ensure children were brought to watch Royal events. Coming from a country that still has a constitutional monarchy, it sounds rather familiar.
Because most of my reading and research has focused on 19th century Japan, it would be of no use to speak deeply of how the author treats the tumultuous events of the 20th century. However the same sense of moment and originality carries through the entire book.
It would be difficult to be certain if the author’s confident opinions will be shared by everyone, such a thing would surely be impossible. However I was unable to take great exception to anything.
I got the impression that instead of opinions, any resolution based thereon was pitched in terms of thoughts and ideas. The reader is free to ponder and accept or reject as they please.
Japan Story also succeeds in begin generally entertaining and is scattered with all sorts of fascinating titbits, a good example being Japan’s overlooked role in WW1.
‘The imperial Japanese navy escorted hundreds of allied ships in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, while injured soldiers on the western front occasionally found themselves being tended to by nurses from the Japanese Red Cross’.
Moved along with an unhurried pace, never boring, always lucid and with some of the most fluid prose and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation.