James L. McClain’s Japan: A Modern History is an excellent historical survey from the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early seventeenth century to the present. The author is a professor of history at Brown University.
The 1868 Meiji imperial restoration was a crucial event for Japan and the world. In less than half a century Japan broke from its feudal past, becoming the first non-Western nation to successfully emulate the West by industrializing, adopting a Western-style constitution (based on Bismarck’s Germany), and joining the ranks of the imperial powers by defeating China and Russia, and occupying Korea.
Japan was not democratic, ruled as it was by the genro, or “elder statesmen.” World War I saw Japan expand its imperial presence at the expense of Germany and, increasingly, of China, but McClain notes that in the 1920’s Japan was developing a pluralistic society with political parties, universal manhood suffrage (in the nineteenth century less than 5% of males voted), feminist and labor movements, and a youth culture exemplified by the modan gaaru and modan boi (“modern girl” and “modern boy”).
The Great Depression resulted in the retreat of democracy and pluralism, and by 1937 Japan was at war with China. Pearl Harbor followed on December 7, 1941, an attack Japanese officialdom claimed was forced upon them by American economic sanctions. McClain argues that Japan was not truly a fascist state inasmuch as there was no single revolutionary party or charismatic leader.
Japan since 1945 is the story of a phoenix arising from the ashes to become by the 1980’s perhaps the world’s premier economic power. However, in the 1990’s the Japanese miracle became less miraculous as its economy stagnated. In addition to being eminently readable, McClain begins each chapter with short vignettes, giving the reader fascinating glimpses into the era. Japan: A Modern History is highly recommended.
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