Inventing Japan, 1853-1964

by Ian Buruma

Hardcover, 2003




New York : Modern Library, 2003.


Ian Buruma makes sense of the most fateful span of Japan's history, the period that saw as dramatic a transformation as any country has ever known. In the course of little more than a hundred years from the day Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in his black ships, this insular, preindustrial realm mutated into an expansive military dictatorship that essentially supplanted the British, French, Dutch, and American empires in Asia before plunging to utter ruin, eventually emerging under American tutelage as a pseudo-Western-style democracy and economic dynamo. Japan has always been both particularly open to the importation of good ideas and particularly prickly about keeping their influence quarantined, a bipolar disorder that would have dramatic consequences and that continues to this day. If one book is to be read in order to understand why the Japanese seem so impossibly strange to many Americans, Inventing Japan is surely it.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Scapegoats
This is a very good overview of the political transformation of Japan from Commodore Perry's forcing it open in 1853 until the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It focuses on politics, with the overall arguments that liberal democracy has never been part of Japan and that its constitutional system, both before and after WWII, was too weak an unresponsive to be effective. He argues that the vaguest of the Meiji Constitution left the military responsible only to the emperor, who was supposed to be above politics. The elected civilian government had no control over the military, which allowed the military to become the driving force in Japanese politics.

Buruma argues that the problem in the government was that it was designed so that no individual can get too much power. Prior to WWII, the power was focused on the emperor, which meant that no faction had the power to make hard decisions, which led to a sort of inertia driven by outside events. He even argues that this inertia led to Pearl Harbor, as the drift to war could only be stopped by strong leadership, but only Hirohito was in a position to do this, but he was either unable or unwilling to do so. He doesn't say that Hirohito was the driving force towards war (he says that the emperor's role in this remains unclear) but that he bears responsibility for not stopping it.

He also argues that after the war, Japan eventually established the Liberal Democratic system, which kept that party in power by ensuring prosperity and providing largesse. The system was designed to maintain its power while also preventing any individual from assuming too much influence. The party was a coalition that would rebel against that sort of accumulation of power. As a result, like the pre-war governments, it is unable to deal with major problems or issues. Its rule requires consensus. This worked well into the 1990s, when the economy stopped growing and hasn't recovered since. The Lib-Dems lost power, but soon gained it back and the system remains unchanged. As a result, the Japanese government has not enacted any substantial economic reforms to restart the economy.

This work is a great introduction to the illiberal democracy of modern Japan, but. it doesn't deal much with economics until after WWII, leaving the reader wondering why the Meiji Restoration sparked such economic growth. He is also very heavy handed in analyzing the failing of Japanese democracy. But overall, this is a good book to get started on how the Japanese tried to reinvent themselves in modern times and why they were only partially successful.
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LibraryThing member dlovins
Small book, but with lots of interesting facts about Japan. For example, contrary to the assumption that Christianity had no appeal there, in fact it was spreading quickly to the point that in 1638 the Tokugawa bakufu felt it necessary to massacare Japanese converts, ban Christian books, and expell all missionaries from the country. Overtly Christian Europeans were not allowed to return until the re-opening of Japan in 1853.… (more)



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