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.
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.
One thing that struck me from Buruma's account was the extent to which Japanese scholars were already aware of (and using) western ideas during the Dutch period - the idea of Japan suddenly being made to open the shutters and discover the modern world for the first time in the 1850s makes a good story, but of course it couldn't really have been quite as sudden as that in real life. Another was the way that the state reacted to the destabilising effects of outside ideas by inventing new "ancient traditions" to reinforce the links between authority, religion and nationalism - not so very different to what was happening in Britain during the industrial revolution or is happening now in many postcolonial states.
Obviously, there has to be a lot of important material that gets missed out or skipped over lightly in a book this size (quite apart from the fact that the book was written 15 years ago and only takes the main story up to 1964 anyway). Buruma is an opinionated writer, albeit one I usually find myself agreeing with, so it's probably best not to take this book in isolation, but it is a good way to get the broad outlines of the story fixed in your mind. It looks like a useful jumping-off point, and it comes with a comprehensive bibliography to facilitate that kind of use.