Book review: “Inventing Japan: 1853-1964” by Ian Buruma Previous item Book review: “Eight... Next item Book review: “The...

Book review: “Inventing Japan: 1853-1964” by Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 is a compact history of the island nation, dense with incident and insight, yet also stylishly written.

In an animated 177 pages (about 50,000 words), the Dutch-born Buruma tells a complex story that starts with Japan’s sudden opening to world trade — with a gun at its head — and spans a century jam-packed with national and cultural twists as the country sought to find its footing on the world stage.

It’s a story that runs from American Commodore Matthew Perry’s explosive appearance in Edo Bay to the end of the shogunate, the failed attempts at democracy (“a sickly child from the beginning”), the rise of militarization and colonialism, war against Russia, war against China and finally World War II, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Douglas MacArthur as American overlord and a post-war commitment to an overheated economy with an emphasis on construction for the sake of construction.

And, in an epilogue, Buruma takes the story even further with the boom of the Japanese economy and talk of a “Japanese Century” — and then the bursting of the bubble.

“Rejoined the world”

The core story, though, ends in 1964 when the Olympics were held in Tokyo, the moment when “Japan rejoined the world.”  Buruma writes:

No longer a defeated nation in disgrace, Japan was respectable now.  After years of feverish construction, of highways and stadiums, hotels, sewers, overhead railways, and subway lines, Tokyo was ready to receive the world with a grand display of love, peace, and sports….

To the Japanese, always acutely conscious of their ranking among nations, sporting victories were one way to soothe memories of wartime defeat.

And Japan did win many medals, sixteen of them gold, more than any other nation except the United States and the Soviet Union. But not enough.

Two Japanese athletes who failed to come up to popular expectations, a marathon runner named Tsubuya Kokichi and a woman hurdler names Yoda Ikuko, later committed suicide.

Another athlete Kaminaga Akio was also humiliated but fared better. In the gold-medal judo match he was supposed to win, Kaminaga was defeated by a Dutch wrestler named Anton Geesink, and the national humiliation “was almost too much to bear.” 

However, in victory, Geesink stopped his fans from rushing the mat and instead turned to give Kaminaga a formal vow. The Japanese felt honored, even in defeat.

Overconfidence, fanaticism, a shrill sense of inferiority, and a sometimes obsessive preoccupation with national status — these have all played their parts in the history of modern Japan…But one quality has stood out to serve Japan better than any other: the grace to make the best of defeat.

“A national pathology”

One aspect of Japanese fanaticism is a consistent pattern of assassination as a tool of politics and economics.  The United States and industrialized nations around the world have had their share of political killings over the past century, but any reader of Buruma’s book will notice how frequently assassins step in to alter the course of events.

Even more startling is the regularity with which Japanese take their own lives.

As a Western reader, I found Buruma’s mention of the two athlete suicides on the second page of his 2003 book quite startling. That seemed to me to take competition and defeat too much to heart.

Yet, within the Japanese culture, suicide is another tool for making a statement and getting things done. For instance, during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1931, Buruma writes:

The Japanese press stoked up public opinion by publishing glowing reports of Japanese heroism in Shanghai. Soldiers who died in suicidal actions were glorified as “human bullets.”

Later, in World War II, when the tide began to turn, military suicide tactics — including kamikaze pilots — became the national policy with schoolchildren ordered to write letters to soldiers at the front to “die gloriously” and young men, often from the best universities pressured to volunteer for suicide missions.  Buruma writes:

A peculiar idea of Japaneseness, whose seeds were sown in the late Edo period [early 19th century] but which became a national pathology in the late 1930s, had turned from outward aggression to pure self-destruction.

But even later, after Japan had rejoined the world of nations, suicide was a common form of political commentary, such as, in 1976, when a porn actor, dressed in a kamikaze uniform, protested a corruption scandal involving the Lockheed Corporation by flying a small plane into the home of a middleman in the bribery.  (Buruma mistakenly identifies the target as a Lockheed office.)

“Ostentatious Europeanized posturing”

Perhaps the most famous Japanese suicide in modern times was the great novelist Mishima Yukio who committed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide, in 1970 after leading a failed coup d’état. Buruma doesn’t mention the suicide, but he does describe how Mishima would “work himself into a rage about the superficial primness” of late 19th century Japan.

Mishima likened Meiji Japan to “an anxious housewife preparing to receive guests, hiding away in closets common articles of daily use and laying aside comfortable everyday clothes, hoping to impress the guests with the immaculate, idealized life of her household, without so much as a speck of dust in view.”

The problem, Buruma explains, is that, in trying to find Japan’s place on the world stage, there was a great deal of “ostentatious Europeanized posturing.”  The hope was that “rapid Westernization would make foreign powers treat Japan as an equal and thus agree to relinquish their privileges under the unequal treaties.”

One attempt at this was at a great ball in 1885 for the Emperor’s birthday where “East and West could mingle at the highest level, over whist and mazurka.”  For at least some of the Westerners in attendance, however, the effort fell flat.

[French author Pierre Loti] thought the Japanese gentlemen, dressed up in suits of tails, looked like performing monkeys, and the ladies, lining the walls like tapestries in their hoops and flounces and satin trains, were, well, “remarkable.”

“Roads that go nowhere”

In a way, such Westernization can be seen as quite arrogant — as an expression of the sense of superiority, a feeling that the Japanese can out-Westernize Westerners. At the same time, it can also be viewed as very much a kind of groveling. 

Buruma’s book is chockablock full of examples of a Japanese schizophrenia, feeling superior and inferior at the same time, looking down on all other people but also feeling under the boot of Europeans.

It could be argued that the Japanese boom at the end of the 20th century was a sort of over-Westernization, a focus on economic growth above all else.  The monotonous relentlessness of the construction programs, in effect, turned the Japanese islands into a giant construction site.

Many of these projects were useful — indeed, much needed.  Many were not. Japan is now full of unnecessary tunnels, roads that go nowhere, lifeless rivers, bridges that nobody crosses, half-empty museums, and theme parks that few care to visit.

“Black ships of evil”

After reading Buruma’s book, I’m left wondering how Japan might have developed if it hadn’t been so isolated from the rest of the globe for so long and if it had found its way into the modern world at its own pace and in its own way.  Instead, it underwent a particularly brutal culture shock.

As of the mid-20th century, its isolation had lasted for more than two hundred years. The original opening of Japan came in the mid-1500s when European traders and Christian missionaries arrived. But the nation was closed back up at the start of the 17th century when the overt practice of Christianity was snuffed out and all trade reduced to Dutch sailors in Nagasaki.

Japanese intellectuals studied Western science and ideas — known as Dutch learning — in order to borrow what was useful.  But the culture continued in blissful seclusion.

Until Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Edo Bay on July 8, 1853, with four armed ships, to challenge the Japanese nation in what Buruma describes as one of the most extraordinary confrontations in modern history.

There was Perry with his four “black ships of evil,” thundering an ominous salute to the Japanese coast by firing his cannon.  And there were the Japanese, lined up on the shore, armed with swords and old-fashioned muskets….

The sixty-one guns on the decks of his ships, and the woefully unprepared Japanese coastal defense (most cannon were fake, and there was no Japanese navy), finally convinced the shogun’s government [to let American ships come into two Japanese ports].

It was the first of a series of unequal treaties that were a burr in the side of the Japanese and that helped to contort the Japanese development as a presence on the world stage.

In a moment, Japan’s isolation had ended, and the nation found itself at a constant disadvantage.  Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that militarism and an emphasis on military solutions to Japan’s international problems became a hallmark of the next century.

Patrick T. Reardon

4.21.22

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