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Book Review – A Short History of Japan

A short history of Japan book cover

A short history of Japan book cover

I’m very impressed with the Allen & Unwin series of books on the history of Asian countries. A Short History of Japan: From Samurai to Sony by Curtis Andressen is very well written and provides an accessible introduction to the history of Japan. It allowed me to put into context the observations of Japanese culture, the book Hokkaido Highway Blues and demystified many aspects of this unique country. I read it in preparation for our upcoming trip to Japan and because I was so impressed by the Short History of Indonesia book in the same series. I was a little surprised the Andressen focussed 1/2 of the book on the ‘bubble’ economy and its bust but I was pleased by the readable writing style so I was happy to go along with it and learn on every page. Here are some of the interesting aspects of Japanese history that I learnt:

Japan is similar in size to Germany and comprises 4 main islands – Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu with about 7,000 smaller islands that stretch about 3,000 km. More than half of Japan is mountainous and about 14% is used for agriculture, the rest being covered with forests, fields, roads, water, and only about 5% is covered by cities, and with a population of about 126.66 million this corresponds to high population density in the inhabited regions.

The archaeological record indicates that people first came to Japan from Korea, China and the Pacific islands about 200,000 years ago and waves of migration occurred about 30,000 years ago from South-East Asia and the Asian mainland. Dry rice harvesting was occurring in around 1,000 BCE and wet rice agriculture was introduced from mainland Asia in about 300 BCE. This led to increases in food production and hence population and settlement of new parts of Japan.

Chinese scholars in 297 CE remarked on the clear class distinctions within Japanese society and that Japan was occupied by a number of independent tribal units, headed by both men and women and that people survived mostly through fishing and agriculture. The Japanese Yayoi people in about 300 CE buired their leaders in large earthen mounds, which reminds me of the Dilmun burial mounds in Bahrain. At that time Japanese society was divided into three levels, the uji elite, then be artisans and at the bottom were household slaves. In 552 Buddhism was transported to Japan from China through Korean connections. Buddhism was supported by a number of emperors and eventually meat was removed from the diet, and the dead were cremated instead of buried. Buddhism also significantly influenced the landscape and architecture.

There is no linguistic connection between Japanese and Chinese languages but Japan adopted and adapted the Chinese writing system. In 815 about 1/3 of aristocratic Japanese families had either Chinese or Korean ancestors, which reflects the strong influence of both countries on Japan.

Nara was the first ‘permanent’ capital, built between 708 and 712 to a design imitating the rectangular grid pattern of the imperial Chinese city of Ch’ang-an. The beauty of its design and architecture, and especially its temples, reflects the increasing refinement of the time, dominated by the influence of China, but with other influences coming from as far away as India, and even Greece and Italy. Buddhism in particular was the focus of a wave of the artistic expression coming from the Japanese elites expressed in architecture, sculpture, drawing and music. The great Buddhist statue in Nara – the Dai Butsu of the Todaiji temple – was completed in 719. It stands about 16 m tall and weighs 560,000 kg, an impressive example of religious art that even today attracts visitors from throughout Japan and around the world.

In 794 the capital city moved to present-day Kyoto, a magnificent example of urban design, which remained the home of the Japanese court (though not necessarily of political power) for more than a millennium, until the nineteenth century move to Tokyo.

By the ninth century Japan was a highly centralised and unified state known for its humanistic and relatively benign rule. In 894 Japanese rulers stopped sending official missions to China which brought an end to the steady flow of information and ideas that had influenced Japanese political and social development.

In the late Heian period (794-1185) a warrior class emerged that formed the basis of the early samurai. At the same time leadership shifted towards the warrior clans and this heralded the start of feudalism. The samurai were not bound by the old formalities of the Japanese court and instead developed their own very practical culture with a more flexible attitude towards commoners. A code of behaviour developed among the samurai known as bushido (the way of the warrior) and contained elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shinto.

During the 12th century the system of government was astonishingly complicated and it was due to personal loyalty and ability of the regents that it worked. The governing system also contained kuromaku (black curtain) which refers to power-brokers that operate invisibly behind the scenes, a practice well-established early in Japanese history and which continues today. During the 13th century social practices that we identify with modern Japan began, such as: the bath (for treatment of illnesses), tea ceremony (strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism), manufacturing of porcelain (of very high quality), sword-making (so sophisticated that it formed a principal export to China). Also during the 13th century Mongol troops tried to invade twice, including a massive force of 4,400 ships and 140,000 troops. Both times storms scattered the Mongol fleets, the 2nd was a typhoon. The Japanese called it a ‘divine wind’ or kamikaze.

In the 15th and 16th centuries the feudal lords daimyo built castles around Japan and commercial activities developed around these castles, creating castle-towns. Some of these castles still exist today. In the 17th century, Japan had characteristics of a police state with severe punishments for criminal activities, e.g. torture and execution were common even for petty theft. Mutual responsibility also meant that family and friends might be killed with the offender. Japan has a high level of social responsibility and very low crime rate today. At this time duel concepts of honne (inner reality) and tatamae (outward appearance) became important to preserve the appearance of harmony at all costs, even if there were problems beneath the surface. Hence the characteristic of Japanese society that is governed by etiquette and avoidance of conflict.

Also in the 17th century, social mobility was highly restricted and a caste-like system developed with daimyo and samurai at the top, then peasants, then artisans, then merchants with a lowest level of outcasts being those who worked with dead animals, beggars, jail guards, executioners, police informants and road cleaners. The outcasts are today called burakamin and continue to fight for equal treatment (Ferguson encounters a settlement of burakamin in Hokkaido Highway Blues). At the same time Japan was closed to the outside world with foreigners permanently ejected, Japanese not allowed to enter or leave the country, and a ban on building of ocean-going ships. One of the reasons was the fear that Spanish and Portuguese priests would try to colonise Japan.

Japan remained closed for two centuries and there was a strong emphasis on group identification, respect for authority and a strong sense of loyalty. In 1853 Commodore Perry of the US Navy convinced (using force) the Japanese that they were at the mercy of the more technologically advanced countries of the west.  From then until 1868 was a time of confusion and instability but ultimately Japan entered the modern world.

A new government was established based on the American model and feudalism ended. Male elites were urged to abandon visual displays of social status such as hair styles and clothes, samurai were forbidden to wear swords. Education was a huge focus and Japan quickly overtook many western countries in terms of school attendance. By 1912, 98% of Japanese girls were literate! Western clothes were adopted, electric grids were installed, railway and telegram systems were installed, banks and newspapers were established. The motto of catch up, over take was popular.

The military was substantially reorganized and by the mid 1870s Japan had a new army of about 9,000 trained by the French model. The new navy was based on the British navy. In 1894 Japan had the urge to test gunboat diplomacy (displayed to it by ‘western’ countries) and started the Sino-Japanese war. In 1904 Japan attacked Russia and in 1910 annexed Korea. In 1931 Japan attacked China and expanded its influence in northeast China and Inner Mongolia. In 1937 Japanese troops attacked Peking and Tientsin then continued on to Nanjing where they committed heinous atrocities, massacring ~42,000 civilians, raping 20,000 and killing ~100,o00 military and civilian ‘prisoners of war’. This marked the beginning of the Pacific War.

An entire chapter is devoted to the Pacific War but this has been covered heavily elsewhere so my only comment will be on the treatment of foreigners by Japanese soldiers. Officers had tremendously high expectations of troops and discipline was often harsh in the Japanese forces. Soldiers commonly died fighting or committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be taken prisoner, so Allied troops who fell into their hands were despised. Japanese army troops were often recruited from the lower classes, often from poor farming areas which are very conservative. They were used to a hard life and sever discipline from their superiors. Korean soldiers were also recruited into the Japanese Army and they treated POWs in the way that they were treated.

At the end of WWII Japan was destitute, having lost 2.5 million soldiers and nearly 1 million civilians, many of its cities, and much of its infrastructure. It was occupied by Allied troops and administered by an American with an aim to disarm Japan and help it to rebuild. In 1950 the Korean War saw the USA unprepared and in need of a massive supply of war materiel to stop the invasion of South Korea by the North so it paid $4 billion. This massive injection of funds, an exceptionally strong work ethic, ingenuity, and a culture of pitching in together, revitalised the industrial sector and was considered a ‘gift from the gods’. The Japanese worked together to make the country economically more powerful than anyone could have dreamed.

The total value of Japanese exports in 1960 was already $4 billion but by 1981 it was $150.5 billion. When in the mid 1980s the value of the Yen increased and tariffs in ‘western’ countries led to higher prices of Japanese goods, Japanese companies nimbly responded by investing in ‘western’ countries to avoid tariffs and shifting labour intensive work to developing Asian countries. The GNP of Japan increased 6-fold between 1970 and 1990! It will be interesting to see how Japan is fairing since the bursting of the ‘bubble’ economy in the late 1990s.

In the final two chapters Andressen covers the social difficulties and challenges that face Japan. Women are still underrepresented in the workforce (41% in 1997) and an Equal Employment Opportunity Law was only introduced to protect women from sexual harassment in 1999. It’s estimated that 4% of high school and junior high school girls date older men, often with sex involved, in exchange for money (enjo-kosai). Japanese males live very prescribed lives with pressure applied even before kindergarten to enter the right university and hence join a reputable company, cooperate with colleagues, marry well and at a reasonable age, and stay with the company until retirement or death. Competition is fierce at every stage. Meanwhile women are expected to be a ‘good wife and wise mother’ and mothers are responsible for the academic success of their children. With urban overcrowding, long commutes, and very expensive housing, life in Japanese cities is challenging. Japan has a negative population growth rate as the post WWII generation reach retirement age (the most aged society in the world) and this is leading to massive pressures on the current work-force and health system. It will be interesting to see how Japan adapts to face the challenges to come.

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One comment on “Book Review – A Short History of Japan

  1. Pingback: Travels in Japan with children, part 11, Nara | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on April 7, 2014 by in Books & Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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