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Modern Japan: A Social History since 1868.

By J. E. Thomas (London and New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1996. xii plus 340pp.).

In his introduction, Professor Thomas informs us that "this is a book for people who know little or nothing about the history of Japan." (p. xi) I am afraid that I would place its author in pretty much the same category, on the basis of his reliance for much of the information he presents on such general western sources as the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, his rather simplistic discussions of such issues as the political role of Japanese emperors (see, for example, pp. 48-52) and army factionalism in the 1930s, (pp. 166-67) and indications of a rather tenuous grasp of the Japanese language on his part, as in his failure to detect at the proofreading stage the misspelling of kokugaku on four occasions on page 119.

Nor are these shortcomings compensated for, as they have been in some other books on Japan by non-specialists in Japanese studies, by fresh insights or perspectives of a disciplinary or interdisciplinary sort. Professor Thomas's "social history," such as it is, is infused by a decent, humanitarian concern for the plight of disadvantaged, marginalized groups within Japan and is distinctly lacking in theoretical rigor or stimulating conceptualization.

The exposition alternates between a general review of a major period and discussion of "an aspect of society . . . highlighted by that period." (p. xi) On this basis, an account of the late Tokugawa era and Meiji Restoration is followed by a chapter on Japanese racism, with special attention to the Ainu; a general account of the political history of the Meiji era is followed by a chapter on the burakumin (outcasts); a chapter on Japanese foreign policy and imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is followed by a chapter on the historically engendered and "seemingly implacable enmity" (p. 127) between Japanese and Koreans. Women in both the imperial and postwar eras figure in a chapter following a discussion of the domestic and foreign policies of the Japanese state in the interwar era. After a rather long and enthusiastic review of the major battles of the Pacific War, there is a chapter on the important role played by education in molding the hearts and minds of the Japanese people in both the imperial and postwar eras. Finally comes a chapter on Japan since 1945, which deals mostly with the political and economic reforms of the Occupation era, the collapse of the Liberal Democratic Party in the summer of 1993 and the continuing problems of the Japanese state and people in finding a modus vivendi with the "alien cultures" (p. 315) of both the West and Asia.

This seesawing between chronological narrative of the major (in this case, political and military) developments in modern Japan history and thematic discussion of aspects of modern Japanese society may well reflect the publisher's desire to have a single, all-purpose Modern Japan title on its list, but it means that less than half the book is devoted to social history. The Ainu, burakumin, Koreans, women and education are worthy topics, to be sure, but so too are urbanization and urban life, the evolution of labor relations and the so-called Japanese employment system, popular culture and a number of other topics which one might legitimately expect to find covered but which receive only fleeting attention at best in this rather amateurish attempt.

Ann Waswo St Antony's College, Oxford
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Waswo, Ann
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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