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Japanese history
Guide to modern Japanese history: An introduction by Gary D. Allinson
Karel van Wolferen: The Enigma of Japanese Power


Added on March 5, 2007
On March 1, 2007 the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flatly denied the existence of "Comfort Women" and brothels operated by the Japanese army during the 1930s and 1940s. The Japanese forced at least 100,000 women - many sources write of some 200,000 women - (mostly Korean and Chinese) into prostitution. In the Kono Declaration of 1993, the Japanese Government acknowledged the fact. Subsequent governments, including the one of Junichiro Koizumi, apologized for it. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ignores historical evidence. He is a disgrace for Japan and should apologize for his remarks and/or step down.

Article added in December 1999
Gary D. Allinson, professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Virginia, has written a useful Guide To Modern Japanese History. He considers himselfs a moderate observer who gets "dismayed by 'Japan bashers'", but Allinson also wants to distinguish himself from "'chrysanthemums', Japan lovers who sometimes overlook its shortcomings." His historical narrative is divided into four chapters of about equal length. Chapter One, "Preserving Autonomy, 1850-1889", treats the aristocratic and monarchical state that was almost entirely closed off from the outside world. Foreingers were kept away from Japanese soil, with the exception of a score of Dutch and a few thousand Chinese merchants in a special district in the city of Nagasaki. A foreign crisis occuring amid domestic turbulence finally led to a revolution in 1868, known as Meiji restoration. Allinson examines the political, military, economic, social and cultural changes occuring during this period, largely imposed by an oligarchy unchecked by representative political institutions and operating largely free from the constraints of public opinion.
 
Among the foreign influences, Allinson mentions German constitutional practitioners and Austrian legal theorists. In the Meiji period, despite the appearance of concentration, power was diffused among cabinet members, legislators, military figures, privy councillors and others. Fukoku kyohei, "enrich the nation and strengthen the military", summarizes the primary aims of the Meiji government. It was also a time of widespread entrepreneurship, commercial institutions, trading networks, capital savings, some protoindustrial enterprises, financial mechanisms and a responsive labor force. Transport and communication systems as well as the banking system improved. New institutions for production and trade were established, a nationwide system of public education created. On the dark side, Allinson mentions the deflation of the 1880s that made a lot of poor families suffer. The Confucian system of hierarchical relationships (between ruler and subjects, parents and children, husbands and wives or older and younger brothers) was enforced. Under the Tokugawa house that reigned before the Meiji era, Buddhism was patronized and protected. Now, Shinto ritual practices were supported and Buddhist priests, that had stood against the Meiji restoration, were punished and Buddhist temples destroyed. Allinson also reminds us that in 1889, 70% of the Japanese workforce still toiled in the agrarian sector.
 
"Integrating the Nation, 1890-1931", "Fighting for Development, 1932-1973" and "Adapting to Affluence, 1974-Present", are the following chapters. One can always argue about the validity of periodisation, but his chapter on the years 1932-1973 embraces two very different periods, imperialism and war as well as American occupation and postwar democracy. Allinson should have treated the period of 1932 to 1945 in a seperate chapter. The historical narrative is completed by a topical compendium with 150 individual entries, ranging from biographies of political and business leaders to state-guided organizations, political parties or opposition movements. "Trashings", insurrections or rice riots belong also to Japanese history. Allinson's topical bibliography includes even valuable electronic (Internet) sources. Documents, a chronology, a list of Prime minsters as well as some quantitative data make his book a valuable introduction for students.
 
But Allinson's book does have some severe limitations regarding the dark side of Japanese history. Although he enters the topic of Japanese imperialism, he does not mention the Nanjing massacre. In 1937, the Japanese killed about 300,000 Chinese in Nanjing, mostly civilians, one of the worst slaughters in 20h-century history. He is too short on the Second World War. We miss the Japanese war crimes (as Nanjing, they are not even listed in the index). Only in the biographies of Japanese leaders, you can read: "He was declared a Class A war Criminal". But you never get to know the reasons behind these condemnations. Another topic Allinson does not touch: the Comfort Woman, a euphemistic term designating mostly Korean women which were forced to serve the Japanese soldiers as prostitutes.
 
In Allinson's biography, we miss The Engima of Japanese Power by Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen. His book, published in 1989, had a huge impact on the discussion of Japanese postwar history. Although his critics say that he is not fluent in Japanese (a severe limitation, since understanding a culture largely depends on speaking its language), van Wolferen had 15 years of reporting experience in Japan when he wrote The Enigma of Japanese Power. His conclusions may sometimes be too harsh, but his analysis remains one of the best on today's Japan. Even if one does not share his vision, his book is by far too important to be ignored. In short, he believes that Japan is a country governed by fine tacticians without a strategy (as Frank B. Gibney put it in the New York Times in 1989). The economic and political crisis that hit Japan in the early 1990s proved him to be partly right. Japan has still not resolved all problems, the budget deficit is gigantic with 10% of GDP. If (the extremely low) interest rates should rise, Japan's debt could heavily weigh on its budget. But van Wolferen may underestimate the younger generation's will to change. Even among business leaders and some of Japan's richest men, there are several with foreign wives. Protest and alternative opinion do exist in Japan. Therefore, Allinson and van Wolferen are complementary readings.

Gary D. Allinson: The Columbia Guide to Modern Japanese History, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 259. Get it from Amazon.com
Karel van Wolferen: The Enigma Of Japanese Power, Vintage Books, Reprint edition June 1990 (1989), p. 504. Get it from Amazon.com
 
See also:
Conrad Totman: Early Modern Japan, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1993, p. 540.
Leonard A. Humphreys: The Way of the Heavenly Sword: The Japanese Army in the 1920s, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1995.
Robert J. C. Butow: Tojo and the Coming of the War, Princeton, N.J., Princeton Univ. Press, 1961.