Reviews provided by Syndetics
Library Journal Review
This panoramic study is a magnificent achievement that addresses virtually every dimension of Japan's modern history from the 17th century to the present, towering above all other works of its kind. In lucid and lively prose, McClain (history, Brown Univ.) analyzes major trends in politics, the economy, society, culture and the arts, foreign affairs, and almost every other conceivable aspect of Japanese society. He is both landscape painter and miniaturist, illuminating core trends with the telling anecdote and the personal stories and travails of ordinary people as well as the high and mighty. His pages devoted to social history, which cover workers, women, minorities, and outcastes, are particularly fine. McClain is no mere chronicler of events. He provides a finely shaded, deeply intelligent, and eminently fair assessment of a country whose historical legacy has shadowed it throughout its often tortuous transformation from a semifeudal polity to a modern state. A sympathetic but detached observer, McClain makes the history come alive for students and general readers alike. For all libraries. Steven I. Levine, Univ. of Montana, Missoula (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
McClain takes a multifaceted, nuanced look at Japan's last four centuries. A professor of history at Brown University, McClain begins with the investiture of Tokugawa Ieyasu as shogun in 1603, then leads the reader from daimyo castles of the 17th and 18th centuries to the filthy barracks of mine workers in the 19th century, to the refined, "cultured houses" of the emerging urban middle class in the 20th century. Equally adept at describing religious and intellectual currents, economic development, political maneuverings and the special problems faced by women and marginalized groups like Koreans and the Ainu, McClain draws on the most current studies of Japanese history. Throughout, he is evenhanded in his choice of subject matter and source. He acknowledges the contributions of the industrial giants, but gives voice to the rural poor, factory workers and victims of industrial pollution. He describes the geopolitical realities that drove Japan to empire but also unflinchingly details the horrors of war. More than a mere description of how Japan became a leading nation of the 20th century, this is a story with room for the pronouncements of emperors, the poetry of Basho and the demands of labor leaders. A newcomer to the subject may be daunted at first by the sheer volume of information, but McClain soon puts the reader at ease with his mastery of the subject and his clear, precise prose. Some readers may wonder at his decision to overlook events such as the Ako incident in the chapters on the Tokugawa era or Aum Shinrikyo's gassing of the Tokyo subway in his discussion of contemporary Japan, but overall this is a remarkable achievement. 70 illus. not seen by PW. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Setting aside the familiar narrative of the economic success of homogeneous Japan, McClain (Brown Univ.) presents the history of modern Japan in terms of changing Japanese notions of nation and self. Lively vignettes of specific historical moments at the opening of each chapter depict specific men and women of various classes and thus convey to the reader the richness of Japanese lived experience. Throughout his text, McClain incorporates the findings of a half-century of American scholarship on Japan; an extensive bibliography provides excellent guidance for further reading. The earlier chapters are stronger on social and cultural history than the later ones. The sections on war and occupation focus closely on the bilateral relationship with the US. Because there are only two chapters on the years since 1952, the lively postwar debates between Left and Right over issues such as constitutional revision, the Vietnam War, and the building of Narita airport are scarcely visible beneath the dominant narrative of economic growth and more recent stagnation. The graphs, charts, chronologies, and photographs are well chosen. General and all academic collections. S. A. Hastings Purdue University
McClain, professor of history at Brown University, has done an admirable job of tracking four centuries of Japanese history during which the nation emerged from feudal isolation and became a dominant power in East Asia. As McClain illustrates, the Japanese were never subjected to the indignities or the benefits of European imperialism. Thus, they were able to harvest what they deemed useful from the West while maintaining a remarkable degree of cultural solidarity. McClain's descriptions of the political changes during the Tokugawa era and the Meiji Restoration provide interesting perspectives, but McClain is at his best when he views Japan from the bottom up, eloquently illustrating how the daily lives of ordinary people gradually changed. This is a well-written, well-researched, and easily readable survey of the modern history of a fascinating and important nation--even more important now that Japanese nationalism is on the rise and a more assertive foreign policy is a likely by-product. --Jay Freeman
Kirkus Book Review
A history of Japan, from its centralization in 1603 to the recent past. The culmination of McClain's (History/Brown Univ.) work is the Meiji Restoration, where a group of young officials "enlightened" the island country in the mid-19th century, bringing it into the Western-dominated system of international relations. The author shows how that revolution introduced industrialization and democratic reforms into Japanese society, changes that greatly benefited women and the peasantry while disenfranchising samurai and other members of the elite. He also shows, however, how cultural themes from the former government of shoguns-xenophobia especially-persisted in the nation well into the 20th century. The Meiji Restoration, as its name implies, was backward-looking. It sought to reconnect the Emperor with the Japanese people so as to create a population that was more patriotic-and therefore more likely to sacrifice itself in terms of hard work and service to a newly formed army of conscripts. Meiji leaders embraced Western-style reforms because they wanted to be independent of the unfair commercial treaties the West had placed upon them. When Japan finally developed the military power to modify the treaties-its victory over Russia in 1905 was the crowning achievement of the Meiji administration-the government proceeded to mimic the policies of the imperial states it once labeled barbarous. Japan's invasions of Korea, China and, in WWII, much of Asia, were marked by a savagery that reflected its vision of itself as a superior culture. This superiority complex proved the country's Achilles' heel, though, as it gambled that the US, lacking a tradition of leadership by the military, would not rise to the challenge of a full-out Pacific war. McClain's attention to postwar Japan focuses on the country's relations with the US, its recently booming, and now faltering, economy, and the partisan maneuverings of the Liberal Democratic Party. An excellent general history that chronicles the rise and fall of a bygone Japan.