Dreams of a world be­yond Mount Fuji

Alex Du­dok de Wit en­joys this vivid his­tory of Ja­pan’s two pe­ri­ods of tur­bocharged (and painful) mod­erni­sa­tion

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vividly. Over 400 pages, he charts a clear course through Ja­pan’s dis­ori­ent­ing mod­ern his­tory, from the mid-19th cen­tury to the present, alight­ing on mo­ments of anec­do­tal or dra­matic in­ter­est while keep­ing track of the grand scheme of things.

But the book might equally have been called “Ja­pan Sto­ries”. Harding’s over­ar­ch­ing in­ter­est is in how peo­ple, in their di­verse, con­tra­dic­tory ways, have tried to di­gest and ex­plain what hap­pened to Ja­pan as moder­nity en­croached. In the process, he re­veals the dan­gers at play when a sin­gle such story – an of­fi­cial self­im­age – takes hold of a so­ci­ety, sti­fling oth­ers.

There is cer­tainly much to di­gest, much to ex­plain. Sim­ply put, mod­ern Ja­panese his­tory is a tale of en­forced glob­al­i­sa­tion in two parts: first at the hands of trade-hun­gry Amer­i­can gun­boats in the 1850s, then un­der the aegis of an Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion a cen­tury later. The first phase put an end to cen­turies of in­su­lar feu­dal­ism, and ended in turn with a slide into jin­go­ism and war.

The se­cond saw Ja­pan bal­loon, post-1945, into the world’s se­cond-largest econ­omy be­fore col­laps­ing into a pro­longed stag­na­tion (which Shinzo Abe, the cur­rent prime min­is­ter, was elected to fight). In both cases, Ja­pan’s lead­ers em­braced the na­tion’s new role on the world stage with ter­rific zeal, and this

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