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
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