Since Mathew Perry's Black Ships reached Japan and broke its self imposed exclusion from the world, the Japanese Experience has been extraordinary. Alone among the non Western nations it has mastered Western science, technology, and economic prowess, and had earned a place among the major world powers in the pre WW2 world. Then it has joined in with Hitler and Mussolini as part of the Axis power, unleashing a gruesome campaign against its weaker Asian neighbors and a suicidal one against the United States. Following its defeat, Japan reemerged as a pacifist democracy and an economic and cultural world leader.
Ian Buruma's fascinating little book about the century between Perry's arrival and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, has to cover a lot of ground in 160 pages (he has about 1.5 pages per year). His book is necessarily frustrating in its gloss of important aspects, but he nonetheless supplies a useful account of Japan's political history throughout the period (and, surprisingly, quite a lot about Japanese culture as well, particularly the Cinema).
It seems redundant to summarize the political developments in Japan; Suffice to say that, rather then a confrontation between traditionalists and modernists; Buruma sees a conflict between modernists of the Liberal and illiberal kind. The latter, drawing upon the German model, transformed Shinto into a state religion celebrating a divine emperor, created a highly militaristic state, and led Japan into a series of Military adventures, from the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, through the war with Russia in 1905, the 'Manchurian incident' in 1931, and finally to Pearl Harbor.
Following Japan's inevitable defeat, The American occupation force purged the hardliner military leaders, but maintained Emperor Hirohito (Buruma is inconclusive as to the level of his culpability in Japan's militarism). It created a new Constitution (dedicated to Pacifism), and partially, but not entirely, reshaped Japan's political culture. After some turbulence, the conservative Liberal-Democratic Party settled to rule Japan fairly effectively, partially betraying and partially fulfilling the Liberal hopes from the Post War era.
As interesting as Japan's political history has been, the extraordinary question of Japanese history is economic: How did Japan manage to twice rise from great disadvantages to a position as a world leader? How did Japan, alone among all non Western nations, manage to Industrialize as early as the 19th century, and how come it is today a leading member in the still almost exclusively Western club of developed countries?
Buruma hardly addressed these questions, and as such his ability to explain the history of Japan suffers greatly. As interesting as the political and ideological history is, that's not where the story of Modern Japan truly is; Japan's triumph, and current difficulties are hardly addressed, and Buruma mostly sees the enrichment of post war Japan as a distraction, "Opium to the Masses", so to speak, allowing the conservatives to shrink from fuller Liberalization of Japan (pp. 166-167).
The best insight Buruma offers to Japan's extraordinary success is in the Prologue, describing the Judo contest in the 1964 Olympics. The Japanese expected their smallish Judo champion, Kaminaga Akio to defeat his six foot six Dutch opponent, Anton Geesink. Such a victory would have signaled the "superiority of Japanese culture, of the Japanese spirit". (p.6)
But in the end, Geesink won. The Dutchman defeated the Japanese: "Once again, Japanese manhood had put to the test against superior Western manhood, and once again it was found wanting". But the humiliation subsided when Geesink showed the proper respect by bowing the traditional bow. "Geesink... would be treated as a hero in Japan forever after... One quality has stood out to serve Japan better than any other: the grace to make the best of defeat".
I think Buruma has hit upon a major element in Japan's success. Unlike many other traditional societies, Japanese were able to accept the victories of the West and to profit from them; I think people around the world have much to benefit by reflecting upon the Japanese capacity of Embracing Defeat.
When a book's primary redeeming quality is that it is short, that says something. With "Inventing Japan", Buruma has written a terse, somewhat informative account of one of the most incredible periods of political and economic transformation in any nation and has done so with a nagging tone of moral superiority. Japan's failures are construed as products of their "mumbo jumbo" and "irritating habits" where their triumphs are seen as moments where they properly looked to European models (and, from Buruma's lilt, one can't help but believe he means European betters). It is the kind of writing on non-Western nations that one finds in a handful of embittered post-colonial British writers and that shows no real development in thought or nuance of understanding from the days of Ruth Benedict's "Chrysanthemum and the Sword". The brevity is not reason enough to turn to this book instead of works on modern Japanese history by writers like Marius Jansen, Conrad Totman, or Andrew Gordon.
I was moderately familiar with the post-Meiji history of Japan before I read this book; what I didn't know was the binary hero/villain status of every public figure of the era. Thankfully, Buruma wrote a handy guide and now I know exactly in which camp everyone belongs.
To paraphrase the author: 'If one were to read only one book on the history of modern Japan', then take this one, because it is a perfect summary of the political construction of modern Japan. It is a tale of mimesis of the West (colonialism - Manchuria), xenophobia, clans, despotism, patriotism, brutal wars (Nanking massacre) and violent politics (murders and suicides). This book contains also an excellent bibliography. A perfect introduction to the why's of the past and the present of one of the key players in world matters.
A short book can be a great introduction to a topic, or provide a quick overview to something that you do not care to delve further in. Or, it can leave out so much context and nuance, that it is simply confusing. I am a history buff, but not a Japan expert attracted by the topic and timeframe of this book. And I cannot say I did not learn anything or that the book was dry and uninteresting. But it was breathtakingly quick...seeming to jump through the decades, introducing and then throwing away topics and characters and leaving one with far more questions than answers. I cannot comment on the biases others have noted, because I do not have enough knowledge to judge, but there was a certain "flip-ness" to the writing that was irritating, and the overall structure and pace was so flawed I cannot recommend this book regardless of its accuracy or insight.