No country can match the needlepoint-like intensity that Japan brought to its embrace of modernity following the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The burst of reformist energy intent on proving Japan the equal of the West gave birth to a modernity project like no other, one that consciously and intently drew from the West yet retained uniquely Japanese characteristics.
Modernization was about electric lights and streetcars, jazz music and bobbed-hair. It was the age of the railroad and an emperor but also of the bicycle and the suburb, an age of women workers and consumers. Japan’s modernization has always had a strong backward-looking tug, one designed to support the Emperor and a newly powerful nation-state. The past was used to support the modern, with meticulously catalogued local history and the nurturing of craft traditions. Japan’s is a hybrid approach to modernity, embracing what is best from outside but re-working it inside the insular eco-system of this island nation.
That energy ultimately was channelled into imperial, colonial expansion and a cruel fascism whose shadows continue to spook Japan’s neighbors today. Looking back through the lens of history, it is too easy to see the violence of the 1930s and 1940s Japan as pre-destined, a war whose gratuitous cruelty was too thorough-going to have been anything but inevitable.
This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. It can be accessed here.