A short history of Japan’s fateful century

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A short history of Japan’s fateful century

In this slender 2003 book, Ian Buruma tries to sum up the Japanese century in which everything changed ― from the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s gunships in 1853, “opening” Japan whether it wanted to be or not, to the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, where American athletes walked into the stadium in cowboy hats, and the Olympic flame was lit by a boy who was born in Hiroshima the day the bomb was dropped.
At fewer than 200 pages, “Inventing Japan” has an evocative, understated quality that’s not unlike that of haiku, predictable though it might be to say so. Much of its power seems to come from what’s left out. Having forgone comprehensiveness, Mr. Buruma is free to swoop over history as he likes, going in for the telling detail.
When Commodore Perry arrived, Mr. Buruma writes, he insisted that his message from President Millard Fillmore be taken directly to the emperor, unaware that it was the shogun who ran things. The emperor, “even if such a letter had ever reached him, would not have known what to do with it,” Mr. Buruma writes. Perry’s interpreter is quoted making some condescending remarks about “this secluded, pagan people.”
But by that time, Mr. Buruma notes, Japan had detailed maps of the United States, and extensive knowledge of American and British politics, medicine and history. One theme of “Inventing Japan” is that in the decades leading up to the catastrophe of the 1930s and ‘40s, the conflicts between East and West, modernity and tradition and liberalism and fascism were never as cut-and-dried as one might assume.
An example is the cult of the emperor as divine figure, which General Yamagata Aritomo and other Meiji Restoration figures packaged as a return to Japanese tradition, but which, Mr. Buruma writes, was really a modern invention, influenced by the European racial fantasies with which it would share the same horrific culmination.
Because his century or so has to end somewhere, Mr. Buruma chooses the 1964 Olympics, and the defeat of Japan’s judo champion by a Dutchman named Anton Geesink. When Geesink silenced his cheering countrymen, turned to his beaten opponent and made a formal bow of respect, Mr. Buruma writes, he won Japan’s affection forever. “Overconfidence, fanaticism, a shrill sense of inferiority, and a sometimes obsessive preoccupation with national status ― these have all played their parts in the history of modern Japan,” Mr. Buruma writes. “... But one quality has stood out to serve Japan better than any other: the grace to make the best of defeat.”


Inventing Japan: 1853-1964
by Ian Buruma
Published by Modern Library
$12.95; 194 pages


by David Moll

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