A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present


In this sweeping narrative, Andrew Gordon paints a richly nuanced and strikingly original portrait of the last two centuries of Japanese history. Gordon takes us from the days of the shogunate--the feudal overlordship of the Tokugawa family--through the modernizing revolution launched by midlevel samurai in the late nineteenth century, the adoption of Western hairstyles, clothing, and military organization, and the nation's first experiments with mass democracy after World War I. Gordon offers the finest synthesis to date of Japan's passage through militarism, World War II, the American occupation, and the subsequent economic rollercoaster. But the true originality and value of his approach lies in his close attention to the non-elite layers of society. Here we see the influence of outside ideas, products, and culture on home life, labor unions, political parties, gender relations, and popular entertainment. Gordon shows the struggles to define the meaning of Japan's modernization, from villages and urban neighborhoods, to factory floors and middle managers' offices, to the imperial court. Most important, he illuminates the interconnectedness of Japanese developments with world history, demonstrating how Japan's historical passage represents a variation of a process experienced by many nations. Japan forms one part of the interwoven fabric of modern history. As head of the prestigious Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University, Gordon is one of the foremost American authorities on Japanese society. In this striking book, he brings all his knowledge and deep personal experience to bear, providing the most comprehensive portrait to date of Japan and its place in the wider world.


The rulers who took power in 1868 initiated changes that amounted to a modern revolution in Japan. To understand this time of transformation one must first pay close attention to the political, social, and cultural order that came together in the 1600s and to the many changes of the 1700s and 1800s. That history, of what is called the Tokugawa era (after the name of the ruling family), is the focus of Part 1. Before examining this fascinating period, however, newcomers to the study of early modern and modern Japan must be introduced to key features of geography, politics and international relations, and culture stretching back much further in time, all of which remained important in the modern era.


The territory of present-day Japan consists of a long, thin chain of islands about one hundred miles from the Korean peninsula at the closest point and five hundred miles from the coast of China. The four main islands are Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido (Japanese rulers did not control the land or people of Hokkaido until the nineteenth century). This archipelago extends diagonally from the northeast to southwest for about twelve hundred miles, roughly the length of the eastern coast of the United States. One is never far from the ocean; the most inland point in the country is no more than eighty miles from the coast. The total area of Japan is just under 150,000 square miles, roughly the size of Montana. The area covered by lowland plains does not exceed 13 percent of total land; that occupied by plateau adds another 12 percent. Over two-thirds of the total land surface is made up of steep mountain districts. Rain is plentiful. A rainy season in June and early July comes between spring and a hot humid summer. The rainy season produces less intense downpours than the monsoons of other parts of Asia, but it has sufficed to enable irrigation and rice cultivation to succeed.

Several aspects of this geographic situation are relevant to Japan's modern history. The distance from the southern island of Kyushu to the Asian mainland was close enough to allow sea journeys more than two thousand years ago, but it was far enough to have made this a perilous journey. Until modern times this distance made it possible but unusual to launch military invasions from the continent or expeditions of conquest from Japan. This moderate distance also allowed people living in present-day Japan, both before the modern era and more recently, to hold an ambivalent sense of their relation to the cultures of the Asian continent. The Japanese people have been alternatively proud of their Chinese inheritance and defiantly assertive of an independent identity.

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