The Making of Modern Japan

The Making of Modern Japan

The Making of Modern Japan

The Making of Modern Japan

Excerpt

My entry into the field of Japanese history was fortuitous. As an undergraduate at Princeton I had decided on a career in Reformation and Renaissance history, but World War II and the military duty I began in 1943 changed that. An army language program, followed by service in Okinawa and Japan, brought experiences and interests that proved compelling. The army program was directed by a pioneer in the study of Japan, Serge Elissèeff, who was himself a chapter in the West's encounter with Japan. Son of a wealthy Russian merchant, he had studied at Tokyo Imperial University in the last years of the Meiji period majoring in Japanese literature, the first non-Japanese to do so, and became a member of the student group that met with the great novelist Natsume Sōseki. Returning to Moscow, he narrowly survived the Bolshevik Revolution and made his way to Paris before coming to head the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1935. He was a splendid teacher, with a personal anecdote to underscore the usage of almost any word or term.

I was astonished by a language so different from those I knew, and to acquire it was almost like learning to think a second time. There were gradations of status so clearly established that they seemed terraces of courtesy, and all transcribed in a nonalphabetic script. Long before the course was completed I had decided to return for more systematic study once the war was over.

Acquaintance with Japanese society confirmed me in that resolution. On Okinawa I found a gentle, warm, and forgiving people, stripped of everything except their dignity, dazed and surprised to find themselves alive after the carnage of a battle that had reduced their numbers by one-quarter. They seemed courteous, deferential, and quietly skeptical of all authority. In the Japan to which I was soon transferred shadowy figures . . .

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