Monday 15 April 2019

Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present - Christopher Harding (2018)

Rating: Excellent

Late last year while I was reading Mishima on the plane flying from Perth to Melbourne it occurred to me that I should source a book about the history of Japan. The very first night in Melbourne I walked into the fantastic Readings book store in Carton to find Japan Story waiting on the shelves in the well stocked history section. Harding's biographical blurb at the back of the book indicates that he is a cultural historian; which is perhaps why his approach in Japan Story is certainly different to most other history books I've read. Harding uses the lives of particular individuals, from doctors, writers, feminists, revolutionaries and ordinary people to illustrate how each phase of Japan's modern history effected their lives both practically and psychologically. There is still plenty of fairly straight historical reportage, but ultimately Harding's approach is both intriguing and refreshing. Also Harding's writing style reveals a rigorous thinker with a deft touch, something that is not always evident in some historians work.

Harding manages to say considerably more about Japan than just where their aggressive expansionist desires came from that climaxed in the middle of last century; I completed the book feeling like I understood the nation and its peoples considerably more, including the evolution of Japanese family life, feminism, the arts and politics. It was particularly fascinating to read about how Japanese society was effected by and dealt with the multiple forces of modernism in the early twentieth century relative to what I know about how it effected western society. In this way the book is aptly named, as Japan Story does indeed outline a story that is divergent from familiar western histories, which is a valuable thing in our self obsessed nationalistic age.  

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