Monday, August 24, 2009

The Japanese Experience

The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan
© 1999 W. G. Beasley
299 pages, including glossary and index.

I checked this book out in April 2007. I remember this well, because I tried reading it on April 22. It was Earth Day, and I decided to spend the late afternoon in a field, laying on my back and watching the clouds while occassionally reading from the book and talking to friends. It was a glorious afternoon that ended when I accidently rolled into a patch of stinging nettles. I'd checked the book out then for the same reason I checked it out last week -- to prepare myself for a Japanese history class. I didn't take that class in 2oo7 because it was a night class and I wanted to avoid such a thing, but in the years since I've had two night classes with the same instructor and have found them to be mildly tolerable -- and this next semester, I will be studying Japanese history on Thursday nights from 5 to 7:30.

Although I have performed well in previous classes with the same instructor, I had the advantange of knowing my subject: European history. My knowledge of Japanese history, or of anything relating to Japanese culture, is extremely limited. I know, for instance, that Shinto and Zen Buddhism were once strong there, that Japan went through a period often described as feudral (to the chagrine of another one of my instructors, a medieval historian who insists feudalism is a uniquley western affair), that it adopted modernization to catch up with the west, and that it was hard-hit by the Depression. Outside of this, though, I am unknowledgable, and so Japan seems as foreign to me as a race from Star Trek. Indeed, there were passages in this book where I might as well have been reading background information for a fantasy story: the names and places have utterly no significance to me. I don't want to go into class wholly unprepared, though, so I've decided to do a little background reading before classes start. (Mine do not start until next week, for those curious. We seem to start later than other universities.)

Beasley offers a short history of Japan from the beginnings of its imperial age to the recession of the 1990s. That's a lot to go over in only 300 pages, so Beasley doesn't go into a lot of detail. He tracks political, economic, and cultural changes throughout those hundreds of years, focusing on especially notable leaders and movements. A dominant theme is Japan's place in Asia -- first dominated by China and its culture, and later attempting to reverse the relationship in creating the "Co-Prosperity Economic Sphere". Despite the breadth of information he has to cover, Beasley delivers a fairly readable narrative that -- while having to ignore lots of specifics, I would assume -- gives the reader a general impression of how things have proceeded. The book is supplemented with two sets of plates, mostly consisting of artwork: the two lone photographs are from the late 1930s and mid-1940s.

For those who know little of Japan and wish to know a bit more, I reccommend the book.

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