Books on Japan: Japan History Books IV
Japan History Books 4: read reviews of books on Japanese and Asian history including the events of World War II.
A Brief History of Japan Samurai, Shogun and Zen: The Extraordinary Story of the Land of the Rising Sun
304 pp; Paperback
Jonathan Clements is the author of a number of books on Japan including Christ's Samurai (see the review below), Anime: A History, Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East and Sacred Sailors: The Life and Work of Seo Mitsuyo.
He admits in the foreward that writing a "brief" history of an entire nation was his most difficult task to date, especially what to include and what to omit.
Clements, however, takes to his work with brio combining his documentary and narrative skills to produce a work of interest not just to students of history but anyone with a passion for Japan or considering visiting this fascinating country.
The author begins with prehistoric and mythical Japan upon which much of the later identity of the people and their culture and commerce was based. Japan as a land of bountiful seafood and plant and animal life would have been an attractive destination to its first settlers who crossed from what is now Korea and Sakhalin, when they were connected by land bridges to Japan.
Later chapters tackle the emergence of a proto-state, Yamato, based in Nara and Kyoto, and deeply linked to the political situation on the Asian mainland in Korea and China. This was the time of mainland cultural influx: writing, money, architecture and religion in the shape of Buddhism.
Clements directs his storytelling towards what his younger, student self, on a first visit to the country, would want to know - the essentials. On the whole he succeeds wonderfully well, occasionally as in the chapter "A Game of Thrones" recreating the epic struggle between Minamoto and Taira, even the most enthusiastic reader begins to flag. That caveat aside, the story picks up steam through the Edo Period and Japan's isolation, hermetically sealed though it was not, to its rude awakening and the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships. My favorite stanza is "The Empire Strikes Back" - the chapter begins with the story of the attempted assassination of the future Tsar Nicholas II in Otsu in 1891, a little known historical incident, brought to life as if in the pages of an enthralling novel. Nicholas survives and his previous love of the country turns to hatred and war is soon on the horizon. Clements is strong too in the later chapters as he analyses the Pacific War, the subsequent American occupation and Japan's recovery and the economic drive of the 1960's and '70's. He has written on these topics in his other work and brings that scholarship and documentary zeal to bear on these eras. The concluding chapter on Cool Japan, the paradoxes involved in this slogan and what to expect in the years ahead, seems spot on.
A Brief History of Japan includes color photographs, an extensive bibliography and tips for further reading.
On a star rating this book would be 8.5 or even 9 and should be recommended reading for Japanophiles everywhere.
288 pp; Paperback
One of the most interesting chapters in all of Japanese history is the Shimabara Rebellion, which took place from mid-December, 1637, to mid-April, 1638.
The conflict is unique in Japanese history in that while both sides consisted almost exclusively of Japanese, it had heavy overtones of being a religious war, as the rebels were made up of mainly Catholic Christians. The only real foreign involvement in the rebellion was the cannon fire on the rebels (as requested by the shogunate), by a Dutch vessel, fire which was half-hearted and short-lived, called off after taunts from the rebels.
The rebel leader was Amakusa Shiro, called Jerome Amakusa (his Catholic name) in the book.
While Christians had been undergoing steady persecution since the beginning of the Tokugawa era in 1600, it was probably a famine and the crushing level of taxation (more than 60%) which finally ignited the rebellion by the mostly-peasant locals.
The taxation was so high because the daimyos of the area, first Shigemasu Matsukura and then his son, Shigetsugu Matsukura (also called Katsuie), were trying with all their might to climb the political ladder by building a great castle at Shimabara.
The younger Matsukura also was trying to build enough wealth to attack Taiwan and The Philippines to enrich himself even more.
In the aftermath of the battle, horrific destruction was wrought on the rebels. The exact number or rebels killed is of course impossible to determine, with estimates running as high as 40,000. Nicholas Couckebacker, the head of the Dutch merchants in Japan, wrote in his diary that 17,000 rebel heads were stuck on poles and hoisted skywards.
Bodies of the rebels, which later turned into just bones, lay around Hara castle for more than 125 years. In 1766 the bones were still in the fields where they had lain since 1638.
Shortly after the uprising was finally put down, Katsuie Matsukura was beheaded for incompetence by the Tokugawa shogunate, thus becoming the only daimyo to be beheaded during the Edo Period.
A few years after the battle ended, the government quietly lowered taxes on the Amakusa area by half. Except for occasional, small-scale peasant uprisings, the Shimabara Rebellion was Japan's last large armed clash until the 1860's.
Author Jonathan Clements carefully reveals the pre-rebellion conditions of the area, then moves into the initial sparks of rebellion, and then finally the full-blown conflict and its bloody consequences. He mixes in occasional first-hand perspectives of what the battle grounds look like today.
Although this book will be especially enjoyable to those interested in Japanese history in general and Christian history in Japan in particular, it is hefty enough and interesting enough to be read by any fan of history.
Reviewed by Marshall Hughes
272 pp; Paperback
People magazine was not exaggerating when it said that Louis Zamperini lived "One of the most incredible American lives of the past century."
Zamperini grew up poor in Los Angeles, and was a juvenile delinquent headed towards serious trouble when his older brother talked him into running for his school's track team rather than running from the police.
A few years later, the younger Zamperini owned the world's best high school mile time. He later broke the American collegiate mile record. and headed off to the 1936 "Jesse Owens" Olympics where he finished eighth in the 5,000-meter (3.1 mile) race. He ran such an incredible last lap that he was summoned to a brief meeting with the German chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
Zamperini returned to America and volunteered for military service. His plane suffered mechanical failure and went down in the Pacific. Zamperini managed to get into a life raft, then drifted for 2,000 miles and 47 days with no food or water before being captured by the Japanese.
He was tortured for much of his time in prison, mostly by a sadistic prison guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed "The Bird," who picked out Zamperini for special treatment because he was so famous.
When Zamperini got back to America he suffered from PTSD and became an alcoholic. His wife persuaded him to go to a Billy Graham revival and there he dedicated his life to following Christ.
This part of Zamperini's life is well-documented.
Don't Give Up, Don't Give In, which was completed two days before Zamperini's death on July 2, 2014, reviews his well-told story but focuses also on his post-fame days.
Zamperini writes that this book's purpose is to answer three questions he is always asked at book signings, press interviews or in casual encounters. Those questions are: 1. What did you do after the war, 2. What's your secret for a good life, and 3. How does your (Christian) faith play a role?
Zamperini's faith allowed him to return to the Sugamo Prison in Japan in 1950 to meet with and forgive his jailers. Watanabe was then in hiding in the hills of Nagano, and didn't come out until a general amnesty made it safe for him to reappear.
In 1997, a year before the Nagano Winter Olympics, Watanabe was found and agreed to meet Zamperini. His family, however, intervened and the meeting never happened.
The next year, 80-year-old Zamperini carried the Olympic torch near the site of his POW camp. He was the only foreigner allowed the carry the torch on Japanese soil.
This book should not be confused with Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 best-seller about Zamperini which was entitled, Unbroken, the basis of the movie of the same name. That movie has grossed $163 million and was directed by Angelina Jolie.
The man certainly lived an incredible life.
Reviewed by Marshall Hughes
224 pp; Hardback
Four months before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, 12-year-old Yoko Morikawa saw her life's dream come true. She passed the test for, and was admitted to, First Hiroshima Prefectural High School, referred to by Yoko and others as Kenjo.
Kenjo was one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Hiroshima. It was also about 700 meters from the hypocenter of the first, soon-to-be dropped atomic bomb.
Yoko started keeping a diary on the day of the school's entrance ceremony, Friday, April 6, 1945. The diary's last entry is Sunday, August 5, the day before the code-named "Little Boy" killed perhaps 100,000 people (estimates vary widely).
Some of the highlights of the book are found in the 45 pages preceding the actual diary, pages which contain backgrounds on Yoko's life written by various people, including her half-brother, Kohji. Also noteworthy are the aftermath pages describing what happened to Yoko's family after the war ended.
Interspersed in Yoko's diary are also helpful, one-page expansions/explanations of things that Yoko mentions in her diary. Examples would include Religion in Japan in the 1940s, Japanese Homes of the Era, What Japanese Children Knew of the War etc. Each helps the reader understand what and how Yoko was probably thinking.
The actual diary entries themselves are at times repetitive and, one could argue, on the edge of being boring. There is the day, date and weather at the top, followed by two or three sentences under the heading of "School" and usually five or six sentences under the heading of "Home." At the bottom a typical entry reads: "Woke up: 5.20 a.m. Went to Bed: 9 p.m. Study: 1 hour. Chores: prepared dinner."
Many of Yoko's school entries say only: "Today I did farm work." She and her classmates also cleared a lot of debris from houses that had been demolished to make firebreaks in anticipation of expected fire bombings. Most Japanese homes of that era were extremely flammable.
Two things that may strike the reader the most are the facts that there wasn't much educating going on in Japanese schools in the summer of 1945, and that the propaganda machine of the Japanese government was doing its job well.
As an example of the first, Yoko's July 6 entry has her and her schoolmates walking 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) to "put valuables belonging to the school in safe storage." Schoolmates here means fellow seventh graders, as everybody older than that in the school was already working full time for the war efforts and not having classes.
As an example of the second, the book tells of the children singing, "Kill the Americans and the British one, two, three" as they cleared debris from houses that had just been razed. All discomforts of life were blamed on the enemies, and children were taught that they could win the war by outworking American and British schoolchildren in helping in the war effort.
In the last page before the book's acknowledgements is written: "Yoko never reflects...that the war is lost and defeat inevitable.....She represents the triumph of the government's plan to weld the young to Japan's dismal last stand against the Americans."
The book is aimed at readers from schoolchildren to adults, and as you can imagine, both thought provoking and moving.
Reviewed by Marshall Hughes
by S.C.M. Paine
498 pp; Paperback
In history, as in any other discipline, context is - if not everything - a whale of a lot. The Wars for Asia 1911-1949 is a powerful reminder of this, setting the history of early twentieth century East Asia in its true context. The book works on the unfortunately very true premise that for most modern Western observers, the Second World War was all about the Allies vs the Germans and Japanese. China's role in this view of history is little more than to show how "wrong" the Japanese were, in this case to invade and rule it with an iron fist.
However, Prof. Sarah Paine, of the U.S. Naval War College, puts things back in perspective by showing that what happened in World War Two was only a small slice of what had been happening both in China and between China and Japan from decades before. Specifically, she puts the well-known events of the years 1939 to 1945 within the context of the less well known events that took place in China and Japan between 1911 and 1949. In doing so, she sheds light on a situation fed by factors that included very legitimate and understandable claims and desires on the part of both the Chinese and the Japanese, revealing the roots of the Pacific War in their nuanced complexity.
The Chinese civil war of 1911 to 1949 is the main theater of conflict for Paine, who very convincingly explains how the vying between the Nationalists and Communists helped draw Japan into China, and very much facilitated Japan's eventual domination of China's east coast.
The most striking example of how poorly apprised most Westerners are of the context of the Pacific War and the Japanese strategy behind it is the attack on Pearl Harbor, which, as the author explains, was just one theater of many in a broad campaign whose aim was not engagement with America, but the expansion of Japanese influence into southern Asia. It was simply Japan's bad luck that its attack on Pearl Harbor - to Japan a preemptive tactic in a strategy whose true focus was far east - was taken by the United States as a challenge that required all-out national mobilization.
In its tone, The Wars for Asia 1911-1949 comes across as a series of lectures rather than a pure book writing project. For example, it repeats a lot of information, lecture-style, which may be off-putting in a conventional textbook, but if your lifestyle involves considerable gaps between putting a book down and picking it up again - as with this reviewer's, this is by no means a bad thing. It is lecture-hall in tone, as well, with a somewhat chatty style that, again, only enhances readability without detracting from the authoritativeness of the work.
There is a strong element of biography in the book, with frequent cameos of the actors in the conflicts that give the narrative flesh and blood.
The Wars for Asia 1911-1949 is a boldly presented piece of research that reorders the average Western reader's often patchy and lop-sided grasp of the Pacific War.
384 pp; Paperback
One of the few survivors of Japan's air war in the Pacific, Saburo Sakai had finished writing a memoir titled Ozoro No Samurai in 1953, which attracted the attention of Fred Saito, a bilingual Japanese newspaper reporter. The samurai spirit lives on in this remarkable tale of Japanese pilots and the Zero fighter plane, beginning with the campaign in China and ending with the surrender. Saburo Sakai, a descendent of the samurai warrior class, was born to a poverty stricken farming family in a small village on Kyushu. His ticket out of poverty was the Japanese Imperial Navy, which he joined in 1933 at the age of sixteen. By the war's end, he was considered Japan's top fighter ace, credited with 64 allied planes shot down.
Sakai's battle experience began in China, where he encountered Russian made planes flown by Chinese pilots. After the Pearl Harbor attack his fighter wing took part in the conquest of the Philippines, later they were assigned to Lae, an airbase on the eastern shore of New Guinea. Here they fought against a combination of Dutch, Australian and American fighter planes based at Port Moresby, 150 miles away. His narrative is not only a view of Japanese strategy during the much of the war, but also a heart-thumping view of a dogfight from the cockpit of a Mitsubishi Zero. Here is a brief example: "…I closed the distance to the enemy fighter. He rolled to the right, but slight control movements kept the Zero glued to his tail. Fifty yards away I opened up with the guns and cannon."
As the battles turned against Japan, it slowly dawned on Sakai that it would be impossible to win the war. The sheer number of American ships and planes, the well trained pilots and advances in their aircraft design, added up to an eventual defeat. The high command however, had different ideas. They believed in a final Japanese victory, a delusion that they passed on to the Japanese public. Even in the desperate days of the Kamikaze attacks, according to Sakai: "These men had faith. They believed in Japan, in striking a blow for Japan with their lives." It's possible the Kamikaze pilots realized the futility. Nevertheless, they "volunteered en masse for their one-way missions."
The reader becomes almost intimately associated with Sakai and his comrades as they lived out the years of the near-constant air combat, and is saddened as one by one, they fall to earth. Sakai himself barely escaped death a number of times, including an incident when he was ordered on a suicide attack against an American task force. This attack originated from Iwo Jima, where he was stationed during an intense bombardment that leveled every building on the island.
Fred Saito spent nearly a year with Saburo Sakai, asking thousands of questions and researching the archives of the Imperial Japanese Navy. He travelled the length and breadth of Japan interviewing surviving pilots and officers to verify what he'd learned from Sakai. These notes were turned over to Martin Caidin, a published author of aviation history, who polished off the final manuscript. Samurai! was first published in 1957.
Reviewed by Paul Binford
by Hiroo Onoda
224 pp; Paperback
For most people, World War ll ended in 1945. For Hiroo Onoda, it didn't end until the spring of 1974.
For almost 30 years, lieutenant Onoda hid out in the jungle on the island of Lubang in The Philippines, gathering intelligence for the Japanese troops and waiting for either their return to recapture the island or new orders from his superiors. For almost three decades he was unaware that the war was over.
Onoda's incredible story is told in this compelling book which details his life from birth to his walking out of the jungle and returning to Japan a hero.
He does not come off as a nutcase, and sees himself as no different than any other good soldier. He felt that it was his duty "to hold out until the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was firmly established."
There are too many facets of his story to relate in a short review, but be assured that the book never turns boring or tedious. It is well-written and gives a clear view of what Onoda was thinking and just how he managed to survive all those years in the jungle.
He might still be hiding out if it weren't for slacker vagabond Norio Suzuki, who told friends when he left Japan on a 50-country journey that he was going to look for "Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman, in that order."
It took Suzuki only four days to run into Onoda and persuade him, at least partially, that the war was over and that he could return to Japan.
It's not as though people hadn't been doing their best to convince Onoda to return to Japan. It was well-known that he was hiding there, and great efforts were made to try to convince him to come out. Helicopters dropped newspapers, letters from and pictures of his family and other things to convince him to return, but Onoda considered them all propaganda of "the enemy."
In 1959 Onoda watched from 150 yards away as his brother pleaded through a loudspeaker for him to come out. Onoda still wasn't convinced.
No Surrender was written soon after Onoda returned to Japan, and was translated into English shortly after that. Within three months of his return, he had dictated 2,000 pages of his remembrances, from the most important big-picture memories to detailed minutiae.
Unfortunately, the reader must search on his own to find out what happened after he returned to Japan as the book ends as he is being helicoptered off of Lubang with his final thoughts of, "Why had I fought here for 30 years? Who had I been fighting for? What was the cause?"
The readers' research will show that Onoda actually didn't stay in Japan for long. Instead he moved to Brazil where he farmed with his brother for 10 years. He then returned to Japan where he died in 2014. He advocated for the restoration of the monarchy and militarism in Japan.
Reviewed by Marshall Hughes
by Gerald Figal
290 pp; Paperback
Gerald Figal&s dense, academic study examines the historical discourse on the supernatural and fantastic (fushigi) in Meiji Japan. The book is most definitely aimed at an academic, Japanologist readership and should not be considered light reading for anyone with only a passing interest in Japanese folklore and myth. For a light-hearted look at monsters (yokai) in popular Japanese anime and manga, try a book like Yokai Attack!.
The book details the prevalence of belief in the supernatural at the end of the Edo Period, heightened by the impending sense of national crisis and the arrival of imagined "monsters" in the shape of goblin-nosed, red-headed Westerners. The modernizing Meiji government sought to seize control of the realm of the mysterious from the common people with a series of state ordinances proscribing such popular "entertainments" as freak-shows. At the same time the new state organs of national education and health branded belief in folklore and the supernatural as out-of-step with the new prevailing dictates of "civilization and enlightenment" or bunmei kaika in Japanese.
Figal's monogram reveals how the Meiji government's centralizing policies had harmful effects on local communities' economies and ecologies, and rings throughout with the very modern and contemporary implications of things fushigi in Japanese history.
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