Japan History Books

Books on Japanese History

Japanese history book reviews: read reviews of Japanese history books from early to modern Japan history.

Unsung Heroes of Old Japan

Unsung Heroes of Old Japan.

by Michifumi Isoda

JPIC, 2017

ISBN: 978-4-916055-76-7
Hardback 208 pp

The Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture is starting to bring non-fiction works by Japanese writers to an English-speaking audience, a laudable objective. Unsung Heroes of Old Japan is one of these books.

Here Professor Isoda has rescued three Edo-period heroes from obscurity. There is the merchant who saves his dying town by audaciously lending a large sum of money to the daimyo and reaping the interest. There is the masterful poet and monastic scholar who, after shunning fame and fortune, and literally burning all his poetry, ends up living simply in a village retreat, coming to embrace his role as a teacher of Confucianism. And finally there is the Buddhist nun who not only becomes an acclaimed exponent of poetry and pottery, but helps the poor in her home town of Kyoto. (It is fair to say the last of these, Rengetsu, is famous enough already in Kyoto.)

Indeed, the common thread in Isoda's essays is a quiet sense of devotion to fellow humanity. He picks through Japan's storied history not for examples of martial or political prowess, but rather acts of courageous kindness, the kinds of things that barely make it into the official records and thus are in danger of being lost forever.

Isoda says in his introduction that he hopes people in the modern era might emulate his heroes. His attempt to convince them to do so succeeds in that he writes in a low-key, approachable way about protagonists that are inherently compelling. The book is filled with fascinating digressions about Japanese culture that are sure to enhance the knowledge of most Japan aficionados. Isoda is also helped in this English edition by Juliet Winters Carpenter's fluid yet uncompromising translation.

The three long essays might have been better served by more dynamic formatting and the use of illustrations, which are nonexistent. And the cover itself is simply a reproduction of a nondescript Edo street scene. Still, this remains a valuable introduction to some of the lesser-known players in Japanese history.

Richard Donovan

Beyond Death and Dishonour: One Japanese at War in New Zealand

Beyond Death and Dishonour: One Japanese at War in New Zealand.

by Michiharu Shinya

Castle Publishing

ISBN: 0-9582-1246-5
155 pp

On November 13, 1942, 22-year-old Japanese naval lieutenant Michiharu Shinya was aboard the Japanese destroyer Akatsuki, preparing for battle near Guadalcanal. He was confident of victory, but aware of the dangers around him.

Moments before it was to fire its first torpedoes at the enemy ships, the Akatsuki took several direct hits and was immediately rendered useless - with the majority of its crewmen laying dead.

As the ship and most of its crew, sank to their watery grave, Shinya and the other 20 or so survivors (out of a crew of almost 200) clung to whatever they could through the night, and at light of dawn began to make their way to a Japanese-held beach.

Much to their dismay, they were rounded up by American landing ships. When he was plucked, near death, out of the ocean, all Shinya could say was, "No, thanks" in English. He preferred death.

The remaining members of the Akatsuki were now POWs, feeling more embarrassment and humiliation at being taken alive than joy at actually being alive. Soon, they were on their way to Camp Featherstone, a P.O.W. camp in New Zealand.

Shinya wished to die, and he considered different ways to accomplish his goal. The shame and ignominy of his group's capture is shown in that during his three years as a POW neither Shinya nor any of his comrades-in-arms either sent or received even one letter, even though it would have been possible to do so had they wanted to. Also, to prevent their families knowing of their capture, the captured fighters gave fake names to their jailers. Shinya used the family name Kawai.

The majority of Beyond Death and Dishonor is spent telling the story of the gradual transformation of Shinya during his three years as a P.O.W. Slowly he moved from bitterness to acceptance and understanding of his fate and how he, and the world, got to where they were. He sensed that his "eyes were opening to the real world." A military chaplain was assigned to the camp, and Bibles were among the little reading material made available to the soldiers. At the beginning, Shinya shunned the Bible and the small Bible groups that started up.

"The first (obstacle) was whether belief in Christianity was contrary to the basic nature of Japanese nationality. In the light of later knowledge, it is clear that is not the case, but for us who bore traditional Japanese conceptions, this still caused pain." A little later he wrote, "It always comes back to the circumstances that that humankind does not know the living and only true God, and is in a state of rebellion against God; in other words it is the reality of human sin which is the cause of wars."

Except for a brief epilogue and some appendices, the book basically ends with Shinya and his mates returning to a devastated Japan to start new lives and try to rebuilt the country they loved.

For World War ll history buffs, this is a good look at some of the circumstances of one particular naval battle and of a related P.O.W. camp, although the author prefers to spend the majority of the book telling of his spiritual transformation. Any military terminology used in the book is well explained.

Marshall Hughes

So Far From The Bamboo Grove

So Far From The Bamboo Grove.

by Yoko Kawashima Watkins


ISBN: 0-9582-1246-5
192 pp

In the chaotic closing days of World War ll 11-year-old Yoko Kawashima's family is scrambling to get out of Korea and back to Japan, a country that Yoko has never personally known.

They live in the farthest reaches of northern Korea and are warned one night that they must leave immediately and head for Seoul to have any chance to make it back to Japan. Yoko, her sister, Ko, and their mother leave their brother who is working not far away. The family makes it to within 40 miles of Seoul, but have to walk the rest of the way.

They are then told they have to get to Pusan to catch a boat back to Japan. Of course, the Koreans, and especially the Korean military, are in no mood to help any Japanese people and are looking more to extract revenge through rapes and beatings than anything else.

After a long, torturous journey, Yoko manages to return to Japan with her mother and sister from where they await the returns of Yoko's father and brother. They hope to live with Yoko's grandparents in Aomori, but this doesn't come to pass and things continue to deteriorate. There is sickness, sadness and scarcity of money. And death.

War, and its aftermath, is hell.

The book is written from the eyes of an 11-year-old, so the book is an easy read - at least from the standpoint of vocabulary. Some of the themes are not so easy to take. The book is based on the life of the author, who uses her own name as the name of the main protagonist.

Even though it is an award-winning book, there are several gaffes that editors should have caught. For example, when Yoko's brother barely eludes capture while on the run, his would-be captors discover the campfire he built and say, "The campfire was still warm" instead of "is still warm."

Later her brother comes up with the brilliant plan, which he later abandons, of pretending to be dead while soldiers strip him naked and pull out the metal from his teeth. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I think it would be difficult to pretend I was dead while people are pulling my teeth out.

This prizewinning book is not without controversy. While it has won several literary awards and has been on some states' educational recommended reading lists in America, it has also been banned in several parts of the U.S. and in Korea. Incredibly, even the North Korean government has chimed in its condemnation of the book.

Most of the protests center on the charge that the book glosses over Japanese atrocities in Korea in the years 1910-1945. The author has stated that she was writing only about her experiences and she has apologized for any bad feelings felt by Korean readers of the book.

The author wrote a follow up book called My Brother, My Sister and I, which picks up after the end of this story. In it, Yoko's family continues their meager existence in post-war Tokyo.

Marshall Hughes

My Brother, My Sister & I

My Brother, My Sister & I.

by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

Mass Market Paperback

ISBN: 0-6898-0656-6
192 pp

Yoko Kawashima Watkins finishes her semi-autobiographical story of 13-year-old Yoko and her family after they return from Korea to Japan at the conclusion of World War II.

A review of Kawashima's first book, So Far From the Bamboo Grove, can be found above. While it is best to read the two books consecutively, either book can be read on a stand alone basis.

Yoko, with her older sister, Ko, and head-of-the-family brother, Hideyo, are living in a Kyoto warehouse in the ruins that are Japan in the late 1940's. Their mother has recently died and their father is likely a prisoner of the Russians in Siberia. Nobody is sure where he is or has been the last few years - or if he will ever return to Japan.

From the beginning of the book, and really from the beginning of the first book, Yoko's life can best be described as a series of struggles and hardships. Things get even worse when the warehouse her family lives burns down and Yoko's family is blamed for the fire itself, the theft of money prior to the setting of the fire, and the resulting deaths of two people in the blaze. Yoko also must persevere through extreme bullying at school.

It is only with the love, guidance and unending endurance of Ko and Hideyo that Yoko has a chance to survive. Any hopes of thriving will have to come later. The self-sacrificing of the three is remarkable given their situation.

The book is often pegged as a young adult book, but there is really no age limit for who can enjoy this book. Being a young adult book, the vocabulary is not challenging and the writing not complex. There is a minimum of characters, which reflects the simplicity and bleakness of Yoko's life.

The reader should not despair as by the end things turn out, if not well, as well as can be expected, and there is clear hope of a better life on the horizon.

Readers don't have to know much about Japan or World War II history to be able to enjoy this book, and any Japan-related terms are explained quickly and completely.

Marshall Hughes

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back.

by Janice P. Nimura

W. W. Norton & Company

ISBN: 0-3933-5278-1
336 pp

In the early 1870's, less than 20 years after Matthew Perry's Black Ships had steamed into Tokyo Bay and ended some 200 years of self-imposed isolation, Japan was undergoing tectonic shifts. The country had just united under Emperor Meiji, who replaced the samurai system which had ruled Japan from 1185 to 1868.

In a quest to improve itself by better understanding the west, the government decided to send some young women to America for 10 years to learn the American education system. When the call went out from the government not one candidate was found.

Later, a second call went out and five young girls applied, or actually were forced to go by their repective families to lessen the burden of feeding all of their children. All five girls were from samurai families who had been recently defeated.

Eventually, the five set sail for America in December of 1871 as part of a 101-person contingent called the Iwakura Mission, whose charge was to gain recognition for the new dynasty of Emperor Meiji, renegotiate the unequal treaties they had with various world powers, and gain understanding of the west and its systems and structures which, they acknowledged, were superior to what Japan then had.

The girls, traveling with no family, no English skills and very little in the way of guidance or clearly-defined goals, were 14, 14, 11, 10 and six years old when they set sail for San Francisco. Shige Nagai, the 10-year-old, did not know she was to be a part of the mission, or even that there was such a planned mission, until the day a government official rode up on his horse and whisked her away from her family.

Daughters of the Samurai is the story of the lives of the girls as they grew up in Japan, then their time in America, and finally their remaining years spent mostly in Japan with impressive degrees of success.

The book is an incredible biography of the girls, but it is so much more than that. It gives fascinating details of history, both of Japan and of America, and the readers will find themselves creating their own "what ifs" as they read. It is a sure must read for those interested in education of women in Japan.

The author managed to find engrossing specifics of the girls' adventures. For example, when the girls got stuck in bad weather in Salt Lake City on their way to the east coast (on the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad), they were summoned to meet Brigham Young but declined as he was under federal detention for having 16 wives and 48 children. The girls were hoping to make a good impression on the American government and meeting Young would not have been a good look.

One of the five, Tsuda Ume, the aforementioned six-year-old, is known now even to Japanese elementary school students. During her life, she had personal audiences with Helen Keller and Florence Nightingale, among others. She later became a major figure in pushing for the education of girls and women in Japan.

Sutematsu Yamakawa, another of the five, also became a well-know figure in Japanese history.

Marshall Hughes

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe.

by Frederik L. Schodt

Stone Bridge Press

ISBN: 1-6117-2009-5
304 pp

Among the various colorful characters who flocked to Japan in general and Yokohama in particular after the opening up of the country in the 1860's and early 1870's, was "Professor" Risley aka Richard Risley Carlisle.

Risley, who was born in New Jersey in 1814 and died in a lunatic asylum in Philadelphia in 1874, had already traveled the globe and achieved worldwide fame as a circus and theater artist before he arrived in Japan aboard a British steamer from Shanghai in 1864.

The inventor of the "Risley act" where the performer spins a fellow acrobat using his/her feet, Risley was both a skilled performer and experienced circus impresario, by the time he landed in Japan in a bid to bring his circus to new markets and a new audience.

Risley had maybe hoped to take his circus on tour around Japan but foreigners were prohibited from leaving the Treaty Ports and at this time it was also far too dangerous to do so, if they could. The foreign audience was just too small to sustain Risley so he took up other pursuits including running a tavern, opening a riding school and becoming the first person to import ice and sell ice cream in Japan, following that up by personally importing six dairy cows from the US to begin a fresh milk delivery service - another first in Japan.

It was during his time in Yokohama that Risley had the idea of taking a troupe of Japanese performers, namely acrobats, jugglers and top-spinners, to the west.

Japanese circus tricks, in particular the acrobatics, top spinning and the butterfly trick, where an origami butterfly was kept in the air with the aid of a fan, quickly became all the rage among westerners in Japan. Thus, in 1866, Risley left Yokohama for the west coast of America with his troupe of over 30 Japanese performers after procuring the first ever passports issued for Japanese to travel overseas. He was not alone, such was the perceived profit to be made from a Japanese circus, two other troupes with rival companies left at around the same time.

Risley's "Imperial Japanese Troupe" was to take the States, and later Europe, by storm and become the most famous Japanese circus of the time thanks to the acrobatics and charm of "Little All Right", their young, star performer. Much is known of their experiences on the road in these strange lands thanks to a diary kept by Hirohachi, the overseer of the troupe. Photographs, newspaper clippings and posters of their tours still survive and illustrate the book in both color and black and white. The "Imperial Japanese Troupe" performed in front of President Andrew Johnson in Washington D.C. and also several monarchs and other royalty in Europe. Despite the rave reviews and undoubted success of his performances, the high cost of touring plus a case of embezzlement by one of his business partners, meant that Risley never really made his fortune and could never afford to stop working. The troupe split in 1869 with some of its members returning to Japan, while others remained contracted with Risley. By 1874, it seems Risley was a broken man, troubled by law suits, increasing debt and the death of his oldest son. His demise, at age just 60, led to one last burst of fame, as he was remembered with affection in newspaper obituaries throughout the world.

Frederik L. Schodt has written extensively on Japan, particularly on manga and he brings his story-telling talents to bear in this fascinating look at an almost-forgotten Japanese cultural export.

Tokyo Rising - The City since the Great Earthquake

Tokyo Rising

by Edward Seidensticker

ISBN: 4-8053-052-4
348 pp

Translator and Japan scholar Edward Seidensticker's Tokyo Rising continues the series begun with Tokyo: Low City, High City.

Beginning with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Seidensticker documents the relative freedom of the Taisho Period, the onset of imperialism and militarism in the 1930s, World War II, the American Occupation, post-war economic growth, up until the late 1980s, and what these periods meant to and for Tokyo.

Seidensticker's work was published in 1990, and the final section in particular makes for interesting reading with its emphasis on Japan's (and by extension Tokyo's) seeming invincibility and the decline of the West.

Edo, The City That Became Tokyo: An Illustrated History

Edo, the city that became Tokyo.

by Akira Naito, Illustrated by Kazuo Hozumi
Translated by H. Mack Horton

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-2757-5
211 pp

Originally published in Japanese in 1982, Naito's book attempts to outline the early rise of Edo period Tokyo, from 1603-1867, when the city served as the capital of the Shogun. These were the military leaders who in theory served the Emperor in Kyoto, but who in practice ran the country. This period gave birth to much of what is now considered to be the core of Japanese culture: kabuki, ukiyoe, geisha, sumo, and the haiku poets. When, by the very end of the book, Japan was finally forced to open up to the outside world by Admiral Perry and his Black ships, Tokyo was the largest city in the world.

Naito has organized his text chronologically, with much commentary on the construction of the Imperial Palace and land reclamation projects around Tokyo Bay. He also provides simple primers on the class system - warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants - and the slow rise of the commoners.

Perhaps inevitably, the text has a Greatest Hits feel to it. 250 years of history of one of the world's great cities cannot possible be conveyed with much depth in 200-odd pages. Also, the omission of some of the more unsavory aspects of Tokyo's history - organized crime, the untouchable class, etc. - leaves the reader with a rather sanitized version of the city. However, the book has something for everyone: the opening sections on urban design, kabuki, riots, storms, artisans, festivals, gangs, etc. - and all packaged in short, delectable bite-size bits.

Unbeaten Tracks In Japan

Unbeaten Tracks In Japan

by Isabella Bird

ISBN 1-88521-157-0
400 pp

To a large extent, history is written by and about elites within a society. Political, military, cultural, economic, and religious elites. There is little about "the common folks", the "people". Chances are, that the image you have of historical Japan is of Samurai or Geisha, Tea Ceremony or Haiku, or the "floating world" of Edo. But most Japanese were peasants in the countryside, far removed from such a life. How can we find out what their lives were like?

Isabella L. Bird's book is one of the few sources we have on 19th century rural Japan. Bird, a 47-year-old British woman, arrived in Japan in 1878. Her aim was to explore the northern island of Hokkaido, home of the Ainu. Speaking no Japanese, she travelled with a young man, Ito, as guide and interpreter. Only ten years before Japan was still a "closed" country, and even now, few non-Japanese have travelled outside of the major ports and cities. This book is a collection of letters to her sister detailing the trials and tribulations of what was an extremely difficult adventure, and they make compelling travel writing; but for me it is her descriptions of village life that intrigued the most. Poverty, filth, squalor and nakedness were the norm, a far cry from the refined gaiety of bustling Tokyo. Her descriptions of the customs and culture of the Ainu are also fascinating. Though written as personal letters, she decided to publish them because "I lived among the Japanese, and saw their mode of living, in regions unaffected by European contact. As a lady travelling alone, and the first European lady who had been seen in several districts through which my route lay, my experiences differed more or less widely from those of preceding travellers; and I am able to offer a fuller account of the aborigines of Yezo, obtained by actual acquaintance with them, than has hitherto been given."

Court & Bakufu in Japan: Essays in Kamakura History

Court & Bakufu in Japan: Essays in Kamakura History

by Jeffrey P. Mass (Editor)

ISBN 0-8047-2473-3
324 pp

The Kamakura period (1180-1333) of Japanese history is considered to be the time when political power shifted from the Imperial Court in Kyoto to the Bakufu (Warrior government) in Kamakura. However, it was not an abrupt change as comes about by a revolution for example, but a slow shift that also involved many forces and political actors other than the Court and the Bakufu. The essays in this book, all by American historians, shed light on some of the processes contributing to the shift in power. Many of the essays presume some knowledge of the period by the reader, but there is an excellent glossary with Japanese characters that I would suggest reading first, and I would also suggest reading the epilogue, which serves as a better introduction than the actual introduction. The essays that I found most interesting and informative were Joan Piggott's essay on Nara's Todaiji Temple that illustrates the great economic and hence political power wielded by the great temples; Martin Collcutt's piece on the spread of Zen monasteries during the Kamakura period, which is attributed to its appeal to warriors and its sponsorship by the ruling elite, who viewed it as a counterbalance to the increasing military power of the great temples; and Lorraine Harrington's essay on social control and Akuto (literally "evil bands", but meaning outlaws). If you want an introduction to the Kamakura period, this is not the book for you, but if your interest is in medieval Japan then I would recommend it.

Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States

Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States

by Laura Hein & Mark Selden (Editors)

ISBN 0-7656-0447-7
301 pp

The premise of this book is that "schools and textbooks are important vehicles through which contemporary societies transmit ideas of citizenship and both the idealized past and the promised future". The 10 chapters look at how World War II and the Vietnam War are represented in school history textbooks in the 3 countries. Almost 50 years after the end of the war, controversy over Japanese textbooks continues to rage, and this book is useful in putting that into some sort of perspective. Of the 10 chapters, 6 deal with Japan, including a chapter with all the details of Saburo Ienaga's famous textbook lawsuits against the Japanese government, and a couple of chapters on joint history projects between Japan and Korea, and Japan and the U.S. The common conception is that Japan has not yet faced up to its wartime past, and, while I agree, after reading this book my view has been somewhat softened. Compared with the U.S.A., Japan has done more to teach its young about the negative side of its wars. If you enjoyed reading Ian Buruma's Wages of Guilt, then you will enjoy this book.

Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai

Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai

by Katsu Kokichi

ISBN 0-8165-1256-6
177 pp

Anyone hoping to find Bushido or any other romantic idealizations of samurai life in this book will be sorely disappointed. Katsu Kokichi was born into a low-level samurai family in 1802. For lower-level samurai at this time, entering government service as a bureaucrat was just about the only way to make an income, the alternative being to take up a trade. Katsu chose neither of these paths, spending most of his life as a con-man, gangster, and itinerant second-hand sword trader. In the company of ruffians, thieves, beggars, gamblers, and other con men his life was spent brawling, drinking, and carousing in the Yoshiwara. This book is unusual in that autobiographies in Japan were very rare, only a handful of famous scholars having written any. Katsu was by no stretch of the imagination a scholar, being illiterate until his twenties, and it seems the purpose of his autobiography was to serve as a warning to his descendants not to follow his example. The translator has kept his colloquial style, and the book reads almost as a novel sometimes. Anyone wanting to know about daily life among the lower classes of 19th century Edo will enjoy this book.

Kwaidan: Stories & Studies of Strange Things

Kwaidan: Stories & Studies of Strange Things

by Lafcadio Hearn

ISBN 4-925-0832-6
182 pp

Lafcadio Hearn was born to Greek and Irish parents, and after a time in America came to Japan in 1890. He taught English in Matsue (present-day Shimane Prefecture, where there is a museum to him), married a Japanese woman, and eventually became a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yagumo (Yakumo). He is best known as a chronicler of things Japanese, and this book, originally published in 1904, is probably his best known. It is primarily a collection of folk tales and ghost stories, although there are also three sections on insects, including a good collection of haiku on the theme of butterflies. He included ample footnotes with explanations of Japanese terms, so the book contains a wealth of information on old Japan. Interestingly, many Japanese are not aware that Koizumi Yagumo was a European, and not Japanese by blood.

Japanese Historians & The National Myths, 1600-1945
The Age of the Gods & Emperor Jinmu

Japanese Historians & The National Myths, 1600-1945

by John S. Brownlee

ISBN 0-7748-0645-1
256 pp

The first written histories of Japan are the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720). These books form the basis for Japan's "ancient" history and the legitimization of the Imperial House which has ruled in a "line unbroken since time immemorial". They tell the story of the 'Age Of The Gods', the creation of the Japanese islands, and the descent from heaven of Jinmu the first Emperor in 660 BC. But how much of these stories is myth, and how much factual history?

Brownlee gives us a fascinating, informative, and highly readable book that examines how successive Japanese historians have dealt with these stories and, more importantly, how the Japanese state has dealt with the historians. The book begins in 1600, the start of the Tokugawa period, when the influence of Confucianism ushered in a new style of rational historical scholarship. These historians discovered flaws in the calculations of the dating system used to put Emperor Jinmu's accession to the throne at 660BC, and recalculated it to be 600 years later. However this new information was soon suppressed by the rise of the scholars of the National Learning School (Kokugaku), most notably Motoori Norinaga, who worked to reaffirm the truth of the national myths. The bulk of the book then concentrates on the time from the Meiji Restoration (1868) up until Japan's defeat in 1945. Under the influence of Western scientific methodology the new historians rediscovered the miscalculations in the dating of the ancient myths, but also came to doubt the existence of the first 6 and possibly the first 14 of the emperors. In effect this shaved 1,000 years off of Japan's "Imperial" history. The government responded by suppressing, censoring, and punishing historians who questioned the "official" view of history.

Along the way, interesting points are made about the distinction between scholarship and education. The upshot was that by 1940, when Japan celebrated the 2,660th anniversary of its founding, not one historian spoke up. The control of history by the State was complete. In a short epilogue the author discusses the situation in postwar Japan, noting that in 1966 the government created National Founding Day and is celebrated every February 11th. February 11th being the date of Emperor Jinmu's ascension to the throne, and one still sees today numerous references to Japan's 2,660+ years of Imperial Rule in the mainstream media. Japan is criticized by some for failing to come to terms with its past, specifically its invasions of Asia and war crimes committed during the 1930's and 40's. Reading this book illuminates just how deeply entrenched the denial of history is in Japan's political culture.

Though ostensibly a book about historians and the history of history, I learned more about Japanese history from this book than most other books on Japanese history. Clear, concise, and very readable, I recommend this book to anyone interested in Japan's history, and anyone interested in the manipulation of history by those in power.

The Yamato Dynasty: The secret history of Japan's imperial family

The Yamato Dynasty: The secret history of Japan's imperial family

by Sterling & Peggy Seagrave

ISBN 0-552-14709-5
604 pp

Since Emperor Hirohito's death in 1989 much evidence has surfaced concerning his involvement and responsibility for World War II, and his subsequent avoidance of any culpability for it. Bix's "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" is probably the best known book on the subject. The Seagraves' go much further, examining the Imperial family's involvement in war crimes, and the depth of the American program to cover it up. The book focuses on "Operation Golden Lily" which was a secret Japanese operation to steal billions of dollars worth of precious metals, jewels, art, and religious artifacts from the countries it invaded in the 30's and 40's. Most people are aware of Nazi Germany's plundering of the countries it occupied, yet few know that Japan looted a far greater amount. The book traces the Imperial family's involvement, and what has happened to the loot since the end of the war. The authors are investigative journalists, and the book reads like a political thriller, so I don't want to give too much away; but the names Ferdinand Marcos and the C.I.A. pop up concerning the fate of the treasure. The Seagraves' earlier books also dealt with the elite family groups that hold power in Southeast Asia, and this book continues in a similar vein. The Yamato Dynasty also shows the relationship between certain American family dynasties and the powerful Japanese families that ran, and continue to run, Japan. It was the first time I saw mention of the Tsutsumi family, probably the richest in the world. The book is well-researched and documented, and guaranteed to make you rethink Japan's economic rise from the ashes of WWII. If you have any interest in the economic machinations of the world's powerful elites, then this book is a fascinating read.

Drifting Toward The Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways

Drifting Toward The Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways

by John Manjiro

ISBN 0-93202-756-3
144 pp

A shipwreck on a small island off Tosa (present-day Kochi Prefecture) was the start of an amazing adventure for a boy who went on to be the first Japanese to see America. Only 14 at the time, Manjiro (later, John Manjiro or John Mung; and eventually, Nakahama Manjiro) was rescued with four of his fishing companions in 1841 by the John Howland, an American whaling ship under the command of Captain William Whitfield, who, realizing that the young men would likely be imprisoned or killed if returned to Japan, took them on to Oahu. Along the way, Whitfield was so charmed with Manjiro's intelligence and winning character that he invited the boy back to his home in Massachusetts. Once in the U.S., Manjiro received a formal education and training in English, before shipping out again and eventually arriving in California in time for the Gold Rush, which enabled him to make enough money to make the passage back to Kochi.

In 1851, the Tokugawa Shogunate's seclusionist policies still forbade castaways from returning to Japan, so Manjiro's homecoming was cut short by his arrest and extensive interrogation. To understand exactly what Manjiro had experienced, the samurai-scholar Kawada Shoryo, known for his proficiency in Dutch and familiarity with the outside world, was appointed to transcribe Manjiro's story. The resulting account, Hyosan Kiryaku, has now been published in an exquisite volume translated by Nagakuni Junya and Kitadai Junji. Along with the original narrative, rendered in excellent English, Drifting Toward the Southeast includes color reproductions of Kawada and Manjiro's illustrations throughout the book and supplementary texts that provide biographical information and historical background on the period. Though prevented from assisting in direct negotiations with Commodore Perry, Manjiro was later made a samurai, served as a foreign envoy, taught Fukuzawa Yukichi English and became a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. Not bad for a fisherman who started life without a last name.

Christopher Stephens

This review was originally published in Kansai Time Out

Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan

Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan

by Frederick L. Schodt

ISBN 1-88065-677-9
418 pp

In 1848 a 24-year-old young man left an American whaling ship off the coast of Hokkaido. In a tiny boat he made his way alone to a Japan that had been closed off to the outside world for over two hundred years. The man was Ranald MacDonald, a half-Chinook, half-Scot who was following his dream of entering Japan to become an interpreter and English teacher.

The first third of Schodt's definitive biography of this true-life adventurer covers Ranald's childhood and youth growing up on the coast of the Pacific Northwest, where he first heard the stories of the "three Kichis", 3 Japanese who had landed on the Pacific coast of North America a few years before. As part of the Japanese government's policy of seclusion, it was illegal to build vessels capable of ocean voyages; consequently, many boats encountered storms and drifted out to sea, unable to navigate back to port. Numerous boats drifted for months, and the lucky ones were picked up, usually by whaling ships, and dropped off at Hawaii or the west coast of America.

To fulfill his dream, Ranald became a whaler, because at the time it was the whaling fleets that were having increasing contact with the mysterious closed-off Japan. After finally arriving off the coast of Hokkaido, MacDonald was promptly arrested and held for a while before being taken to Nagasaki to await deportation. While imprisoned in Nagasaki he befriended his jailers and interrogators, and secretly kept notes on the Japanese language and customs which later proved useful to the Americans negotiating with Japan after Perry's famous "Black Ships" encounter in the 1850s. His main interrogator also became the Japanese government's chief translator for Perry's mission.

In this fascinating look at a little-known personality and adventurer who as an individual helped in the opening of Japan, the author has thoroughly researched the story both in Japan and the U.S., and Native American in the Land of the Shogun is useful for the details and glimpses it provides of Japan in a time of change.

Emperor of Japan

Emperor of Japan

by Donald Keene

Columbia University Press

ISBN: 0-231-12340-X
928 pp

During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japan was thrust back into the world after a two-century self-imposed absence in which Japanese were prohibited from leaving and foreigners were banned from entering Japan - punishable by death. In this period, Japan entered the world stage hellbent on modernizing and catching up with the imperial powers of the West. Donald Keene, the dean of Japan studies and Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, attempts to paint a picture of the Emperor for whom the period is named and about whom little is known. His name and the period are of course extremely well-known, both inside and outside of Japan; but the life of the Meiji Emperor himself remains hidden.

Drawing extensively from the Tenno no Ki, or official imperial diary, and other Japanese sources, Keene fills in the many blanks of the life of a man often derided as a mere figurehead. When the Meiji Emperor began his rule in 1867, Japan was not a unified country per se; it was dominated rather by the shogun and the daimyos, who ruled over Japan's more than 250 decentralized domains. However, these rabidly xenophobic men yielded ultimately to a new constitution and Japan was on the road to becoming a modern state.

Keene's biography begins with the emperor's traditional education; we see the formal occasions that acquainted the young emperor with his subjects; have a ringside seat at his court, marriage, and his relationships with various consorts. This is a massive tome that will keep the reader hoping for more and sorry to see its 900-plus pages end.

The Burma Road

The Burma Road

by Donovan Webster

Pan Macmillan

ISBN: 0374117403
370 pp

The Imperial Japanese Army ripped through Asia and the Pacific in 1941, with no one seemingly able to stop the onslaught. China came under increasingly brutal occupation, until it was no longer in control of any of its ports. To get around what was effectively a blockade - the Japanese occupation - some 200,000 Chinese laborers built a 700-mile overland route - the legendary Burma Road - through the jungle from southwest China into Burma. The city of Lashio - the jumping off point of the Burma Road - was connected by train to the Burmese port city Rangoon. And thus was China, briefly, connected to supplies from the outside world. This came to an abrupt halt in 1942 when Japan crushed Burma and occupied it too, and thus closing off the Burma Road.

The Burma Road recounts the war in Burma from the point of view of the soldiers who fought and often died there. With its isolated mountains that were considered of little strategic value, northern Burma became the site of fierce fighting as the Allies attempted to pry China from the grip of the Japanese. In masculine prose, Donovan Webster revisits what is left of the Road in an attempt at experiencing what both the Allied and Japanese soldiers did in war.

For fans of World War II reportage and both the Allied and Imperial war machines, this is the illuminating story of a little-known conflict. A compelling and entertaining read.

Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan

Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan.

by William Wayne Farris

University of Hawaii Press

ISBN: 0824820304
333 pp

Farris's book is a much needed addition to English-language scholarship on early Japanese history; not only that, it is that rarest of books: a highly readable book on archeology that manages to bring to life and make real aspects of life in Japan in the period of 100 AD to 800 AD.

The book's contention is that the explosion of archeological research in Japan during the past few decades has challenged many of the assumptions held on early Japanese history that until now had been dependent on just a few written sources. He has chosen four topics and explores in depth what Japanese archeology has discovered that throws new light on them. The first topic is the great "Yamatai Debate".

The first written records of Japan come from China in the 3rd century A.D. when Chinese historian Chen Shou wrote of the "Wa" people who lived in a country called Yamatai, ruled over by a shamaness named Himiko. Just exactly where Yamatai was is the subject of the ongoing Yamatai debate. Until the late 19th century, it was believed that Yamatai was the country known as Yamato, present-day Nara Prefecture, in the Kinai, but for the last century Japanese historians have been split between believing Yamatai was in the Kinai, or in Northern Kyushu. This section of the book reads like a mystery novel, as each new piece of archeological evidence is used as proof for one side of the debate or the other, and sometimes even both interpret a discovery to their own advantage. If there is a solution to the debate, it must be somewhere in the future, as to date the evidence remains split.

The second section of the book concerns Japan's relationship with Korea during the 4th and 5th centuries, a subject that has consequences and repercussions that continue today: it was Japan's claim that parts of Korea were colonized by Japan at this time that was partly behind its "re" colonization of Korea in the 20th century. In the 1950's, Egami put forward his controversial "Horse rider" theory: that Japan had been colonized by a northern people through the Korean peninsular. Since then the controversy has been whether Japan was a colony of Korea, or vice versa. On this topic Farris does offer a conclusion. During the period in question, the Korean Peninsular consisted of 4 separate kingdoms, with changing borders and alliances. Japan was dependent on Korea for technologies and natural resources, most notably metals, and in return for these Japan supplied military forces to various sides of the inter-kingdom disputes. The conclusion reached by Farris is that all the Korean kingdoms and Japan were roughly equal to each other with no one being dominant enough to colonize another, though the Korean kingdoms were generally more advanced technologically.

The third section looks at the building of Japan's first permanent capitals, Nara, Kyoto, and the less well known Fujiwara, and Naniwa (Osaka). These capitals are commonly referred to as Chinese-style capitals, but there was plenty of Korean influence as well as indigenous Japanese influence on their design rather than the wholesale adoption of Chinese styles. Farris's own specialty: the impact of disease and famine on populations, comes in here as he examines the economic and population pressures that cause some of the capital building to remain incomplete, and the recycling of materials from some of the capitals to build the newer ones.

The final section deals with a new form of archeological resource first discovered in 1961: wooden tablets with writing on them dating from the 8th century. To date, almost 200,000 of these tablets have been discovered and they have greatly added to our knowledge of such things as the daily life of the aristocracy, the operations of the bureaucracy, the tax system, and how the Taika Reforms were implemented.

For anyone interested in early Japanese history this book is a treasure trove of material, much of which has not been available in English before. Highly recommended.

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