electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 1 in 2010
First Published in ejcjs on 29 January 2010

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Japan Yesterday and Today


Sheri Zhang Leimbigler

Professor, Coordinator for Asian Studies
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
University of Ottawa

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Harrison, Trevor W. (2008) 21st Century Japan: A New Sun Rising, Montreal: Black Rose Books, ISBN 9781551643069, paperback, 172 pages.

In 21st Century Japan: A New Sun Rising, Trevor Harrison provides a panoramic view of contemporary Japan and its historical background. Based both on research and first-hand experience, this book provides a comprehensive understanding of Japanese culture, past and present. In particular, the book examines Japan's position within Asia and the wider international context and explains the significant cultural links between Japan, China, and Russia. It addresses various aspects of Japan's historical development and political evolution, philosophical background, and cultural orientation, and also outlines recent social changes, economic ups and downs, geographic features, and linguistic characteristics.

Introducing Japan from the viewpoint of a Canadian researcher, 21st Century Japan offers an objective or etic view of Japan without bias or prejudice, and covers diverse topics such as the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. The book will be of great benefit to all those with an interest in Japan and its neighbours, especially China. In particular, the book could serve as a useful handbook for anyone interested in working or doing research in Japan. Looking at Japan through a wide angle, the book is ideal for undergraduate students from social sciences and arts whose research is Japan-related, as well as for students in any field who are on a study-abroad program in Japan.

The book comprises two major parts. The first provides a social and historical analysis, laying out the historical background of modern Japan. The second renders Harrison's own experiences and observations gained from his sojourn in Japan, giving the reader a view of Japan today. The book is structured around key events, past and present, and follows roughly a chronological order with five chapters entitled, 'Beginnings', 'The first transformation', 'The second transformation', 'Japan's organic crisis', and finally 'A third transformation?'. The first three chapters outline the recent economic and social developments of Japan, while chapters four and five examine some of the challenges Japan is currently facing in such areas as widening inequalities between rich and poor, gender inequality, a shrinking and aging population, the resurgence of nationalism, the education crisis, and the country's relations with the United States.

The book's inclusion of personal experiences and anecdotes ensures that 21st Century Japan has an up-to-date and authentic feel. Readers share Harrison's travel experiences and gain an insight into the limited space of Japanese homes and, conversely, the extensive use of shared public places such as museums and sporting facilities. The reviewer was similarly surprised by the spaciousness of a city library during a recent sojourn in Japan.

Such cultural phenomena cannot be learned in language textbooks, which is why this book's vivid and realistic reflections of Japanese society are so valuable. Bars in Japan are different from those in Canada, and Japanese-style 'love hotels' are not known at all in Canada (page 124). The reviewer, for example, could function well enough in Japan through sufficient linguistic competence, but mistook such 'hotels' for restaurants by taking the 'restaurant' signs at face value—it takes one a while to realize why such hotels often seemed to be empty or closed at daytime.

In his overview of modern Japanese history, Harrison describes in detail the Shogunate eras, the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), and what might be described as Japan's imperial period, from 1912 until the end of the Second World War. He also examines the US occupation period of 1945–1952, including the war crimes trials. Overall, the book provides a strong historical basis for understanding modern Japanese society, thereby allowing the reader to appreciate clearly the key turning points in Japan's modernisation period, such as the Meiji Restoration and the country's subsequent exposure to western technology.

The author addresses the economic rise and fall of post-war Japan in a similarly detailed fashion. He retells how, in the 1960s, goods made in Japan were considered cheap, of poor quality, and disposable (page 55), and shows how the Japanese economy started rising in the late 1960s and grew rapidly until the economic 'bubble' burst in the early 1990s. Harrison views the economy and today's Japan as being 'trapped on an endless cycle of production and consumption, and competition with the rest of the world, fearful of the next economic crash' (page 104). 'Japan faces increasing divisions between rich and poor, young and old, rural and urban, male and female', he suggests (page 104). In contemplating Japan's future, Harrison argues that 'No one can tell Japan what path to take; only the Japanese people can do that'. Yet he is still optimistic: 'I have faith they will choose the path right for them in building a sustainable, prosperous, peaceful, and just society' (page 105).

The book also delves into what has often been, in Japan at least, a controversial topic: the origins of the Japanese people. While introducing the country and people in general, the author also offers interesting historical explanations about the diversity of the Japanese people. He notes that while the people of Okinawa, situated in the very south of Japan, originally came from Taiwan or other islands further south, other minorities, such as the Ainu in the north, came from Siberia. In reference to Shelly (1999), Harrison explains the origin of the people in central Japan (i.e. Japan's main island, Honshū), Shikoku (meaning: the four counties), and Kyūshū (meaning: nine regions). They came from China, Korea, and Mongolia, he explains, bringing along their culture and religion—imports which have shaped today's Japanese culture as it is generally known by the western world. The Japanese people in these three central locations were mainly peasants, mostly rice farmers. They 'brought with them an entirely different set of cultural, including religious, practices. It is they who came to dominate the territory we know as Japan and who thus defined much of what we think we know of Japanese history' (page 4).

Modern societies can be better understood with a brief introduction of their historical background. The author explains why the earlier rice farmers could dominate Japan with their religion and culture and so overpower the fishers in the south (Okinawa) and the hunters and gatherers in the north (Hokkaidō).

Because they are more sedentary than hunting and gathering peoples c They also possess a more complex and stratified social structure, involving peasants, merchants, a military class, a priesthood, and a ruling monarch c agricultural societies are more likely than hunting and gathering peoples to leave behind historical records and other material artefacts useful in the manufacture of tradition.

(page 4)

The historical links are important to understand today's Japan and China, the Japanese people, Japan's changing society in general, as well as the Japanese and Chinese immigrants in Canada and elsewhere.

Given his knowledge of Canadian politics, the author might have extended his final discussion comparing Canadian and Japanese political cultures (page 146), particularly with regard to explaining why Japan, over recent decades, has essentially been a one-party state. Japan's political system is formally democratic with a long-standing parliament. In reality, however, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was in power almost continuously since its creation in 1955 (Karan 2005). The absence of real political competition can be seen as having undermined Japan's democratic credentials. The election result of 30 August 2009, with the victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) under the leadership of Hatoyama Yukio, is thus a historic change which ended a half century of almost unbroken LDP rule.

The change of power from the conservative LDP to the DPJ was a logical turn, considering the increasing number of 'working poor' in Japan since the bubble economy burst in the 1990s. Harrison's book addresses the issues of poverty and inequality, gender discrimination, and the shrinking population (pages 68–70). All these social problems put pressure on the LDP and paved the road for the DPJ to take power. The Japanese people wanted change and finally gave the opposition a landslide victory. Looking at Japan through Harrison's book, the reader can see how the LDP was the victim of Japan's long economic stagnation since the 1990s, and how the current economic crisis finally terminated its reign. A recent documentary screened on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation echoed many parts of Harrison's work (see CBC 2009).

Harrison's book also mentions the characteristics of Japan's political system (page 81). Many recent prime ministers are the descendants of past prime ministers. It seems virtually impossible for ordinary Japanese to rise very high in Japanese politics. The author discusses Abe Shinzō's political infrastructure and family background (page 48). A closer look at other Japanese politicians who embody Japanese political culture might still reveal a distinct gap between Canadian and Japanese political cultures. Indeed, the book hints that, unlike in Canada, in Japan power stays within a small circle of people with similar backgrounds. Many recent LDP prime ministers, for example, were the descendants of past prime ministers. Asō Tarō, the prime minister from 2008 until 2009, was the grandson of Yoshida Shigeru, one of Japan's most influential post-war prime ministers. He was also the son-in-law of Suzuki Zenkō, a prime minister from the early 1980s. Fukuda Yasuo, Asō's immediate predecessor, was the son of a former prime minister, Fukuda Takeo, while Abe, prime minister from 2006 until 2007, was the grandson of Kishi Nobusuke, a controversial former prime minister and powerful pre-war bureaucrat.

The political change in Japan is one step forward for the Japanese people, although the newly elected Hatoyama Yukio is from a family with a background in politics. The Hatoyamas could be described as the 'Kennedys' of Japanese politics. Yukio's grandfather was Hatoyama Ichirō, the first LDP prime minister and a rival of Yoshida (Asō's grandfather). His brother is Hatoyama Kunio, a former LDP minister in the Asō cabinet. One can certainly find similar examples in American and Canadian politics. John Quincy Adams was the son of President John Adams and George W. Bush was the son of the President George H. W. Bush. The father of Paul Martin, a former Canadian prime minister, was an influential liberal.

The book emphasizes the similarities between Japan and Canada (pages 146–48). For instance, both are high-income countries, with the rich and the poor increasingly divided, and both face a population crisis. The book would be more balanced if it also emphasized the differences, although the author mentioned language and cultural differences in general terms and also, much more specifically, differences in traffic rules. One difference worthy of greater mention would be the educational systems of Canada and Japan. Japanese pupils practice maths or memorize kanji or other school work on the train while commuting, even on weekends, a phenomenon that can hardly be seen among Canadian students. In Japan, unlike in Canada, cram schools are everywhere.

In summary, as an introduction to Japan's contemporary history and its modern cultural development, 21st Century Japan is an ideal source of information on modern Japan for all readers, especially undergraduate students. With its clear and concise language, it can also be recommended to a general audience, essentially anyone interested in Japan.

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CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) (2009) 'Japan: A Story of Love and Hate', CBC Documentaries, 8 February.

Karan, Pradyumna P. (2005) Japan in the 21st Century: Environment, Economy, and Society, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Shelley, Rex (1999) Culture Shock! Japan, revised edition, Singapore: Time Books International.

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About the Author

Sheri Zhang Leimbigler teaches at the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, University of Ottawa, where she is coordinator for Chinese and Japanese. Sheri received her MEd at the University of Victoria and her PhD in Education at the University of Ottawa. Previously, she was associate professor at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business. While in Japan, she accepted the position of professor and associate dean at Nanchang University in China. Her teaching and research work at universities in North America, Japan, and China is linked to Canada's international education. She was selected to represent the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) at the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER 2001) in France and was a finalist for the 2009 Capital Educators' Award. Her areas of research and scholarly work are Canadian and international education, second language acquisition, and Chinese-Japanese education and cultural studies.

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Copyright: Sheri Zhang Leimbigler
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