Japan in Transformation, 1945-2010

Peter Matanle, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 11, Issue 3 (Book review 7 in 2011). First published in ejcjs on 30 September 2011.

Kingston, J. (2011) Japan in Transformation 1945-2010 (2nd Edition), Harlow, UK: Longman; pp. 189 + xxxiii; chronology, who's who, documents, bibliography, index; ISBN 978-1-4082-3451-8.

Recruitment of students into university Japanese studies programmes has always suffered from the fact that there are few gateways into the subject at the secondary education level. In the UK for example, there is no recognised area studies discipline at 'A' Level in the way that there is for undergraduate studies and beyond. Upper secondary level students hoping to expand their knowledge of Japan are either exposed to it somewhat by accident in occasional history and geography classes, or have to go down the route of studying the language, which is not possible at many schools, and may not be an attractive option for risk-averse parents of aspiring teenagers.

Consequently, younger people who have a desire to study about Japan in depth are often steered into continuing with mainstream subjects at university, attending only a small number of basic classes about Japan and its language during their undergraduate years, and are not able to deepen their knowledge until they can specialise at post-graduate level. This is a shame, because it both restricts the pool of aspiring students of Japan, and holds back promising younger people from developing their careers as quickly as their contemporaries in other areas of life. As those who have been there know, it takes many years of steady effort to learn to speak and read Japanese to the level needed to use it confidently as a career attribute, and a high level of language ability is itself dependent upon developing a sophisticated knowledge of the country's society, culture, politics and economy. It is through learning how to talk about Japan in Japanese that learners can bridge the gap between casual daily conversation among students and using Japanese among professional colleagues and clients in a work setting. And the younger one starts, the earlier one can raise oneself up to that coveted latter stage.

Another issue that is prominent within Japanese studies these days is the continuing relevance of Japan within the world system, as the country's economic troubles continue, its population ages and begins to shrink, and the rise of China's star begins to eclipse that of Japan in East Asia. Although student numbers appear to be holding up, thanks in great measure to the popularity of Japanese popular cultural forms among younger people in the west and the rest of East Asia, popular culture itself is full of short term fads and fashions, which presents the danger that Japan could become 'uncool' just as suddenly as it originally became 'cool'.

This second edition of Jeff Kingston's introductory history of postwar Japan is part of Longman's 'Seminar Studies in History Series', whose purpose is to provide 'a concise and reliable introduction to complex events and debates' and to be an 'essential guide to understanding a topic' (Back cover). The volume provides an excellent and very welcome addition to the scholarly literature on Japan, not because it features much in the way of cutting edge research, but because of its capacity to act as a gateway for students in encouraging them to dip their feet deeper into the waters of Japanese studies and to find out if they are ready to pursue the subject more seriously. As such it is therefore probably most useful for use in history classes at upper secondary level, as well as introductory courses on Japan and its history in the first year of undergraduate studies.

The main text features a 116 page overview of Japan's history since World War Two, from the Allied Occupation to the opening decade of the 21st century, and includes chapters on Japanese politics, the economic miracle, Japanese security, Japan and Asia, and women in Japan. From there it moves on to the so-called ‘demographic time bomb’ and the country's more recent economic troubles, before offering a round-up assessment of the degree of transformation that Japan has been through since 1945. The book is notable also for including reference sections for ease of use, such as a chronology of events (xii-xx), a Who's Who of notable postwar Japanese figures (xxi-xxiv), a list of Prime Ministers since 1952 (xxv-xxvi), a glossary of terms used (xxvii-xxxii), a map of Japan's nuclear power stations (xxxiii), 35 documents for study (118-163), and a bibliography by subject area (165-172). In addition to these, the book features in the outside margin on most pages short descriptions and definitions of essential terms, acronyms, events and people that appear in the main text (eg. Tanaka Kakuei on page 25, amakudari on page 29, and APEC on page 49). In so doing it helps students to find their feet amid the welter of Japanese language terms and names that scholars sometimes use unthinkingly in their lectures and texts, expecting that students and readers will understand their usage, and causing some confusion and loss of confidence in the process.

With its concentration on the Occupation and the economic miracle and its demise, the Lost Decade of the 1990s and the unravelling of the 'Japan Inc. system', and focus on demography, regional international relations, security concerns, political change and the role of women, the book provides a balanced coverage of the most important issues that the nation has experienced in the postwar period. The author concludes with an assessment that the country has gone through a monumental transformation, mainly in terms of its rehabilitation into international society after the disastrous adventurism of the war years, and due to the pace and extent of the postwar economic expansion and its social outcomes. However, Kingston also states that in recent decades Japan's dynamism appears to be losing steam under the weight of increasingly difficult problems, with the ageing of society, economic stagnation, and the emergence of a society of gaps (kakusa shakai) being emblematic of a country that appears to be losing its way.

The book stops in 2010 (it has to stop somewhere ...), and the timing of the 11 March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Tōhoku was to some extent unlucky for the author and publisher of this edition, coming as they did only a few months after publication, since any overview of postwar Japan that attempts to suggest future directions, in even the vaguest terms, will from now on have to take these events into account. However, I believe the earthquake also presents a good opportunity for a third edition, and a slight adjustment of the book's content. Although the book presents an excellent overview of postwar Japan, the current edition carries little in the way of analysis of rural/urban or environmental issues, subjects that are becoming ever more important to both a well-rounded understanding of how Japan has progressed throughout the period as well as of the impact of the country's developmental trajectory on its contemporary and future circumstances. Secondly, the events of 2011, and the problems of governance that have been exposed by the nuclear crisis offer Kingston a good opening for deepening his overall critical analysis of postwar Japan, and the role and organisation of the nuclear industry as a central pillar of the country's institutional arrangements.

However, the most important reason for a reworked third edition is in the potential that the events of 2011 offer for recasting and reinvigorating Japanese studies for the 21st century. Just as Japan as a country appears to have lacked direction these past two decades, so the subject of Japanese studies is in danger of being peripheralised, as students wonder what the study of a distant fading star might bring them in terms of life and career opportunities at home. The earthquake brings into relief the idea that Japan is THE pioneer country for studying and researching some of the most important issues facing developed countries in the coming decades. An understanding of how Japan has dealt with its problems will in future be of enormous benefit for policy makers and practitioners elsewhere struggling with resolving the very same issues in their own countries. Ageing and depopulation, sound environmental governance, energy consumption and generation, the structure and function of contemporary democracy in a hyper-mediatised society, post credit-boom economic stagnation, and political and corporate corruption, are coming under increasing scrutiny around the world, and Japan is, or has recently been, at the forefront of dealing with all these issues and in developing solutions. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, and the problems that they have revealed about the nature of the Japanese state and its relationship with its citizenry is fertile ground for bringing Japan back to the forefront of social scientific study worldwide, and a book such as this can help to energise new groups of students coming into Japanese studies, as well as help to redirect their interests away from the lingering aftermath of the 20th century and into researching solutions for all of our futures.

In summary, therefore, Kingston's book is already an excellent first time guide to the postwar history of Japan, and why the country has developed in the way that it has. In view of the timing of its publication and the need to cater to students who will have questions to ask regarding the relevance of Japan to the world in the 21st century, I look forward with eagerness to a third edition with some of the above inclusions, which I am sure will energise students into thinking of Japan once more as a pioneer example for emulation in East Asia.

About the Author

Peter Matanle is Lecturer in Japanese studies at the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), University of Sheffield. He is the author of several publications in the sociology and geography of Japan, including Japanese Capitalism and Modernity in a Global Era (Routledge, 2003), Perspectives on Work, Employment and Society in Japan (Co-edited with Wim Lunsing, Palgrave, 2006), and Japan's Shrinking Regions in the 21st Century (Co-authored with Anthony S. Rausch and the Shrinking Regions Research Group). He is the general editor of the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies.

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