A Relook at Japan’s Modern History: Nation Building
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By Yanming Li

A Relook at Japan’s Modern History: Nation Building

Feb. 06, 2017  |     |  0 comments

How Japanese politicians view their modern history is always a sensitive topic that is of concern to their Asian neighbors and the international community. On December 25, 2016, before his visit to Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received an open letter from international scholars that questioned his reception of Japan’s modern history, especially on his view or definition of “aggression.”

However, what I want to discuss in this essay is not the politicians’ view but the general view, and how to consider the relationship between the general view in Japan, that of conservative politicians like Abe, and that of China, its most important neighbor. To achieve this goal, we need to review the Japanese modern history series published by Iwanami Shoten (the IWANAMI series).1

Iwanami Shoten is known as Koza Ha, a major Marxist school’s base site in the pre-war era, and is also acknowledged as a left-wing, progressive agency in the post-war era. It is a very influential publisher in Japan which has contributed to the spread of specialized academic knowledge to the public. The publication of the Japanese modern history series aims to help the public understand the new trends and findings of historians.

The series, published between 2006 and 2009, includes ten volumes written by nine different scholars. In volume ten, each scholar summarizes their own volume in each chapter. In the following parts, first, I want to introduce the main topic of each book and make some evaluations of the whole series, and second, I will focus on volume seven, titled The Occupation and the Reform, and discuss what kind of problems could arise from its argument.

This series deals with Japan’s history from the middle of 1800 to 2000. These 150 years are divided into 9 periods, and each volume focuses on ten or twenty years. As they are written as Shinsyo, a pocket edition, the breadth of each volume is very limited. As a series that introduces general history, the authors want to cover every major event, combining some new details of the facts, so that each book looks separate from others.

In several books, it is a little bit difficult to find out the author’s fundamental point of view since they focus on the historical process so much. But, as Miyachi2 said, the editors held several meetings with the authors and arrived at a consensus on the writing style, which was to combine political history with the newest research in the fields of social and cultural history to describe Japan’s events in the relation with other East Asian countries. Furthermore, the authors shared some fundamental views on Japan’s history.

The first fundamental view can be summed up as the process of building the modern nation state of Japan. Volume one, The End of Bakufu (Shogunate)/The Restoration, written by Inoue Katuo, presented this point most clearly. Inoue started his book from Commodore Matthew Perry’s first visit to Japan, but challenged the popular view that the opening of Japan was caused by pressure from the western world. He claimed, firstly, that Bakufu played a solid role in the negotiations with the US, Britain and Russia, and secondly, these foreigners did not really attempt aggression on Japan. It was the Japanese side, the group who wanted to overthrow Bakufu, who caused the military crisis. The Meiji Restoration government used this so-called but non-existent foreign crisis to build up a centralized autocracy and a modern nation state. The turn to aggression was based on the same logic.

This series makes keen criticism of the revisionists’ claims that “aggression” did not exist, the aim of war was self-defense, and that the top-down nation building was necessary and should be strengthened.

Volume two, Civic Rights and the Constitution, dealt with the period 1877-89, and argued that the leaders of the Movement for Civic Rights and Freedom not only contributed to the promulgation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, but also contributed to modern nationalism and patriotism — the idea that the people belonged to the Empire. Makihara Norio, the author, also emphasized that the logic of “civilization” offered justification for aggression against other “uncivilized” countries in East Asia.

In volume three, the process and decision-making of the first Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War were discussed. The author, Harada Keiichi, pointed out that during the first Sino-Japanese War, Japan began to use “civilization” to justify its aggression.

Volume four, The Daisho Democracy, dealt with the period 1905-31, and examined how Japanese people obtained their political power but lost it. The development of democracy was based on anti-foreignism and as it supported further aggression, it could not spread to the newly colonized territories. The symbolic event is the 1925 promulgation of the General Election Law and the Maintenance of the Public Order Act. Along with the power of the military, the total war system started in 1931 and all resources of the society were mobilized for the Sino-Japanese war. Democracy ended after a short life.

Volume five, From the Manchurian Incident to the Sino-Japanese War, was a bit different from the previous volumes. Kato Yoko focused more on the process and facts, and avoided blaming any group. This volume explored the kinds of roles and decision-making assumed by different actors, including the Empire, foreign ministry, military and cabinet on the Japanese side, and the US, Britain, and China.

In contrast, volume six not only examined the process, but also made an evaluation of the Asia-Pacific war. The author pointed out that it was definitely not a war for self-defense, and that Japan had failed to catch the global anti-war tendency and the trend towards national self-determination.

Volume seven examined the process of rebuilding the nation, and emphasized that the political group who had supported the total war system led the post war reforms, and that the total war system had already made major changes in society before the occupation.

Volume eight discussed the reasons for the economy’s high growth; volume nine focused on the post post-war society, or, in the words of the author, Yoshimi Shunya, “the collapse of post-war Japan” and “the hollowing out of the national state.” Yoshimi pointed out that conservative politicians’ and nationalists’ performance from the late 1990s reflected their confrontation with the crisis of the national collapse.

As we have seen, this series denies and makes keen criticism of the revisionists’ claims that “aggression” did not exist, the aim of war was self-defense, and that the top-down nation building was necessary and should be strengthened. Volumes one to three especially offer an alternative view of the Meiji Restoration from the so-called “Shiba’s view” (named by Shiba Ryotaro, the most popular writer of historian fictions), which is that the Meiji era was great, bright and fresh, but after the Russo-Japanese war, everything went the wrong way.

From these points, we can position this series as a leftwing and progressive view of history, but we should take note that there is a second fundamental view in this series which is very different from the leftwing view. This view emphasizes the power, order, and style of traditional Japanese society, as well as the autonomy of the Japanese people. Let’s discuss it in the next part.


1. Starting from 2016, a publisher in Hong Kong is publishing the IWANAMI series in Chinese. The author of this review had participated in the translation of volume seven.

2. Miyachi Masato (2005), The Method of Tsushi (General History): a Critique on the Iwanami Series of Japan’s Modern History. Meicho publisher, pp. 2-3. Miyachi is a professor from Tokyo University, and was invited by the editor to write volume ten, to make summaries and criticisms of the previous nine books. But the editor refused his manuscript in the end.

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