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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Book Review: Inventing Japan 1853-1964

Inventing Japan 1853-1963, by Ian Buruma

For readers familiar with Ian Buruma's writings on Japan and Asia or those who know him as the author of an erstwhile series of weekly articles published in The Guardian, his most recent volume, Inventing Japan, is as eagerly awaited as the latest Harry Potter book.

His first book exclusively devoted to Japan since 1984's A Japanese Mirror (now happily reissued by Phoenix Paperbacks), Inventing Japan is published in the Modern Library Chronicle's series of short non-fiction works.

Like other volumes in the series, it is neat, concise and slips conveniently into a back pocket. A brisk read at just 177 pages, it ably covers 111 years of Japanese history, while still finding time for anecdotes about the impressive size of the samurai Saigo Takamori's testicles.

This is classic Buruma, as is his description of Sakamoto Ryoma as a “wild-haired proto-hippie with a sword” and makes for excellent bursts of light relief as Buruma condenses the history of Japan's modernisation at a rate commensurate with the modernisation process itself. Japan's descent into militarism and its reaction to defeat in the Second World War have recently been the subjects of much weightier Pulitzer Prize-winning tomes.

Buruma himself has already examined Japan's struggle to come to terms with its militarist past in The Wages of Guilt (also recently re-issued by Phoenix Paperbacks). Inventing Japan is a more invigorating and vibrant account, which, like most of Buruma's work, is intensely personal. That is not to say, however, that it is under-researched. The bibliography alone is a must, not only for those new to Japanese history, but for seasoned Japanologists who wouldn't have thought to join the dots between loincloth festivals and Oshima Nagisa.

Terry Bazooka

This review originally appeared in Kansai Time Out

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