The Modern History of Japan. W. G. Beasley. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 36s.
To the non-specialist, Dr Beasley’s book is a useful supplement to the recent Penguin edition of Richard Storry’s admirable A History of Modern Japan; it covers Japan from the origins of the Meiji restoration to the present day.
With no introduction, no statement of aims, criticism is given such a wide berth that it has no berth at all. However, the points in its favour are clear: impeccable scholarship, a practical grasp of economics, lucid exposition, four businesslike maps, and finally, apposite and entertaining illustrations. In such a context, all criticism would seem gratuitous; for this reason, only a warning is necessary: the reader must have a good grasp of early Japanese history; this book provides no background beyond allusions, and is precisely a continuation of the narrative. It also ruthlessly rejects all generalization, and insists on remaining one-dimensional.
However, it is inevitable that the reading of a book on modern Japan should give rise to thoughts on problems of under-development: study and understanding of the internal structure of power (both political and economic) in Japan must underlie understanding of Japan’s rôle in the last war and her relationship in particular with China. Like Japan, China responded to the Western ideological and economic challenge with a desperate and literal call to arms; unlike Japan, China’s military tradition was weak and undernourished, her geography continental, her ethic persuasion, her bureaucracy riddled with corruption. The native religion of Japan, significantly, is Shintoism (The Way of the Gods), which is based on ritual, not on ethics as in Confucianism; while the imported Buddhism (Zen) ideally opts out of social ethics altogether. Perhaps Japan’s critical advantage over China and many other under-developed countries is that its centralized apparatus of rural social control, somewhat reminiscent of some late feudal regimes, made possible effective capital accumulation. On the one hand the peasantry could be successfully exploit for this end without risk of those peasant rebellions which plagued Chinese governments until 1949. On the other hand the maintenance of law and order in the countryside provided the essential context for the development of rural capitalism: as Beasley shows silk exports were Japan’s largest source of foreign exchange at the turn of the century. Kuo Ling