Japan : a modern history /
James L. McClain.
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2002.
xxiii, 632, A92 : ill., maps.
More Details
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2002.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Tokugawa Polity

On the afternoon of the twelfth day of the Second Month 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu donned a scarlet mantle of ceremony and settled himself on a dais in Fushimi Castle, a Tokugawa fortress just south of Kyoto. Soon a herald appeared, bowed deeply, and struck together two wooden clappers to announce the arrival of high-ranking envoys dispatched by the Heavenly Sovereign, the emperor of Japan. Alighting from their carriages, the imperial representatives approached the dais and, in an elaborate, precisely orchestrated ceremony, presented Ieyasu with an Edict of Appointment naming him the shogun of Japan, the military general entrusted with maintaining order throughout the realm. To show his gratitude, Ieyasu hosted a banquet for the delegates and sent them home to Kyoto with tokens of his appreciation: bags of silver and gold and a horse sporting a raised gold saddle embossed with his crest.

    The investiture of Tokugawa Ieyasu as shogun was a seminal event in Japanese history, and the pageantry surrounding his elevation to the highest military office in the land reflected the power and glory of the samurai estate at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth. Across Japan at that time, some 250 mighty daimyo lords ruled over autonomous domains, and their majestic citadels, many exceeding in size the largest castles built in medieval Europe, loomed over the countryside as awesome symbols of their prodigious strength. No daimyo family stood on a par with the House of Tokugawa, however, and its fortress at Fushimi was among the grandest in the land. Built between 1592 and 1596 by a fellow warlord, Fushimi's invulnerable stone walls and broad moats protected a towering donjon, residences for a garrison force of two thousand samurai, office compounds, and warehouses for food and weapons, all distributed among a half dozen spacious enceintes, each protected by its own internal walls and fortified gates.

    Like other daimyo fortresses, Fushimi Castle was as much a palace as a military redoubt. Ever mindful that rituals and symbols added immeasurably to the substance of power, Japan's overlords designed alcazars that dazzled with their opulence and aesthetics as well as their impregnable might. At Fushimi, Ieyasu flaunted his wealth and paraded his cultural aspirations in a manner that exuberantly proclaimed the ability of the House of Tokugawa to command the material and human resources of the land. When daimyo allies visited, Ieyasu greeted them in an expansive reception chamber that measured nearly one hundred feet on each side. There, while discussing affairs of the day, Ieyasu could direct his guests' admiring eyes to graceful wooden transoms richly decorated with carvings of sage rulers of antiquity and sliding petitions adorned with paintings of auspicious birds and flowers executed by leading artists of the day. Out-of-doors, the warrior elite could take its leisure in a handsome landscape garden and even appreciate classical noh drama performed on the castle's own stage.

    The riches and splendor on display at Fushimi recalled the previous grandeur of Kyoto. Several centuries earlier, at the start of a new millennium, the emperor's capital was one of the greatest cities the world had known. Following East Asian ideals of imperial urbanism, streets and avenues laid out in meticulous geometric order crisscrossed the metropolis, creating rectangular neighborhoods that were home to more than 100,000 people. Intersecting the very center of the city, a magnificent boulevard lined with willow trees ran nearly three miles south to north, leading from the main entry gate, the famous Rashomon, to the Imperial Palace. On occasion, Kyoto's residents might catch sight of the Heavenly Sovereign, seated in an ornate ox-drawn carriage and accompanied by hundreds of gaily costumed outriders, as he progressed down that thoroughfare on his way to visit famous sites in the pleasant countryside around the capital. Mostly, however, the imperial figure remained inside his vast palace compound, where he performed sacred rituals that honored Japan's protective deities and simultaneously identified him as the ultimate source of moral and political authority. Also cloistered inside that sanctuary was the emperor's personal residence, a deceivingly simple building whose unpainted timbers, raised wood floors, and graceful shingle roofs defined the epitome of Japanese architectural preferences and offered subtle testimony to the majesty of the Heavenly Sovereign.

    At the height of Kyoto's glory in the early eleventh century, nearly two thousand aristocratic households arced necklacelike to the east and south of the palace. The grander noble estates spread over an acre or more and included a main house, expansive gardens filled with carefully selected trees and flowering plants, an artificial lake, dwellings for servants, and numerous storage and service buildings. Dressed in delicately embroidered silks, the courtiers enjoyed the finest crafts produced in Kyoto's artisanal workshops. Narrative scrolls depicting daily life show the early use of tatami mats, spread out on wooden floors for seating purposes, and sliding partitions decorated with exquisite paintings of the changing seasons and the passage of human life. In that refined setting, Kyoto's nobles created a sophisticated cultural tradition that transcended the bonds of time and space. Murasaki Shikibu's fictionalized diary of court romance and intrigue, the renowned Tale of Genji , belongs to that moment, an era when haughty aristocrats considered themselves the only legitimate patrons and practitioners of tanka poetry, courtly gagaku music, and the other patrician arts that for them represented the apogee of Japan's cultural accomplishments.

    The envoys who conveyed the title of shogun to Ieyasu in 1603 returned to a capital where the emperor and many dispirited aristocratic families lived in penury. Over the centuries the emperor and courtiers saw their wealth erode steadily, and in the 1470s the city was devastated in fighting that touched off a long civil war that was only reaching its denouement with Ieyasu's appointment as shogun. Impoverished, his palace in disrepair, one emperor had to postpone his coronation ceremonies for nearly two decades at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and many once-proud nobles moved into humble back-street tenements or sought refuge in temples. Kyoto's merchants and artisans also faced precarious times; warfare destroyed their neighborhoods, thieves roamed the streets, and in 1573 one daimyo set fires that ravaged the better part of the city once again. It was a sad decade when aristocrat and commoner alike might well remember the opening lines of a famous warrior epic:

The sound of the bell at Gion Shoja echoes the impermanence of all things;

The hue of the teak-tree flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.

The proud do not endure; they are like a dream on a spring night,

The mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

    Life in the middle of the sixteenth century also was filled with tribulations for the overwhelming majority of Japanese who lived their entire lives in self-contained hamlets. For those families the outside world began just a few steps down the village lane, and everywhere the emphasis was on self-sufficiency. Some households owned enough land to live comfortably, but most men and women worked long hours through endless days growing their own crops, sewing their own clothes, and making and repairing the tools necessary for their survival. For them, living in houses made of thatch and mud plaster and clothed in crude garments fashioned from hemp and other local fibers, life was short and usually did not rise much above subsistence level. Seasonal festivals--to ask the gods' favor at the spring planting and to thank them for the autumn harvest--broke the solitary passage of the months, and occasionally a peddler might make his way into the village, bearing curious stories about mysterious happenings in far-off Kyoto and offering for sale or barter seaweed, salt, and other valued commodities that villagers could not grow or produce for themselves.

    For all the despair wrought by warfare, sprouts of renewal were pushing their way to the surface when Europeans first journeyed to the Japanese islands in the decades surrounding the turn from the sixteenth century into the seventeenth. Jorge Álvares, a Portuguese merchant who produced the earliest European eyewitness report after visiting Japan in 1546, found "a beautiful and pleasing country, with an abundance of trees, such as the pine, cedar, plum, cherry, laurel, chestnut, walnut, oak, and elder. There is also much fruit not to be found in our country; they grow the vegetables which we have in Portugal, except lettuces, cabbages, drills, corianders, and even mint; all the rest they have. They also cultivate roses, carnations and many other scented flowers, as well as both sweet and bitter oranges, citrons, pomegranates and pears." A half century later the Florence native Francesco Carletti agreed that "[t]he country is very pleasing to the eye and produces large crops of rice and corn and all sorts of cereal crops, vegetables and fruits," while Alessandro Valignano, a Jesuit born in Naples, praised the ordinary men and women of Japan when he visited from 1579 to 1582 and again from 1590 to 1592. "They are very capable and intelligent," Valignano wrote, and "cultured" as well: "Even the common folk and peasants are well brought up and are so remarkably polite that they give the impression that they are trained at court. In this respect they are superior not only to other Eastern peoples but also to Europeans as well."

    No less than the countryside, the merchant quarters of Kyoto appeared on the road to recovery by the time Ieyasu received his Edict of Appointment. A genre of elaborately painted screens depicting Scenes in and around the Capital reveal a lively city of plentitude at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth. In one rendition, men and women, the young and the old--aristocrats, samurai, priests, merchants, artisans, beggars--have swarmed onto Kyoto's streets to admire a procession of magnificent floats decorated with memorable incidents drawn from Japanese history and mythology. The floats are the highlight of the Gion'e, a festival honoring a deity who protected the city from plague, and the crowds have settled into every nook and cranny of the parade route. On the banks of the Kamo River some samurai gentlemen unpack a picnic lunch; along Shijo Avenue a merchant family--father, mother, three toddlers, and a grandfather--admire the pageant of floats from their prosperous street-level shop; farther along, refined aristocratic ladies view the proceedings from the ornate entry gate to their estate. All across the cityscape people stop to chat with friends and neighbors and pause to enjoy something to eat: The picnicking samurai buy melons from a peddler, a kneeling servant dispenses tea and snacks to the guests of a temple priest, and a man clad only in a loincloth smiles to himself as he fillets a plump sea bream.

    The revitalization of Kyoto calls to mind the tenacity of Japan's past. Just as the City survived the warfare of the sixteenth century, so the imperial line endured as the impervious, eternal locus of political legitimation, and in 1603 the throne's powers of appointment conferred upon the House of Tokugawa both the duty to return peace to the realm and the prerogative to help rule the country. But while history's influence was persistent, the patterns of the past did not merely replicate themselves, for Ieyasu and his successors as shogun presided over what contemporaries came to call the Taihei , a "Great Peace" that made subsequent economic, social, and cultural innovations possible. Initially, Ieyasu had only a tenuous hold on power, but during the seventeenth century the Tokugawa shoguns moved decisively to strengthen their hand, shape order out of chaos, and create sophisticated mechanisms of governance that gave them unparalleled civil authority even while permitting the country to flourish. As they did so, they created an environment in which all of Japan's social classes could contribute to unprecedented changes, and by the time the last Tokugawa stepped from office in 1868, Japan had become a very different country from what it had been in 1603. During those two and a half centuries, farm production multiplied severalfold, hundreds of cities sprang up across the countryside, new social classes came into existence, commerce flourished, and the Japanese came to enjoy one of the world's most advanced standards of living. At the same time, scholars and teachers formulated news codes of social behavior, and the merchant and artisan families in Japan's urban centers popularized new amusements and artistic accomplishments--Kabuki, haiku poetry, and wood-block printmaking--that now are heralded as the quintessential elements of Japanese culture.

The Origins of the Japanese State and the Appearance of the Samurai

The evolutionary appearance of the warrior class in Japan was an unanticipated by-product of the formation of a centralized polity in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Prior to that time, chiefdoms comprised of numerous village hamlets and presided over by ascendant lineage groups dominated most of the central and western portions of the island of Honshu and spread across Kyushu and Shikoku as well. Such clans were highly independent; each functioned as an autonomous entity that ruled itself, determined its own codes of behavior, protected its homes and fields against rapacious neighbors, and produced the food and crafts necessary for continued existence. In addition, the paramount of each chiefdom conducted rituals of worship that honored the supposed progenitor deity of the lineage, thus combining in a single leader powers that were sacred as well as secular.

    By the late fifth century one powerful family had asserted a recognizable, though decidedly fragile, hegemony over several other chiefdoms around its headquarters in the Yamato region, at the eastern end of the Inland Sea. Known alternatively as the Yamato Line or Sun Line, after its progenitor deity, Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess), that family subsequently used diplomacy, marriage alliances, patronage, and occasionally brute force to buttress its claims to power in central Japan and then extend a degree of authority over other clans to the south and west. By the beginning of the seventh century the Sun Line had emerged as primus inter pares among paramounts, ruling somewhat precariously over a federation of subordinate allies and satellite chiefdoms.

    Dissatisfied with their still-incomplete grasp on power, enterprising Yamato leaders searched for new ways to augment their strength and influence. In the Sixth Month of 645, the most daring of the inner circle invited prominent rivals to a lavish banquet and then massacred them in the drunken hours of the late evening. Several months later, on New Year's Day 646, according to traditional accounts, the head of the Yamato Line announced the epochal Taika Reforms. Inspired by sophisticated concepts of statecraft that the Japanese had observed on embassies to Tang China, the goal of the reform program, implemented in steps over the next several decades, was to break the power of the remaining chieftaincies and transform the Sun Line into a powerful monarchy that possessed uncontested and direct authority over the people and resources of the Japanese islands.

    Emblematic of the momentous changes at hand, the Yamato chieftain became the country's tenno . Historians typically have translated that newly coined term as "emperor" to signify the tenno's ambitions to wield absolute power. The more literal rendering of Heavenly Sovereign, however, better captures the notion that the Yamato family used its mythological descent from the Sun Goddess to validate its claims to rule as a "sacred and inviolable" sovereign in a dynasty that would reign forever, in a line "unbroken for ages eternal." The legends included in the Kojiki , the legendary "Record of Ancient Matters" commissioned by the Taika reformers and completed in 712, depicted Amaterasu as an especially influential deity who in the murky depths of the prehistoric past had entrusted a mirror, jewel, and sword--the blessed Three Regalia--to her grandson Ninigi no Mikoto when she sent him down from the High Celestial Plain to pacify the Japanese archipelago. Jimmu, Ninigi's great-grandson and the scion of mixed mortal and divine parentage, completed the conquest of Japan, the "land of luxuriant rice fields," in 660 B.C.E. according to the canons of mythohistory, which fictitiously anointed him as the islands' first ruler. In that manner, the Yamato monarchs conjured up the hoary traditions of the religious past and played on their supposed divinity to sanction their new and expanded claims to worldly kingship.

    More concretely, the Taika reformers created elaborate central and provincial bureaucracies to manage affairs of state on behalf of the Heavenly Sovereign. At the apex of the new administrative hierarchy stood the Grand Council of State, or Dajokan. Directed by a grand minister, the Dajokan oversaw the activities of more than seven thousand officials assigned to eight principal ministries (Central Affairs, Personnel, Civil Affairs, Popular Affairs, Military Affairs, Justice, Finance, and the Royal Household). To extend the new polity's authority over all the Japanese islands, the Taika Reforms further divided the country into sixty-six provinces and assigned a civil governor and support personnel to each. In a move designed to win the allegiance of former rival chieftains and simultaneously to create a pool of administrators to staff the new organs of government, the Yamato monarchy converted the former clan lineages into a hereditary aristocracy, with those highest in the social hierarchy made eligible for appointment to the more important government posts. A series of legal and administrative edicts, most notably the Taiho and Yoro Codes of 702 and 757 respectively, helped anchor the new monarchy by reinforcing the proposition that authority derived singularly from the Heavenly Sovereign and by meticulously spelling out the duties of all officeholders.


Excerpted from Japan by James L. McClain. Copyright © 2002 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2001-09-01:
This panoramic study is a magnificent achievement that addresses virtually every dimension of Japan's modern history from the 17th century to the present, towering above all other works of its kind. In lucid and lively prose, McClain (history, Brown Univ.) analyzes major trends in politics, the economy, society, culture and the arts, foreign affairs, and almost every other conceivable aspect of Japanese society. He is both landscape painter and miniaturist, illuminating core trends with the telling anecdote and the personal stories and travails of ordinary people as well as the high and mighty. His pages devoted to social history, which cover workers, women, minorities, and outcastes, are particularly fine. McClain is no mere chronicler of events. He provides a finely shaded, deeply intelligent, and eminently fair assessment of a country whose historical legacy has shadowed it throughout its often tortuous transformation from a semifeudal polity to a modern state. A sympathetic but detached observer, McClain makes the history come alive for students and general readers alike. For all libraries. Steven I. Levine, Univ. of Montana, Missoula (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-09-03:
McClain takes a multifaceted, nuanced look at Japan's last four centuries. A professor of history at Brown University, McClain begins with the investiture of Tokugawa Ieyasu as shogun in 1603, then leads the reader from daimyo castles of the 17th and 18th centuries to the filthy barracks of mine workers in the 19th century, to the refined, "cultured houses" of the emerging urban middle class in the 20th century. Equally adept at describing religious and intellectual currents, economic development, political maneuverings and the special problems faced by women and marginalized groups like Koreans and the Ainu, McClain draws on the most current studies of Japanese history. Throughout, he is evenhanded in his choice of subject matter and source. He acknowledges the contributions of the industrial giants, but gives voice to the rural poor, factory workers and victims of industrial pollution. He describes the geopolitical realities that drove Japan to empire but also unflinchingly details the horrors of war. More than a mere description of how Japan became a leading nation of the 20th century, this is a story with room for the pronouncements of emperors, the poetry of Basho and the demands of labor leaders. A newcomer to the subject may be daunted at first by the sheer volume of information, but McClain soon puts the reader at ease with his mastery of the subject and his clear, precise prose. Some readers may wonder at his decision to overlook events such as the Ako incident in the chapters on the Tokugawa era or Aum Shinrikyo's gassing of the Tokyo subway in his discussion of contemporary Japan, but overall this is a remarkable achievement. 70 illus. not seen by PW. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2002-06-01:
Setting aside the familiar narrative of the economic success of homogeneous Japan, McClain (Brown Univ.) presents the history of modern Japan in terms of changing Japanese notions of nation and self. Lively vignettes of specific historical moments at the opening of each chapter depict specific men and women of various classes and thus convey to the reader the richness of Japanese lived experience. Throughout his text, McClain incorporates the findings of a half-century of American scholarship on Japan; an extensive bibliography provides excellent guidance for further reading. The earlier chapters are stronger on social and cultural history than the later ones. The sections on war and occupation focus closely on the bilateral relationship with the US. Because there are only two chapters on the years since 1952, the lively postwar debates between Left and Right over issues such as constitutional revision, the Vietnam War, and the building of Narita airport are scarcely visible beneath the dominant narrative of economic growth and more recent stagnation. The graphs, charts, chronologies, and photographs are well chosen. General and all academic collections. S. A. Hastings Purdue University
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, August 2001
Library Journal, September 2001
Publishers Weekly, September 2001
Booklist, October 2001
Washington Post, December 2001
New York Times Book Review, January 2002
Choice, June 2002
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Bowker Data Service Summary
This text conveys the turbulent political, economic and social change that over four centuries positioned Japan as a modern world power. It examines the impact of towering figures and the experiences of everyday Japanese.
Unpaid Annotation
In the tradition of Jonathan Spence's "The Search for Modern China" comes an authoritative, comprehensive, up-to-date modern history of Japan seasoned with samplings of Japanese culture. 70 illustrations. 15 maps.
Main Description
Japan: A Modern History provides a comprehensive narrative that integrates the political, social, cultural, and economic history of modern Japan from the investiture of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 to the present.
Table of Contents
Reader's Guide
Traditional Japan
The Tokugawa Policyp. 5
Cities, Commerce, and Lifestylesp. 48
Self and Societyp. 76
Japan in Revolutionary Times
The Meiji Restorationp. 119
"New Beginnings"p. 155
Crafting a Constitutional Polityp. 183
Toward an Industrial Futurep. 207
Living the Meiji Dreamp. 246
Japan in the New Century
The Acquisition of Empirep. 283
New Awakenings, New Modernitiesp. 316
The Tumultuous Twentiesp. 357
Japan at War
"A Period of National Emergency"p. 405
In Pursuit of a New Orderp. 441
The Greater East Asia Warp. 482
Contemporary Japan
The Years of Occupationp. 523
Recovery and Affluencep. 562
Another New Centuryp. 599
Further Readings
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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