Modern Japanese Society, 1868-1994 by Ann Waswo is a non-fiction book that concisely discusses all of the major modern political and economic factors that went into Japan’s growth and evolution as a bustling society. Ms Waswo was a Professor of Japanese Studies at the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies at Oxford University in England for twenty-five years, and has published numerous books about Japan, its history, and culture.
One of my favourite aspects about this book is that it truly is concise and very accessible to anyone interested in learning more about Japan’s modern history and economy, even if you don’t have any prior knowledge of the subject matter. The book is divided into eight chapters, each one approximately twenty to thirty pages in length. Waswo touches on strictly the vital parts of history to supplement or describe her analysis of that chapter’s focus.
For example, chapter one is called “On the Meiji Restoration,” and instead of going into a long-winded explanation of the Tokugawa Era and its downfall into the Restoration era, she brings up the major areas of importance only: the creation of the Tokugawa Shogunate after the Battle of Sekigahara, a compact list of initiatives made by Tokugawa that brought about a supremely prosperous era for Japan, and then its downfall due to the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance. She manages to talk about all of this in fourteen pages, yet I never felt like something important had been left out. I received a nice, rounded understanding of these events and how it impacted Japan’s society moving forward.
That ease of understanding, aside from the well-structured condensation of information, stems from Waswo’s natural written approach. The prose of the book is one of intelligence, ease, and unbiased conversational tone that swept my interest away into topics that I normally find to be quite dense and boring (i.e.: economics and statistics). But the way that she carefully yet succinctly explained these more difficult concepts with down-to-earth language and examples, made them pleasantly easy to comprehend! I found myself not only being able to understand what was being said, but also being able to take it in and absorb it. I was learning and being educated in a fun way.
Most books about Japan, especially it’s history surrounding the Second World War, is more often than not laced with biases and awkward opinions that the author has about the relative time period. I won’t deny that Waswo did not include some minor personal analyses of how Japan became involved and then evolved from this War, but she is never, ever disrespectful or judgmental in her subjective commentary. She always ties it back to some element of evidentiary proof from Japan’s own history to describe why she feels the way she does, or how she came to the conclusions that she did. For me, this is extremely important especially as an educator. She allows room for people to make their own judgements and formulate their own opinions without tainting it by enforcing her own. I have mad respect for that.
If I could list any complaint about the book, it will be that my expectation of the content was that it would be more focused on the actual societal customs of Japan, and less on the economy and how its workforce evolved from the 1860s up to the 1990s. When I think of the word “social,” I had hoped to learn about their interactions with one another and how their social practices had shifted from the traditional to a more contemporary in terms of interpersonal social communities, not business ones. But this can’t be blamed on the book as it was a personal anticipation.
Overall, this is an excellent book that I feel should be compulsory companion to any college level course on modern Japanese history. I actually plan on buying a copy when I am able to do so. I’d love to add it to my library of reference books on Japan.