The History of Nations: Japan is a non-fiction collection of academic essays outlining various events and eras throughout Japanese history. Each essay was written by a different scholar and the collection itself was edited by Clay Farris Naff. It begins with the Ancient era and works its way towards the modern era (c. 2003).
One of the things that I immediately appreciated about the book was how concise it is. There are six total chapters and within each chapter were three to four sections. The sections were short and to the point, which I think makes it a great resource for people who are interested in learning about the nation but have limited time to study or spend on reading vast amounts of textbooks. It’s easy to read a small section in between breaks at work or school, before bed or breakfast, etc., and it reads fairly fast. Also, while the essays are academic, they are quite approachable and have simple explanations of complex political and economic topics.
Another positive aspect of the collection is that most of the essays, if not all, are written in an unbiased tone that still manages to show the scholar’s passion and respect of the nation. It prevents the book from being boring and also keeps it from being a bland apathetic regurgitation of statistical data only.
The structure of the book is in chronological order and focus on all of the major events and eras of Japanese history. I noticed that it did leave out a ton of material, but the things that are discussed provide a broad and decent understanding of how Japan evolved as a nation over time. We learn about Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, then the Jōmon era, and move along down the timeline. Really the only necessity for learning all of the sections that are not included would be if you were planning on becoming a scholar yourself or specialising in some specific part of Japanese history and/or culture. If that is your goal, then I would recommend reading a different book for more fleshed out and detailed information. However, for its purpose, it works well.
There aren’t too many shortcomings that I can think of with this title. I had an issue with one of the essays that was both harmful and contradictory to its inherent subjectivity. The essay had a significantly negative and condescending tone to it that made it wholly off-putting. It glorifies the American victory over Japan via the use of atomic bombs. It goes on to describe the vast number of Americans that were killed in Pearl Harbour and because of Japan’s kamikaze pilots, explaining how America was left with little to no choice other than implementing a nuclear response to the “vile and blood-thirsty Japanese soldiers.” I won’t condone what the soldiers on all fronts did, especially the Japanese, particularly where China and Korea are concerned. However, I also feel that painting Americans as the “heroes” of the war is bullshit given what they did to Japanese-Americans by placing them into Internment camps. Many could argue, and have argued, that America’s actions towards Japanese-Americans was an unconstitutional war crime, similar to that of what the Nazis did to the Jewish people. While the violence and subjugation of atrocities weren’t on the same level, it was still a devastatingly inhumane act of hatred nonetheless.
The essay also does go into detail on how Japan was already vastly weakened as a people due to the decline in the health of the citizens and the overall degradation of their will and fortitude to keep on fighting. There was a significantly large chance that Japan would have surrendered within a couple of months prior to the bomb droppings. The essay also mentions that while the first atomic bombing, Hiroshima’s, may have been an act to stop Japan, the second one was completely unnecessary, and nothing more than a vengeful war crime sought as payment for what happened in Pearl Harbour, as well as a strong desire to conduct scientific research. Since the war was coming to an end, scientists were urged to finish the atomic bombs as quickly as possible so that they could be tested on people, specifically Japan; a decision that was made an entire two years prior to them actually being dropped.
That essay has good points and horrible points, and while it did frustrate me immensely, I felt is an important read. Japan still hasn’t taken responsibility for what happened to their people, and the US has never outright admitted that they violated their own constitution by forcing Japanese-Americans into Internment camps. Seventy years later and instead of growing up and being adults about what happened, they dilly dally in the shadows of their ridiculous pride. This is the main essence of the essay.
Aside from that, the only other issue I had with the collection was that it contained only one essay from a Japanese scholar. One. It desperately needed more contributions from other Japanese people. I think it provides a level of intimate insight into what’s going on in the nation and how it’s advanced rather than taking all of these outside perspectives and speculations who have not physically lived through one section of its history to the next. That air of authenticity gets lost.
All in all, it’s a decent, short-and-simple account of Japan’s history in its minimalist form, and I recommend it for those who are too busy for proper study, or folks who have a passing interest or curiosity. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s an accessibly quick read.