Literature review: Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma

inventing japan


The following is a literature review of the book titled ‚Inventing Japan‘, written by Ian Buruma, a Dutch writer with a focus on Asian culture. The book was published in 2003 by Modern Library. The book is about the history of Japan during the time period of 1853 – 1964, showing the birth and development of modern Japan. 1853 is the year where Americans arrived in Japan wanting to open up the country and 1964 was the year of the Tokyo Olympics. The book offers a short but thorough chronology of a time of rapid changes.


The author uses the following structure: In the prologue, he starts the book with the end of the timeline, describing the sentiment, attitude, and feeling of the Japanese and the visitors of the Tokyo Olympics. The first chapter describes the arrival of the Americans in 1853 and the reaction to this event, which led to rapid and intense changes in a short time. In the following chapter, the creation of Imperial Japanese state is elaborately described. The third chapter is about the westernization of society and culture and also the respective resentment. After that, in the fourth chapter, attention is brought to the war in Asia. The war against the west is picked as the central topic in the fifth chapter. The following chapters are about Japan in the Post-war period, the sixth being about the design of post-war Japan and the seventh about the political, social and cultural life in post-war Japan. In the epilogue, Buruma offers a short recapitulation of events in Japan till the year of 2003.


The author has not chosen the year 1853 as a starting point for this chronology arbitrarily. Many historians see this year as the starting of a development which led to the creation of modern Japan. Before 1853, Japan was isolated for 200 years, outlawed Christianity, expelled foreigners and priests and forbade Japanese to go abroad. In 1853, Commodore Matthew (‘Old Matt’) Calbraith Perry arrives with four heavily armed ships with the mission of opening up Japanese ports to American ships, aiming to further American trade. Because the Americans are militarily superior by a large margin, there is either the choice of suicidal war or compromising for the Shogun’s government in Edo (nowadays Tokyo). The Americans are allowed to enter two ports and extract coal and other supplies without paying for them. In the eyes of an already dissatisfied population, this is a sign of weakness of the so-called Bakufu government which lead to an even further increase in dissatisfaction. The anti-Bakufu movement grows stronger and stronger and results in a civil war in the year of 1868. This leads to the abolition of the shogunate. The Emperor, who did not have a political function for hundreds of years, is moved to Tokyo with the goal of politicizing the imperial institution. Sakamoto Ryoma draws the first draft of a Japanese constitution but is murdered by Bakufu loyalists.
In 1868, the empire of Japan is born. The era of that time is called Meiji, and more specifically it is described as the Meiji restoration, as it ‘restored’ an ancient Japanese imperial state. Generally, there is a cultural and societal orientation towards Europe. There is a feeling of catching up with European countries in technology, rights, law, and culture. The constitution is based on the German but is mixed with Japanese authoritarianism. In contrast to European monarchies, the emperor is not a dictator, he is not involved in politics. The army nevertheless, owes loyalty only to the emperor but not to the civilian government. The empire of Japan shows the beginnings of a modern market economy, where caste differences are cast aside, farmers can own land, people can buy property and monopolies are abolished in favor of free enterprise. Still, enterprise is never quite free from state interference with the government wanting to strategically advance the economy. The privatization of textile factories, railroads, cement plants, and other industries leads to an industrial boom. The new wealth is not distributed equally but is concentrated on a few companies which grow into huge industrial combines, called Zaibatsu. The government consists of a few oligarchs, which are ex-samurai, who are also in power of the Zaibatsu. The orientation on Europe also brings with itself a Liberal movement, which leads to many local rebellions. The movement consists mainly of two parties: Juyito, the Freedom Party, and Kaishinto, the Constitutional Progressive Party. However, in 1884, after a violent beat down of a farmer rebellion, the two parties are disbanded. After a while, they arise again, but with a different function: As promoters of corporate interest, the Freedom Party for Mitsui and the Constitutional Progressive Party for Mitsubishi.
On the cultural side, there is a lot of mimicking and adjustment to European culture, which shows itself in various, sometimes quite absurd, facets, one of it, for example, being the tendency to eat large quantities of meat, whereas eating meat was taboo in pre-imperial Japan. The traditional religion of Japan, Shinto, is used in a fanatical way and transformed into a state religion. There is a cult of emperor worship, in which the emperor is seen as the supreme deity of the Japanese. Also, there are prohibitions on nudity, mixed bathing and other behavior which could raise foreign disapproval.
In 1895, a war with China over the control of Korea breaks out. The Japanese win this conflict due to their technological advancement, which confirms for them the superiority of the ‘European method’. Colonialism is seen as a sign of greatness and modernity. With colonial ambition raised due to the victory in Sino-Japanese conflict, the Empire of Japan attacks Russia in 1904, which leads to a long and bloody war with many casualties. Although the war is won, the sentiment in the country is rather depressed because of the many casualties. In 1912, the emperor dies, marking the end of the Meiji period.
A new era begins, the Taisho era. For many Japanese, the late 1910s and 1920s were the best of times. Japan was not participating in WW1. While European powers wasted their resources and people on war, Japan built ships, exported textiles, made industrial machines and railway rolling stock and supplied Europeans with munitions. By the end of the war, the Japanese economy is booming, with Mitsubishi and Sumitomo at the top.
The 1920s was a time of movements, showing parallels to Weimar Germany, for universal suffrage, liberation of discriminated outcasts and for women rights. Buruma describes it as “a good time to be young”.
However, with a growing countermovement, supported by people in the government, to Marxism, social democracy and democracy itself, in 1925, a Peace Preservation law comes in force which restricts political dissent. The Taisho emperor dies in 1926, and Hirohito becomes emperor. The new era is called Showa, meaning ‘illustrious peace’.
In 1931, a conflict with China for the region of Manchuria breaks out. The conflict turns into a violent war where the Japanese commit extreme atrocities, one of the most famous examples being the Nanking massacre in 1937, where approximately 250.000 soldiers and civilians are brutally murdered during a time span of 6 weeks. In 1941, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and with that, begins the war with the USA. The success of the Pearl Harbor attack is widely celebrated. In the subsequent years anyhow, as the Japanese constantly lose more and more territory, it becomes clear that the War against the West cannot be won by Japan. In 1945, the USA demands the unconditional surrender, after which they would replace the militarist government with a democratic government. However, no promise to protect the imperial throne was made. The Japanese decline. On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, killing hundreds of thousands. Three days after, another bomb is dropped on Nagasaki. Giving the final blow to an already devastated Japan, the Japanese agree to surrender.
On August 30, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) arrives with the mission of reconstructing the administration of the newly conquered territory. Demokurashii is to be instilled in the Japanese as though no one has ever heard about the concept. He compares Japan in terms of modern civilization to a 12-year-old boy.
The imperial institution is to be protected. Buruma compares MacArthur to the shoguns who derived their legitimacy by being blessed by the emperor to be the leader of the government. MacArthur encourages the dissolution of Zaibatsu, the abolition of thought police, full voting rights for women, release of communists and other political prisoners, establishment of independent trade unions, and most importantly, promulgation of a new, liberal constitution. Still, freedom of speech is often constrained, even though it is propagated. The new constitution comes in force. Article 9, which forbids Japan to have a national army, leads to controversy: On the one hand, people are proud to be the first pacifist nation but on the other hand, people resent the forced dependency on the USA for protection. During the Tokyo trials, where the ones responsible for the crimes against humanity are to be convicted, the Emperor is deemed innocent and the militants take all the blame.
In 1964, during the Tokyo Olympics, Japan presents its newfound identity to the world.



Buruma manages to deliver a vivid, interesting and multi-faceted chronology of Japan in its most turbulent time driven by intense changes and rapid development. I am glad that I have chosen this book which taught me a lot about Japanese history that I did not know. I now feel like I have a better understanding of how Japan got to be where it is now and especially how it transformed from a feudalistic to a democratic system. I think that having historical knowledge about Japan may benefit me during my stay as it could help me understand the Japanese spirit and through that have a better connection to the people.

This entry was posted in English, Japan, Literature review. Bookmark the permalink.