Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On "The History of Japan" by Louis G. Perez ****

Here is the primer on Japanese history that I was hoping for. Unlike Sadler's 1946 volume on Japanese history, which I found to focus too much on little things, and thus it largely failed to provide a general sense of what was going on, this one seems much better for an uninitiated reader. So, for example, Perez does a nice job of explaining how the Japanese emperor lost power to the shogun and feudal lords (namely because emperor's exempted certain people--particularly relatives--from taxation laws, which meant that as more and more people were exempted, the emperor lost financial power while the "private estates" of nontaxed people gained more and more; eventually these nontaxed estates hired their own warriors to guard themselves and became pretty independent, though in name they still honored the throne--the emperor was like a figurehead). The former book, by contrast, would have named off each feudal lord and each battle, and a clear understanding of the general dynamic would have been lost (at least to me).

This difference is especially clear in how the two books cover the 1500s, wherein Japan was involved in extensive civil war. The previous book, as noted, goes into each battle, which makes events hard to follow; Perez just notes it's a period of civil war. By 1600, with the country beginning to unite under the brutal campaign of Nabumura, history becomes much clearer--and that's when the previous book finally starts making sense and become enjoyable.

That's not to say the first book's attention to detail was completely useless. Perez greatly simplifies historical events. One would think, for example, from this Perez's text, that Japan pretty much just happily adopted Buddhism, when, in fact, as Sadler's book, with all its detail, makes clear, Buddhism was accepted only gradually and not without many doubts and battles over the course of a couple of centuries.

Perez's book is part of a series of basic histories on various contemporary nations of importance--The Greenwood Histories of Modern Nations. Books in the series, while they give the entire history of the nation from start to finish, apparently focus most on the more recent past. Indeed, about half of Perez's volume is devoted to the post-1800s (one reason I read Sadler's book was because it was more focused on early history, so I wanted something to balance Perez out). But the early material, while greatly truncated, is still informative enough to be a good outline. I'm impressed enough that I want to check out more volumes in this series. Sadly, the list price of fifty-five dollars means books in the series aren't likely to become part of my personal library.

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