Thursday, July 3, 2008

On "A Short History of Japan" by A. L. Sadler **

This is the first of a series of books on the history and literature of Japan that I'm planning to read. If the rest of the books turn out like this one--and I know they won't--I will likely be pretty confused. Short, the book is, given that Japan's history goes back centuries. Unfortunately, the author doesn't have a good knack for summary. I know summarizing three thousand years of history in three hundred pages wouldn't be easy, and I'm not sure how exactly how one does that, but some authors manage quite well. With this short history, however, I didn't feel like I really got a sense of the nation. Rather, the story is too full of details--largely an account, in chronological order, of the rise and fall of royal families by name. This strategy would be akin to summarizing American history in two hundred pages by writing a page about each presidential election. In fact, that is almost what happens once the author gets around to writing about the twentieth century--endless paragraphs on who took who's spot in the cabinet with each new administration.

The history was published in 1946, so it breaks off basically with the start of World War II, which is an interesting and seemingly appropriate place to close the book. I'd read this one in part because of its focus on the earlier history of Japan, but much of that was a literal recounting of Japanese mythology, with little attention given to what it actually means. Sadler's book does hit its stride, however, in discussing the Tokugawa Period, the era when Japan finally united under a single Shogun. I'm hoping the next book on Japanese history on my list, which takes things into the current day, will be a bit easier to read for the underinitiated.

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