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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon April 8, 2001
This books covers the last 400 years of Japanese history in a series of very well written and well organized chapters. The focus on structural changes in Japanese political and social organization with briefer but insightful discussions of intellectual and economic history. Relatively unfamiliar topics such as the emergence and articulation of the Tokugawa state, the Meiji restoration, and the complex structure of Japanese politics in the pre-WWII era are discussed with great insight. There is an excellent annotated bibliography for each chapter. Jansen does an excellent job of balancing the need to explain and analyze events properly with the need to produce a one volume (though pretty thick) book. This is the book for someone looking for an introduction to Japanese history.
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on December 8, 2000
First and foremost, I was very surprized at how readable this book is at times. For a book of this size, and the amount of material it covers, I was glad at how readable it was in certain parts.
I also liked that the book was relatively neutral approach. The author clearly respects Japanese history and has mastered it, while not making excuses for their mistakes. To often Japanese and Chinese scholars have been seduced by the cultures of these areas and it clouds their writing and interpretations. I liked the neutrality of this book.
I am less interested in social history, so I will not lie and pretend to have found those chapters interesting, it is not my thing.
The chapters that I felt were the best dealth with the unification of Japan around 1600 and the events surrounding the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
To me, one of the most interesting periods in Japanese history is the 16th and 17th century. The stories and actions of Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu (my screen name)fascinate me greatly. However, there is so little in English about them. It is so hard to find many sources on these great Japanese leaders and the final battles at Sekigara and Osaka castle. So it was quite enjoyable to read about them in this book. The Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan for over 200 years and was great to read how it came into power and stayed in power. If this time period interests you, you must read Totman's bio of Tokugawa and of course Cavells Shogun.
Equally as interesting is how the Tokugawa Shogunate collapsed and the Emperor was restored. The book does a great job detailing Perry's arrival in Japan and its forced opening to the west. The book also does a great job discussing the infighting in Japan going on at the time of Perry's arrival and after. The book makes it clear that the Meiji Restoration was more than simply a reaction to Western Imperialism. I enjoyed reading about all the infighting between the remaining Tokugawa bakfu and the more rebellous daimyo.
Also the author does a great job describing how after the Meiji restoration Japan modernized and westernized.
I also feel this books makes up for some of the weaknesses in other recent books on modern Japan. "Embracing Defeat" was too sympathetic to the Japanese in dealing with its history immediately after WWII. This book stays neutral.
Also,Bix recent biography of Hirohito, really did not go into enough detail of the Meiji restoration which this books does a great job of.
However, that creates another problem. Again, if you have read either Bix' Hirohito or Embracing Defeat you will be pretty well informed of post-WWII Japan. Therefore the last chapters of this book are really not neccessary to read. Again, its done well, but having read both of those books makes his information a bit of overkill.
So, if you are looking for a good overview of recent Japanese history you will enjoy this book. It is well written and informative and at times surprizingly entertaining. But again, the last few parts of this book cover material fans of Japanese history will have read too much of recently.
If you like Japanese history, you will like this book.
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on March 26, 2005
What an exasperating book. At times, The Making of Modern Japan is a joy to read, filled with wonderful translations of primary sources and with Jansen's own wry asides. At others, the prose is painfully academic. It's almost like it was written by different authors. I found the first quarter of the book, a detailed description of the Tokugawa status quo on the eve of revolutionary change, to be deadly dull - 200 pages of sentences, none of which seemed to contain verbs. As the action increases - and Japan begins to reform in the face of foreign pressure - the book gets better. But even here the prose can be deadly. Readers approaching Jansen's otherwise interesting survey of Meiji culture must first get past this sentence, standing like a sentinel at the start of Chapter 14 waiting to bludgeon them senseless: "Histories of Meiji Japan usually follow a periodization derived from the construction of the modern nation-state.'' I found myself crying: "Stop this man before he writes `periodization' again!" But Jansen's immense knowledge, judicious analysis and well-chosen excerpts redeem the book. I loved the Japanese scholar who, upon encountering Western learning, describes the joy of discovery as "sweet as sugar cane.'' I was thunderstruck by the 19th century writer who sounds like Saruman ranting in Isengard as he extols the glories of environmental destruction: "The smoke coiling up from thousands of chimneys will obscure the sun. Ship masts will be as numerous as trees in a forest. The sound of drills, levers and hammers will be orchestrated with the echoes of steam engines...How delightful it will be!" The book also concludes with a lengthy and useful list of recommended reading. For readers who want a comprehensive, balanced and at times delightful introduction to the events that made modern Japan, this book is worth the slog. But a slog it sometimes is.
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on September 28, 2001
The late Marius Jansen has left us with a superb single volume introduction to modern Japanese history. Anyone approaching Japanese history for the first time would do very well to start with this book. Those who know the story well already will nevertheless find many delights. The book is good reading and explains the intricacies of Japanese history with remarkable clarity. Jansen treats the social and cultural as well as political and economic sides, and integrates them into a coherent whole. When reading more specialized accounts, I find myself referring back to Jansen's book as a convenient way to put their stories in context. The illustrations are well chosen and well presented. Strongly recommended.
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on December 10, 2001
Having lived in Japan off and on for over 10 years I tremendously enjoyed Marius' detailed knowledge on Japanese history. Although hard going over a number of weekends, it put all the snippets of my own knowledge of modern Japanese history in context and made the pieces of the puzzle fit. Indispensable reading for any serious student of Japan.
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on November 22, 2003
And for most, reading it may take a lifetime. But that might not be a bad thing.
This book has two strong points: first, it is remarkably all-inclusive - the work of a master historian; second, it is inexpensive for such a massive tome.
Jansen crafts a decent narrative, but the writing itself is sometimes plodding and only the most tenacious reader will be able to navigate all 765 pages.
Which means that this is an excellent book for researchers and budding Japan specialists. It is probably the best condensed history that covers this massive a timeframe.
But for the casual reader this book can at best be read over the years, chunk by chunk only as inspiration strikes.
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on July 19, 2011
Jansen's journey to modern Japan is a massive survey of Japanese history from the late 16th century and the formation of the Tokugawa state through to the end of the 20th century. Jansen follows Japan's story from the Tokugawa period, through the Meiji restoration, into Japan's rise as a military and economic power, the Pacific war, Japan under occupation and post occupation Japan. Jansen's work is the compilation of a life's knowledge, it is his Opus Dei and indeed a privilege to read.

When, Jansen survey's the Edo period under the Tokugawa shoguns, he does not provide a chronological narrative describing the story of successive shoguns inundated with millions of dates of events, nor is it a detailed study of the edicts and policies of each shogun but rather a systematic overview of developments in different aspects of life during the period. Topics covered include an overview of the Tokugawa state, foreign relations, urbanization and communication, status groups and the development of culture and religion. Each section is a detailed essay that can be read fairly independently of each other depending on the focus of the reader and does not require much understanding of earlier chapters (although reading the book from cover to cover is definitely recommended). Jansen certainly tries to stick to the facts and successfully comes across as an objective historian trying to present different ideas about the period. Jansen's description of this period removes many Western mythologies surrounding the bakufu (Shogun) state and especially the Samurai warriors.

Jansen's narrative eases smoothly into the challenges faced by Perry's black ships and the Meiji Restoration in Japan in the mid 19th century. At this point he looks deeper into the personalities and the power brokers. He provide a sufficiently detailed account of how Japan tried to position itself in the constellation of nations and how these attempts at the dawn of the Meiji era would influence Japan's foreign policy and perspectives well into the 20th century. When covering the major events in this era (such as the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Japanese Russian War) he takes a top down approach into looking for the macro-level influences on the actions of the different protagonists. He once again avoids getting involved in the nitty-gritty explanations of each campaign and retains his focus on the bigger picture.

What I found most interesting in this book is Jansen's coverage of the rise of the military state in Japan and how the militarists managed to seize control of the government and wage their vicious war in the middle of the 20th Century. Jansen clearly adopts the perspective that the China war, for all its brutality, was not an intended war and long before the end of World War 2 and the Atomic horrors in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japanese leaders were looking for ways to disengage from China but were trapped in an unrelenting quagmire. Once again his coverage of these wars is a very top down approach with limited views on the areas of conflict and more tries to provide an understanding into the motivations of the leaders at the time. The Nomonhan conflict between Japan and Russia in 1939 is covered in a short paragraph and the Nanking massacre gets a mention in a single paragraph too. This is not to say that Jansen doesn't acknowledge the horrors of these conflicts and events, but to say that he is searching to understand and provide readers with a clearer view of the back stories that were driving the main characters in these events. Jansen gives detailed accounts as to the reasons for the conflict with America and spends some time addressing the resource shortages that pushed Japan into conflict with America and the Pacific war.

Jansen descriptions of post-War Japan are also very insightful: the attitudes of the American occupiers to the Japanese and the skillfulness used by the US to get the Japanese on their side and post occupation independence is also described in detail. His survey of these periods, up to the turn of the millennia explores once again the society, the economy and the perceptions of the people in Japan and the main protagonists that have driven Japan forward into the new century.

No doubt there are shorter histories of Japan that provide sufficient detail of Japan from the Tokugawa period to now, but this highly accessible, detailed survey of Japan's journey from pre-modern to modern times is a good place to start for anyone who is serious about understanding Japan's past. Jansen's writing is clear, concise and easily understood. His thoughts are well ordered. The narrative flows freely and, although he sometimes sounds like a teacher, he is sufficiently natural and down to earth in his writing to make the book accessible to all. My only gripe with the book (and this a publishing issue and not a writing issue) is the lack of a glossary.

Jansen's history is a brilliant read. Enjoy!
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on June 25, 2004
I bought this book for reference while taking a Modern History of Asia class - I ended up reading the whole thing! Informative, interesting and a great resource for the 3 papers on Japan I wrote.
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on December 26, 2012
It's a great book, but it is super dense.

I mean, you are getting a TON of information about a pretty hefty period of time and you are getting it pretty hard. Jansen isn't easy to read, but you can definitely learn a lot from this book.
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on September 6, 2014
A lot of information but a bit much for the causally curious. I have a strong interest in the pacific war and wanted more historical background on Japan. I may have been better served with one of the four or five hundred page histories. After the turn of the century the number of Japanese names mentioned grew fast and lessened my comprehension of what was happening. It was a chore.
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