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Exasperating -- but worth the slog
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.