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Japan at War: An Oral History Asia Japan Haruko Taya Cook New Press The

31st January 2012 History Books 18 Comments

One of the essential books about World War II. — Philadelphia Inquirer

Oral history of a compellingly high order. — Kirkus Reviews

Haruko Taya Cook is Fordham Marymount Professor Emerita in history at Marymount College of Fordham University. Theodore F. Cook is a professor of Japanese history at William Paterson University. They live in New York City.

A timely fifteenth Anniversary reissue of a “deeply moving book” (Studs Terkel) that portrays the Japanese experience during World War II in all its complexity.

Following the release of Clint Eastwood’s epic film Letters from Iwo Jima, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, there has been a renewed fascination and interest in the Japanese perspective on World War II. This pathbreaking work of oral history is the first book ever to capturein either Japanese or Englishthe experience of ordinary Japanese people during the war.

In a sweeping panorama, Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook take us from the Japanese attacks on China in the 1930s to the Japanese home front during the inhuman raids on Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, offering the first glimpses of how the twentieth century’s most deadly conflict affected the lives of the Japanese population. The book “seeks out the true feelings of the wartime generation [and] illuminates the contradictions between the official views of the war and living testimony” (Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan).

Japan at War is a book to which Americans and Japanese will continue to turn for decades to come. With more than 30,000 copies sold to date, this new paperback edition features an updated cover designed to appeal to a new generation of readers.

One of the essential books about World War II. — Philadelphia Inquirer

Oral history of a compellingly high order. — Kirkus Reviews

Japan at War: An Oral History

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

A Chinese saying has it that “each step changes the mountain.” Likewise, each major turn in history changes how we understand what went before: as Japan now continues in an economic funk that followed but did not wipe out the “economic miracle” of the postwar period, we need to rethink our histories once again to explain the origins of prosperity, the evolution of what it means to be Japanese, and the roots of obstinacy. Gordon’s clearheaded, readable, and inquisitive narrative, aimed at students and serious general readers, accomplishes this task molto con brio. Head of Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Gordon tells a sweeping and provocative story of Japan’s political, economic, social, and cultural inventions of its modernity in evolving international contexts, incorporating inside viewpoints and debates. Beyond identifying the national stages (feudalism, militarism, democracy), the author innovatively emphasizes how labor unions, cultural figures, and groups in society (especially women) have been affected over time and have responded. Recommended both for general libraries and for specialist collections.
Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, Second Edition, paints a richly nuanced and strikingly original portrait of the last two centuries of Japanese history. It takes students from the days of the shogunate–the feudal overlordship of the Tokugawa family–through the modernizing revolution launched by midlevel samurai in the late nineteenth century; the adoption of Western hairstyles, clothing, and military organization; and the nation’s first experiments with mass democracy after World War I. Author Andrew Gordon offers the finest synthesis to date of Japan’s passage through militarism, World War II, the American occupation, and the subsequent economic rollercoaster.
The true ingenuity and value of Gordon’s approach lies in his close attention to the non-elite layers of society. Here students will see the influence of outside ideas, products, and culture on home life, labor unions, political parties, gender relations, and popular entertainment. The book examines Japan’s struggles to define the meaning of its modernization, from villages and urban neighborhoods, to factory floors and middle managers’ offices, to the imperial court. Most importantly, it illuminates the interconnectedness of Japanese developments with world history, demonstrating how Japan’s historical passage represents a variation of a process experienced by many nations and showing how the Japanese narrative forms one part of the interwoven fabric of modern history. This second edition incorporates increased coverage of both Japan’s role within East Asia–particularly with China, Korea, and Manchuria–as well as expanded discussions of cultural and intellectual history.
With a sustained focus on setting modern Japan in a comparative and global context, A Modern History of Japan, Second Edition, is ideal for undergraduate courses in modern Japanese history, Japanese politics, Japanese society, or Japanese culture.

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

  • 18 responses to "Japan at War: An Oral History Asia Japan Haruko Taya Cook New Press The"

  • PaulTheZombie
    10:33 on January 31st, 2012
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    Being an ethnic Chinese, though born after the war, I just couldn’t understand the Japanese inability to accept that they have been behaving in a most atrocious manner during the war, given the massive amount of evidence that has been accumulated to prove that point. Despite there being so much evidence pointing to the fact it was the Japanese who started the war, and yet, they seemed to think of themselves as the victims rather than the victimizers. That was something I couldn’t understand.

    But now, having read this book, though I don’t agree with them, I could, in an intuitive sense, understand them.

    At the beginning of Part Four, on page 259, it’s printed these words:

    “Umi yukaba, misuku kabane…Across the sea, corpses soaking in the water, Across the mountains, corpses heaped upon the grass, We shall die by the side of our lord. We shall never look back.”

    “Umi yukaba..” is from a collection of poetry known as Manyoushu, which dated from around 700 AD, around the Nara, Heien period. This specific poem, “Umi yukaba…” was set to music in 1937, and after 1943, it preceded radio announcements of battles in which Japanese soldiers “met honorable death rather than the dishonor of surrender.” In a flash,I understood the mentality of the time. They were really still set in the medieval feudal samurai mentality. The veneer of modernity was just that, a veneer of modernity. They might be able to build and master complex machinery of the modern twentieth century, the mentality was still of feudal Heien period. Their treatment of the conquered people was justified. That’s how the Heien period warriors behaved. Their perception of themselves as the victims were justified. That’s what samurai warrior would feel. They were all prepared, or at least indoctrinated to be prepared to die in the service of the emperor.

    I cannot imagine any other country which would announce their battles lost with such a song.

    The army doctor, Yuasa Ken, described his wartime experience, that of experimental surgery on perfectly healthy, well except for the fact that they have been starved, perfectly healthy Chinese. To them, there was nothing wrong. The Chinese were the conquered people. The Imperial Army needed doctors to treat the wounded soldiers, so many doctors were recruited into the army, including pediatricians, dermatologists, ophthalmologists and so on. These doctors have no experience in treating trauma injuries. How to train them? What better way than to use the Chinse as experimental animals for their training. Only in the light of the concept of “human rights”, a concept developed in the West, was that kind of experimenation considered wrong. In the feudal samurai ethics, that was not considered wrong.

    Now look at the situation this way. From the samurai ethics point of view, they had not behaved wrongly. But after the defeat, and the acceptance of the world view of “human rights”, what they have done was definitely wrong. However, in their minds, they haven’t done anything wrong. How to reconcile the one with the other? How to reconcile their internal moral judgment, “we have not done anything wrong”, with the now newly developed and accepted concept of “human rights”? The only way out of this psychological dilemma is to deny that those atrocities have happened. The only way out is to deny that the Nanjin massacre had happened, that the human experimentations in Unit 731 had ever happened.

    This is a most fascinating book, and is a MUST READ for anyone interested in how the Japanese felt and thought of the events of the time.

  • pop frame
    13:24 on January 31st, 2012
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    For those who are interested in what life was like for the Japanese people during World War II this is the book to read. The book contains a series of interviews with locals who survived the war and also with military personnel, even those who participated in atrocities against the Americans and Chinese. The book starts out slow moving, but it then becomes hard to put down. It is an excellent baseline compilation; in fact you see parts of this book quoted in other significant commentaries of the Pacific War. Some parts of the book will enlighten you and possibly make you feel terribly empathetic and sorrowful; other parts will dismay and disturb you. But, it you are a serious student of the war, this is MUST READING and a serious and significant contribution to Pacific War literature.

  • TrafficWarden
    13:48 on January 31st, 2012
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    Until I read this book, I had no real appreciation of suffering and cruelty in the Pacific War. The format of this book, oral histories in the first person, so personalizes suffering and cruelty that I had to interrupt reading many times in order to go on. There is so much pain here that I soon understood why many Japanese refuse to revisit such memories, even after sixty years. The book is a record of what happens when those in command plug their eyes, minds and hearts with mud. As such, it reminds us that we should not be silent about what happened, if we truly wish that it might never happen again.

  • John Baxter
    16:43 on January 31st, 2012
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    …if you are interested in history in general, or this war or nation in particular, then you must have this book. It is the definitive oral history from the perspective of the Japanese people.

    Most of the interviews are with “common folks”, only a few in positions of war-time influence are here. This is natural, given that these interviews were conducted long after the war ended. Also, similar to Studs Terkel’s work, these are “worm’s eye” views, very personal, very moving, with necessarily limited fields of view.

    Regarding “david”‘s comments in the preceding review: the issue of blame is not squarely addressed by most of the people being interviewed. Unlike david, however, I do not find this disturbing. These are common people. Like the interviewees in Terkel’s work, they were caught up in a conflagration, moving from one private experience to another, motivated by needs of family and friends and simple survival. After the defeat, they were then caught up in the re-building. They buried their private pain, with these interviews, in many cases, being the first time they shared their experiences with anyone. This INCREASES the value of the oral history, it does not decrease it. Also, the authors clearly address this issue of “blame avoidance” and provide speculative, but very sensible, reasons for it. Not justification, quite the opposite, just reasons. Finally, some of the more well-educated interviewees DO address the issue.

    I have had this book for years and have re-read it many times, always with a little greater understanding and appreciation for its value. When you consider that the individuals born after the war are still DISTINCTLY uncomfortable talking about it (even in private, even between husband and wife), this shows you just how searing the experience was for the Japanese and how priceless this window into the Japanese soul really is. How much more do you want for the 12 bucks or so that it costs?

    Again, it is a “must have” for anyone with an interest in history.

  • Rick Monson
    10:58 on February 1st, 2012
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    I had to read this book for a college course, and I’m very glad that I did. Coming from a background in U.S. history, this book helped explain a lot about why the small island nation of Japan became more powerful than its giant neighbor in China, how quickly the nation industrialized, why Pearl Harbor was attacked, what Japan’s goals were in World War 2, and how Japan continued its rapid economic growth and modernization after World War 2 to become one of the greatest nations in modern history.

  • Satish KC
    15:38 on February 1st, 2012
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    We read this book in a Non Fiction class that I took. I never would have known to read it otherwise, but I couldn’t put it down. Every single story in there is shocking and amazing. This is the stuff they don’t teach you in school. The stories are written by bomb victims from Hiroshima, villagers who were told to run at the enemy with grenades and become human bombs, doctors who preformed horrible opperations on the chinese during their occupation, wives of kamakaze pilots, and so many more. I’d recommend it to anyone, and have given it as a gift several times. If you like to know the story behind the “story” then this book is perfect.

  • PaulTheZombie
    16:47 on February 1st, 2012
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    Japan at War: An Oral History, is a unque look at the fifteen year conflict through the eyes of the Japanese themselves. I would have given it all five stars had it contained more interviews from people that weren’t so apologetic and tried to stay away from the question of blame a bit more. Unfortunately, the book does as many texts and covers up the fact that many, if not the majority of Japanese favored the war and were not following like blind sheep. While the social conditions and ideology of wartime Japan are a difficult topic to incorporate into a work such as this, it would have given the Cooks’ work the necessary depth to take the book to a higher level.

  • Obladi Oblada
    22:23 on February 1st, 2012
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    This book was easy to read and understand. I enjoyed it so much that I did not even sell it at the end of the class. I reccomend this book to anyone even remotely interested in Japanese history.

  • Markoc
    0:51 on February 2nd, 2012
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    I came across this book by accident in a bookshop in Tokyo. It immediately seemed a good read, and better than all other books I’d read as it took in a broad range of people, not just concentrating on military men. While there is a little too much inclusion of people who were, or later became, prominent in some way, this book is an important addition to studies of the Second World War. It deserves to be placed alongside other works based on oral history, such as Angus Calder’s The People’s War, and Stud Terkel’s The Good War. I found this book a valuable resource for part of my MA: indeed, the introduction to each chapter, and the broad range of experiences make it an excellent college level text, as well as a good read.

  • The Dealer
    7:57 on February 2nd, 2012
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    This book should be read by anyone with an interest in Japan, military history, or the extremes of human behavior.

    The book is structured chronologically, with each section introduced by an overview of the military and political situation. The interviewees are introduced and described with tact and skill, and great effort is made to present the people objectively, allowing them to tell their own stories. The interpretive comments are brief but very helpful. The summaries of the military and political situations are skillfully done.

    The credibility of the content of the narratives varies. The Cooks provide enough background material to judge where many of the weaknesses in each narrative lie, but some of the more contentious episodes may never be objectively verified. There is no reason to think they COULDN’T have happened, but that isn’t the same as saying that they DID happen. Much objective information has been lost or destroyed in the “fog of war” and post-war collective amnesia.

    I suspect the Cooks just barely scratch the surface of the Japanese war experience with this book. The Japanese historically have viewed defeat as shameful, and therefore not to be spoken of. While Japan has changed greatly since 1945, I doubt that such basic Japanese attitudes have changed all that much. The Cooks raise, but do not begin to answer, questions about the complicity of the Japanese military in atrocities, the concept of war “crimes”, “victors’ justice”, etc. No doubt the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the building of the Siam-Burma Railroad with prisoner labor were war crimes, as defined by the Geneva Conventions. Were the firebombing of Tokyo or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki therefore justifiable war tactics? Would the path to victory envisioned by the American Naval Plan Orange, blockade and starvation of the Home Islands, for years, if necessary, have been a more acceptable alternative? Of course these issues are beyond the scope of the book, but they lurk in the background for anyone reading it.

    The Cooks do not directly address the issue of the culpability of Emperor Hirohito in the war and the manner in which the Japanese military prosecuted it. Several of the interviewees comment on it in passing, but there doesn’t seem to be a consistent view.

    “The Pacific War”, as the Japanese call it when referring to the conflict with America and England, was a complete disaster for Japan, a total defeat of an intensely proud and patriotic nation. The responsibility for the military defeat rests squarely with the Japanese High Command, their strategic blindness, arrogance and incompetence, their lack of insight into their own military weaknesses, and their complete underestimation of the military capacity and determination of the Americans. The responsibility of other sections of Japanese society, the businessmen and financiers, the politicians, the average soldier, the Emperor himself, the fanatically indocrinated civilian population, is more difficult to parcel out. All played a greater or lesser part, but the guilt and shame attached to any one participant’s actions are for the most part difficult to judge. The Japanese collective decision to keep silent and hope everyone forgets about it, while unrealistic, may be the best they can do under the circumstances.

    The confusion of the average Japanese participant comes through very clearly in these stories. The Cooks put it very well: “Japanese narratives of the Pacific War often descend precipitously from brief tales of victory and joy (or relief, or even anxiety) into a shapeless nightmare of plotless slaughter.”

    Japan is now democratic and free, and has the fourth largest military establishment in the world. No doubt Japanese forces will someday once again go to war. The memory of The Pacific War, “The 15 Year War”, if the war in China is included, how it was fought, the suffering inflicted on all civilian populations save the Americans, the devastating and complete defeat of Japanese forces and the destruction of the Japanese homeland, will no doubt influence how those forces are used in the future. The Cooks, particularly Haruko, deserve great credit for addressing this difficult subject, and for having the skill and resourcefulness to conduct these interviews, to save these memories for future generations to learn from.

  • Saner Rijet
    14:52 on February 2nd, 2012
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    A compelling set of recollections from Japanese citizens and soldiers who lived and experienced WWII. These stories give an interesting insight into the psyche of the average Japanese citizen and soldier during the war. This is one of the few existing WWII books pertaining to the Pacific Campaign that gives you insight into the thoughts and feelings of the Japanese during the war. A must read for anyone wanting to see the perspective from the “other side”. Highly recommended.

  • former Y
    12:18 on February 3rd, 2012
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    This book is great, it gives an alternate perspective to the mountains of literature that portray the Japanese Empire of WWII as an axis of evil-it gives accounts of military personnel and civilians,a great read-recommend.

  • PaulTheZombie
    13:26 on February 3rd, 2012
    Reply to comment

    Andrew Gordon covers the important aspects of Japanese history through time. He starts off by dealing with the Tokugawa and ends with the current political situation at the turn of the century. The appendixes provide a good account of Japanese government by listing the prime ministers and the country’s election results since the end of WWII. Contemporary History of Japan focuses on important aspects of the Tokugawa regime such as its political, social and economic set up of Tokugaw Japan and focuses on its eventual downfall. The book continues with the Samurai revolution and the Meiji revolution that set the path for Japan to become a world power. Gordon then continues Japan in the early 20th centiru and how the countr began to change internallly as a result and how Japan dealt the Depressoin Crises in the 1930s, its wars with China and Russia and its eventual role in WWII and the American influence in the post WWII years. After the end of WWII, Japan becomes a dominant figure on the world stage with rapid economic growth unparalled else where in the world resulting in massive changes in society. Gordon does deal with Japanese economic troubles in the post WWII era such as the oil crises in the 1970s and the how Japanese bubble burst as well as other issues Japan is facing such as low-birth rates and changing gender roles.

    Great background to Japan overall.

  • Jolynn Ordona
    17:53 on February 3rd, 2012
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    I have sought, over the years, to try to understand the nature of our enemies in war. Some wars, like WWI, were essentially fought over the issue of power and control. Some wars, like the US Civil War, get redefined periodically and often to the advantage of who’s redefining it. Today, July 4, is a good day to reflect on our Revolutionary War and, although I don’t do it annually like I feel I should, reading the Declaration of Independance is an excellent way to understand the grievances that led to war. It is WWII that had been my biggest challenge to comprehend and it was the Japanese side of this conflict that I understood the least. I can’t say that one book clarified everything I didn’t understand but “Japan at War: An Oral History” put me on the fast track to getting there.

    This is an amazing book in many ways. First, the scope of the book covers the many different facets of the Japanese experiance in WWII. For example, the war begins for them with the invasion of China and the conquest of Manchuria; aspects we generally know little about. It has a chapter on the kamikazi’s and the similar sailers who volunteered to man suicide torpedos. It looks to the glory of the height of conquest and to the chaos and destruction of the waning days. It takes a look at the little mentioned Soviet invasion of Manchuria (that began after The Bomb). It takes a brief look at post-war Japan as well. It does all of this through the interviews the authors conducted with a number of soldiers, sailers, officers, civilians, and conscripts. To their credit, the husband and wife team of Haruko Taya and Theodore Cook constructed their book by publishing the reminiscences of their subjects. We read the words they heard supplemented briefly by overviews provided by the authors. This first-person recounting of events and the reactions to them brings everything to life for us. Whatever passions we may have from our own perspectives are, at least temporarily, set aside with the riminder that war victimizes everyone it touches.

    The Cooks have done an excellent job of finding persons who were not only first-hand witnesses but excellent historians as well. The stories that they were able to collect were so personal and down-to-earth that the one exception (a professor’s educated treatise on the censuring of textbooks) sticks out noticeably in comparison.

    The witnesses let us in on many events but it is their editorial perspective of how these events changed their lives (and the lives of other Japanese) that reaches across the animosities of war and touches us deeply. There are interviews with some of the volunteer suicide soldiers who would have carried out their mission but for time and/or equiptment failure. There are stories of Koreans brought to Japan and insights on how they were treated. However, the most impressive were the stories of the witnesses and survivors of the Atomic Bombs that fell on Japan. Whatever your feeling on this subject are (and mine affirm the correctness of our actions) these first hand accounts are stunning.

    The Cooks deserve a lot of credit for their painstaking efforts to amass all of these interviews. Their editing appears to be minimal as is their background introductions to each new chapter. In other words; helpful without being intrusive. Undoubtably, there were many other survivng Japanese witnesses to war who would not tell their story. Many of those who did were reflective of having been misled.

    The Japanese and Americans are solid allies these days and the birth of that alliance is found in these monologues of history. Countless eye-witnesses bore testimony to their individual discovery that the American soldiers were not the devils the Japanese leadership portrayed them to be. The gratuitous stories of the acts of kindness and generosity of the American GIs were really heartwarming to read.

    “Japan at War: An Oral History” was everything I had hoped it would be; and more. As a Baby-Boomer, I carry not the scars of war but the legacy of war. The history of American wars is the eventual alliance with our enemies. This book, in an indirect way, is a reminder of that tradition. We can only hope that our current conflict can eventually end in the same Phoenix of peace.

  • Anna Poelo
    22:11 on February 3rd, 2012
    Reply to comment

    This is an outstanding book on the modern history of Japan since the early 19th century. Mr. Gordon writes exceptionally well; unlike most academics, his sentences are mercifully short. You won`t get lost in any run-on sentences that take up half a page. Having said that, however, this is not a book just for children. People who have lived in Japan for years or who have studied Japan extensively as graduate students will find something to learn in this book. The book has many appealing aspects. It devotes considerable time to discussing the lives of ordinary Japanese, and it makes for fascinating reading. The book is relatively short and can be finished in one week. Finally, the author`s emphasis on the similarities between Japan and other nations in the tumultuous modern era is most welcome. The Japanese are not a unique, bizarre people; like all people everywhere, modernity is something they have adjusted to and dealt with, with varying degrees of success and failure. Mr. Gordon`s book is well worth reading.

  • The Dealer
    5:18 on February 4th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    I mistakenly didn’t realise that this is a college textbook. It also reads like a college textbook on Japanese history. As a matter of fact it feels like I am studying! Anyway, a fine book but be warned, it’s like taking Modern Japanese History 101.

  • Karla Shelton
    10:40 on February 4th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    A remarkable tour through the Japanese war in China in the 1930s, the salvage man to man combats in the Pacific islands, the horrific bombings of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the aftermath of a totally devastating war on the psyche of the Japanese people.
    Haruko Taya and Theodore Cook have done a remarkable reconstruction of this story, through the testimonies of the “other” protagonists.
    One cannot came out of this tour, but with another perspective about the motivations and commitment of the people who fought or endured the destruction of this war, from the Japanese side. Common people and soldiers, willing to pay the ultimate price in order to defend their patriotic and religious believes, give a different, individual, impression from the one we derive from the analysis of the motivations of the War Lords and the militaristic complex in Tokyo.
    Some fascinating facts are confirmed in this book . We have the story of private Tanisuga Shizuo, gas soldier in China from 1937, candidly telling some truths about the use of poison gas in that front. Now he is seeking compensation from the Japanese Government for the injuries he suffered while making poison gas during the war…….. Tominaga Shozo gives a truthful account of the training of soldiers in China. That training included the practice of the proper technique to use the sword to decapitate live prisoners. Also, the last stage of conscript training required him to bayonet a living human, in order to condition soldiers to kill without remorse or hesitation during combat. The book contains some foggy accounts about certain events, like the story told by Tanida Isamu, staff officer in the 10th Army, during the period of the rape of Nanking (self denyal?) about the appalling number of civilians killed in the incident.
    But the balance is surely positive, if you consider the moving stories of sacrifice told by the people in the Homeland, and the individual mystical motivations of the soldiers engaged in Special Attacks.
    A revealing book, which I consider required reading for those interested in the War in Asia.

  • Laraine Avello
    1:41 on February 5th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    I received this book today and flipped through it while doing laundry. I’m impressed. It’s been a long time since I read a history book and this isn’t like the dry, boring texts I remember from school.

    I won’t waste time mentioning that he covers all the obvious stuff, all the wars and major political events that you would expect a history book to cover.

    What struck me is his ability to smoothly give you the big picture while sticking in little bits that give you some idea of what the people at the time thought and experienced.

    In addition to telling you about the hardships of farming, he gives a picture of a 21-year-old girl’s hands; that’s all you need to see. In addition to telling you about the influence of the west, he shows you pictures of Japanese women in wanna-be outfits that just say it all. The cartoons, political posters, songs, propaganda posters — they give a feel for Japan I wasn’t expecting from a book.

    This book is mostly text; I don’t want to imply it has a ton of extras but it has enough to really drive home some of his points.

    All that and I haven’t even read the book yet!

    It was interesting to learn that (obviously) Japan wasn’t always like it is now. The description of the employment situation in the 1920s sounds quite a lot like America in the 1990s boom — no loyal employees with lifelong employment then! Knowing that less than a hundred years ago the reserved, peaceful Japanese engaged in widespread political riots where they beat each other and the police shook up my stereotypes.

    Good book, highly recommended.

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