In This Review

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present
A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present
By Andrew Gordon
Oxford University Press, 2003, 383 pp.
Inventing Japan, 1853-1964
Inventing Japan, 1853-1964
By Ian Buruma
Modern Library, 2003, 192 pp.

A Modern History of Japan can be recommended for anyone interested in getting a deeper understanding of Japan's successes and failures as it has sought to become a modern state and society. Gordon argues that the currents of modernity that have changed the world have also shaped Japan. The country's key problem in becoming a modern nation-state, he writes, revolved around the competing goals of building national strength and democracy, and around different visions of what constitutes modernity. The clash between the ideals of democracy and the advantages of authoritarianism became particularly acute as Japan made the transition from its first efforts at democracy in the 1920s to becoming an imperial power in the 1930s. Gordon also looks beyond politics and economics to give considerable attention to social, cultural, and artistic developments. Indeed, the book is so rich in such details that it leaves little space for analyzing the theme of modernity. And when it comes to Japan's foreign wars and conquests, Gordon deals less with geopolitics and focuses more on domestic conflicts within the elite.

Buruma's shorter book covers much the same ground as Gordon's, but he prefers to tell the story in terms of biographical snippets. His work is more an extended essay, reflecting his deep personal knowledge of Japan, rather than researched history. The result is a vivid and fascinating telling of Japan's modern past. He wants readers to appreciate what Japan has accomplished, in spite of its dark periods.