This book provides a welcome addition to the wealth of undergraduate textbooks on the history of Japan. While the majority of them tend to focus on the “high politics” of men making decisions, this book seeks to shed light on the cultural dimensions of Japanese history, paying closer attention to the evolution of culture – however construed – ranging from elite culture, on the one end of the spectrum, to popular culture, on the other.
While the focus is on culture from classical culture to “Cool Japan”, as the subtitle suggests, the chapters on pre-Meiji Restoration centuries, particularly the pre-history of Japan and its feudal era, focus primarily on the culture imported from the Asian continent and enjoyed by the elites, including literature, religious practices, and fine arts; while the discussions of cultural practices during the Edo period, as well as much of post-1868 decades provide enhanced engagement with the popular culture as well. This trend towards focusing on the experiences of “people” is more pronounced as the story moves on to the Taishō and Shōwa eras in subsequent chapters, as there are numerous accounts of consumer culture, particularly as Japan experienced economic expansion on both sides of the Second World War. And as the book comes to discuss the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we witness the internationalization of Japanese culture, ranging from manga, anime, and J-Pop, as represented through the still under-defined “Cool Japan”.
Given that the book is geared more towards introductory-level undergraduate courses in Asian/Japanese studies, it features several intriguing discussions and comments. And despite her focus on the cultural dimensions of Japanese history, Stalker also provides an ample insinuation of the “political” in the cultural practices of elites, as well as in the way cultural norms in general have been elaborated throughout the centuries. The flip-side of this is that the book is merely sprinkled with ideas and discussions that more advanced-level students would undoubtedly like to see explored further. While there are recommendations for further reading as well as films (which are, in themselves, a welcome addition), there are several instances where a more elaborate discussion into the philosophical and ideological underpinnings would have been beneficial. The examples include a relatively detailed discussion on gendered practices in ancient Japanese literature during the Heian era (pp. 55–68, especially p. 57), which lacks a deeper theoretical discussion; Minobe Tatsukichi’s “organ theory of government”, which was first embraced by the pre-war elites but subsequently considered subversive by the military clique (pp. 249; 283), and appears in the book without an emphasis on the overall irony; the dismantling of zaibatsu conglomerates by the occupying forces in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s surrender in August 1945 (pp. 324–325), given its implication for the post-war economic structure of Japan and the lingering business- and economic practices to this day; as well as an interesting notion that the “rapid” economic development from 1955 onwards is not what it is often thought to be (p. 326), as it constitutes more of a myth that sustains an aspect of a broader post-war myth of Japanese uniqueness. There are several other discussions that could have benefited from similar elaboration, such as the way cultural practices came to Japan from the Asian continent (p. 14), sankin kōtai as a method for the Tokugawa shogunate to exert control on regional clans (p. 151), the discourse of “civilized nations” (p. 221), the establishment of state Shintoism (p. 239), the massacre of Korean residents following the 1923 Kantō earthquake (p. 251), as well as the Japanese designation of burakumin (marginalised social groups, p. 370) and the ideology of racial purity and superiority (p. 372). To be sure, these are not shortcomings, but more detailed discussions would have definitely enlivened the book even more.
A such, on the one hand, this book constitutes a good “primer” on Japanese cultural history not focusing entirely on the elites and the “high politics” of “famous men”, but instead remaining cognisant of gendered practices inherent in Japanese culture and the way foreign influences have elaborated on Japanese cultural characteristics and practices over the centuries. In a similar vein, there is a good insinuation of the “political” in the emergence, elaboration, and evolution of cultural practices. On the other hand, there is a sense that this book is more of a whistle-stop tour of Japanese history. This seems particularly true of the transition between Chapters 8 and 9 – with the “revolt against the West” (pp. 268ff.) seemingly appearing out of the blue. The difficulty of fitting in numerous ideas and discussions in a single monograph is well-taken; but this sense of mesmerizing speed is also a “feature” of the book. Finally, there seems to be a slight change in the tone towards the end as discussions move onto “Cool Japan” and analyses of popular and consumer culture are superseded by more of a cultural critique in Chapter 12.
Overall, this book is a good undergraduate textbook on Japanese cultural history. It works very well as a complement to other readings, though I am not sure whether this book can become a “definitive” textbook to be used on its own. Japan: History and Culture is a good reference material for undergraduate students starting out on Asian/Japanese studies. The contents might seem a bit dilute for upper-division undergraduates, but it is a welcome companion for anyone wanting to start learning about Japanese cultural tradition and practices throughout the centuries.