Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 20, April 2009
Elise K. Tipton

Modern Japan:
A Social and Political History Second Edition

London and New York: Routledge, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-415-41871-3 (paper); xvii + 297 pp.; price: $US39.95.

reviewed by Kumiko Kawashima

  1. This is a second edition of Elise Tipton's book Modern Japan: A Social and Political History, originally published in 2002. As the title suggests, it is an account of modern Japanese history with a focus on political events and social trends as well as their impact on the lives of ordinary people. Touching on the Tokugawa era of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, but mainly concentrating on the nineteenth century up to the present, the author aims to 'reveal the diversity of Japanese society and the complexity of the modernisation process in Japan' (p. xvi).
  2. There are fourteen chapters, the last of which is a welcome new addition that addresses the changes that have occurred since the publication of the first edition. Chapters One and Two establish the ground on which the orchestrated modernisation of the nation from the mid to late nineteenth century onwards became possible. Chapters Three to Five cover the Meiji period, followed by Chapter 6 on the Taisho period. Chapters Seven and Eight explore the early Showa leading up to total war, and its effects on the nation and its people. Chapters Nine and Ten address enormous changes Japan faced during the post-war era, while Chapters Eleven to Fourteen focus on contemporary Japanese society since the 70s. As you can see from the chapter outline, later chapters have more space to discuss the details of each decade, compared to earlier ones that often introduce a few decades in one chapter.
  3. To achieve the above stated aim of the book, Tipton attempts to maintain two foci throughout. One is the fine balance between the coverage and analyses of larger socio-political events, and how these events impacted on lives of ordinary people in society. The other is a considerable attention paid to minority groups such as women, ethnic Koreans and Burakumin (descendents of eta/hinin, or the 'outcasts' of the pre-Meiji time). This is no easy task, mainly due to the sheer number of events to be covered in this relatively slim volume. To a great extent, she succeeds in keeping the features promised in the publisher's introductory blurb, namely, balances of macro and micro analyses, and novel approaches with a focus on gender and minority issues and popular culture. No doubt the decision for inclusion/exclusion of certain topics was sometimes agonising, but her insightful perspective and sensitivity to detail ensure that her writing does not neglect the rich complexity of history.
  4. By regularly introducing debates amongst historians and their varying interpretations, she constantly maintains that history is a construction and never free from interpretations of historians who are the product of particular preoccupations of their time. It is important to (re)state this fact, which is ever more relevant in the face of increasing historical revisionist movements by nationalists in Japan, and other parts of the world. All of these features set this book apart from other, more orthodox history textbooks.
  5. The author consistently addresses women's history, so there are plenty of interesting details to keep readers with an interest in gender issues occupied. However, those wanting to know more about the usually invisible history of Japan's sexual minorities will be disappointed to learn that there is only one passing mention of this group in two sentences out of the entire book (p. 237). The Ainu also received patchy attention, probably due to lack of space.
  6. Tipton skilfully brings out the sense of agency of individuals situated in particular historical moments. Particularly memorable is her discussion of the vibrant history of women's movements during the Taisho era (pp. 99–100), which is brought together with the analysis of socialist/communist movements of the day. Use of direct quotes from influential feminists effectively conveys a strong sense of women's desires for a better world. I would have loved to see more of this approach in relation to discussions of contemporary Japan, in which individual voices sometimes give way to general (and numerous) descriptions of wider social trends and occurrences. For example, vivid illustrations of how ordinary young women and men responded to gendered and class impacts of shifts in employment practice since the early 1990s could have been achieved by using interview or other ethnographic data. This contrasts with the introduction of a reported comment as well as a direct quote of young male perpetrators of highly sensationalised, but rather unusual violent crimes (p. 234).
  7. In relation to chapters on contemporary Japan, further attention to issues of class would have been welcomed by readers like me who believe that gender and class are closely and often inseparably intertwined. For example, this type of analysis would have been useful to explore who has access to what kind of social capital within each gender group (such as the education level or the urban-rural divide) during the 'lost decade' of the 90s. While she examines effects of the recession era on young people and education 'reforms' (pp. 234–35), and a closely related issue of youth employment (p. 244), the importance of explicit class analysis takes a backseat, compared to the generous space allocated to discussions of various 'women's issues.' A class-gender viewpoint would further bring up more discussions (in the third edition, as I hope to see it come out in a few years!) around some of the latest developments in Japan. These include a frightening push towards an extremely stratified society of haves and have-nots (the recommendation for which is clearly detailed in the widely influential report Japanese-style Management of the New Era published by the Japan Business Federation)[1] and a fascinating counter-movement of grassroots political activities whose rising popularity seems to unite workers of diverse backgrounds in their common goal of achieving a better quality of life.
  8. But perhaps it is unfair to expect more from this already full volume. Obviously, one book cannot do everything, and I very much appreciate the author's endeavour to materialise this delightfully ambitious project of writing a history textbook with a difference. To further polish this important work, this second edition has made a number of improvements. Most notably, the inclusion of photos encourages much more vivid imaginings of a society that is in the past or culturally unfamiliar for many readers. Probably in the interest of keeping the page numbers down, the font size is decreased, which makes the look of the pages much denser and less 'friendly' as a result. But in my opinion, this trade off was worth making. Texts themselves have also been revised in part for greater comprehensiveness, which indicates the author's thoroughness and dedication. As in the first edition, heavy referencing is omitted for the sake of readability and instead, a list of references is provided at the end of the book for those who would like to pursue the subject matter further. This structure works, especially because the main audience of the book includes students, teachers and the general reader. A newly provided timeline of major events would be particularly helpful for those new to modern Japanese history.
  9. I highly recommend this accessibly-written and reasonably-priced book to anyone with an interest in Japanese society, past and present. It is most suitable for those with the most basic knowledge of modern Japanese history, as it opens doors to numerous interesting aspects of the history that may not be covered in 'classic' textbooks. In particular, I hope this book will cultivate more interest in the 'hidden' history of Japan's minorities, and contested interpretations of history during various eras. For readers of Intersections with interest in Japanese history and women's issues, this book would be a great background reading before moving onto more specialised books such as Vera Mackie's Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality,[2] and Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno (eds) Gendering Modern Japanese History.[3]
  10. Given the many dramatic events that have occurred since the publication of this second edition, including the change of the Prime Ministership from Fukuda to Aso, the imminent general election, the massive global financial downturn and Japan's return to recession, it would be very interesting to see how this book would evolve, should there be future editions.


    [1] Nikkeiren, Shin Jidai no Nihonteki Keiei (Japanese-style Management of the New Era), Tokyo: Nikkeiren, 1995.

    [2] Vera Mackie, Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    [3] Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno (eds), Gendering Modern Japanese History, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005.


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