Japan in World History – a Solid Book for Your Collection

Japan in World History Book

Japan in World History, written by James L. Huffman, is one book in a series of Oxford University histories that focus on cultural and social history.

PJ Review Score: 5

James Huffman engages his audience by giving the ‘common’ people a voice. He manages a balance between political, military and social history. Through this balance the reader gains a wider perspective on the progression of history in Japan and the complexity of its society. While the book is rather slim and skimps on some details, the book is a valuable resource.

Huffman breaks down Japanese History into several periods, usually by capital name or by ruler.  The Nara period, Heian period, Kamakura period, Tokugawa period, and the Meiji era.

Summation

In the Kofun era, (645-794), we see the emergence of a semi-centralized government, and legal codes called ‘ritsuryo,’ whose purpose was to regulate both political and social elements of life. This period saw a more stabilized capital, Nara, and also Japan’s desire to exert itself over-seas.

The Heian period, (794-1100), is best known for its peace and the arts. During this period literature and art flourished and a unique system of writing, which blended Chinese characters, called kana emerged. The creation of the writing system, probably due to Japan’s isolation from the continent during this period, further helped create an independent, Japanese identity.

The Kamakura period, (1160-1330), was a time of political unrest and military violence, with the “devolution of the ritsuryo system.” During this time, the terms shogun and bakufu were used as a way to both undermine traditional governance and create a source of legitimacy.

The major problem in the Tokugawa period, (1600-1868), was the policy that the government employed in reaction to western nations. In the eyes of many, the Tokugawa policy was weak and it spread discontent throughout the country, which destabilized the government.

The Meiji Era, (1868-1912) was proactive in its response to the western threat. While, there was still discontent, the Meiji era was largely successful in coping with the threat.

Huffman focuses on a few notable events in each period. The reader is able to see the events as if they are there in the Meiji era, when a decree was sent out that ordered all samurai to give up their swords in an attempt to dissolve the warrior class in 1876.

I can easily picture Yamagata Aritomo, after squashing the samurai rebellion, saying, “Now I am at peace.” Or in the summer of 1281, when the fierce Mongol empire was defeated with the help of the kamikaze. Huffman’s history of Japan is thus engaging and enlightening.

Scholarly Response

John Sagers, a professor of history at Linfield College – the book is concise, and offers a wider perspective of Japanese history will multi-faceted view points and arguments. It also offers a solid foundation for studying Japanese history.

Michael S. Laver, in his review from the Middle Ground Journal – it does not outline the complexities in Japanese history. It also has no details about the history of the ainu or the history of the Okinawa kingdom.  

Huffman does mention the Emishi and other indigenous groups but very briefly and the reader is left uncertain about the impact that these groups have had on Japanese society.

Robert Eskildsen, a history professor at International Christian University in Japan – was quite critical of Huffman for his brevity on the subject of Japanese history. He argues that it is meant for readers who have some sort of foundation in Japanese history due to his lack of detail concerning events. He goes on to argue that it lacks content to deepen understanding, and that it is a “typical college survey.”

In addition to those things, it also has a limited impact because of the lack of explanation of events. Overall though, he claims that the book offers a “concise and illuminating explanation of the major themes of incidents in post-war Japanese History.”


Further Reading

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I'm a self-proclaimed aesthete, an amateur literary critic and a history buff with a BA in Political Science and History from Wesleyan College.

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