The sweeping survey is regarded as one of the most objective types of historical writing; in truth, even that form reflects the biases and ideologies of its writer. As the influential British historian Edward Hallett Carr told us, “It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them.”

Born on a Midwestern farm not long before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I approach Japan’s past as an outsider, albeit a sympathetic one. Japan is, after all, Asian; I am American. Since the early 1900s, Japan has been highly urban; I grew up rural. Japan is Shinto, Buddhist, and secular; I am Christian. But while my experiences render me an outsider, they also have given me a deep affection for the country. The exhilaration I felt when, with my wife Judith, I first encountered Japan—the smell of tatami-mat flooring in our apartment, the gentle aromas of the garden beyond the veranda, the pulse of Tokyo trains, the majesty of Mount Fuji, sitting there among wisps of clouds, the challenge of Buddhist ideas about impermanence and nonattachment, the humanity of our neighbors—has never left me. Those early months warned me against equating difference with inferiority, even as they schooled me in the exhilaration of seeing things in fresh ways. I hope these pages will do the same for readers.

My early years also affected my understanding of politics and economics. I spent most of the 1960s in college, too much influenced by my upbringing to imbibe the decade’s free-living culture but deeply in tune with my fellow students’ naive view that we could revolutionize the world. I drove to downtown Minneapolis as a reporter one steaming summer night in the midsixties and took notes while angry blacks and whites confronted each other. I skipped class in Tokyo to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. Those experiences have given me an abiding sympathy for people who challenge established regimes in the name of justice. They also have made me aware of how imperfectly human people are, on each side of every issue.

And the hours spent on my childhood farm hoeing strawberry plants under a searing August sun, or feeding turkeys on freezing November mornings, have convinced me that history consists of more than the ideas and activities of leaders. When historians ignore commoners, when they leave out women, farmers, workers, and outcasts, they muffle important voices. Almost as serious, they give us an inadequate—thus inaccurate—picture of human development. If my highly traditional training leads me to acknowledge the central role of elite institutions in propelling change, my hours selling muskmelons at the local market compel me to pay attention to average women and men—and to feel a certain guilt for telling their story less than adequately.

Historians long have talked, quite sensibly, about several themes in Japanese history: the role of the long-unbroken imperial line; the many centuries of peace; the lasting impact of warrior values following the samurai-dominated medieval era; the importance of Buddhism; the subordination of the individual to the group. Those themes will appear in this book, but there will also be others—no less important for having been noted less frequently. Japan’s location, less than a hundred miles from Asia’s continental coast, is one important theme. Like Great Britain off Europe, Japan has defined itself and interacted with other countries in ways explainable only by the happenstance of geography. The novelist Endo Shusaku called his homeland a cul-de-sac and a “mud swamp,” a place where foreign movements and ideas came and then simply stayed put, neither leaving nor maturing in normal ways. His point of reference was Christianity, but he could just as well have been describing the Chinese writing system, modulated and distorted to fit spoken Japanese; or Chan Buddhism, reborn in Zen aesthetics; or Western cartoons, which evolved into anime. From earliest times, Japan has alternately interacted with foreigners and excluded them—often in extreme ways that would have been unlikely for a continental nation. The pattern took many forms across the centuries, but the one that cries out most sharply for explanation came in the modern era when Japan first shut itself off from most Western influences, then interacted intensely after the mid-1800s, then followed separatist, expansive inclinations into World War II—only to reengage the world as an economic power after the 1950s.

Closely related has been Japan’s complex relationship with the rest of Asia, particularly with China. Even before history, the Japanese knew about China’s advanced bronzes and political sophistication, yet they remained almost obstinately illiterate and quite isolated, though relatively prosperous. In certain periods, the Japanese treated Chinese systems and philosophies with great respect; in the 1400s they even accepted tribute status with China. Yet in most eras they held the Middle Kingdom at arm’s length, adapting Chinese forms (for example, the governmental structure) but not their heart (China’s civil service exam system). After China failed to modernize in the 1800s, the Japanese treated it with undisguised contempt, typically calling it Shina (China) rather than the traditional, respectful Chugoku (Middle Kingdom). When the nineteenth-century scholar Fukuzawa Yukichi suggested that Japan should “cast Asia off,” he was drawing on a long tradition of skepticism and ambivalence about Japan’s relationship with the continent, a tradition that still plagues interactions with China today.

A theme of a different kind is Japan’s ability to thrive against remarkable odds. The archipelago is small, and mountains cover four-fifths of what land space there is, crowding its residents together in densely packed communities. The islands also lack natural resources. And they have been wracked continuously by earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions. Yet from earliest times, the Japanese have used these very impediments to produce the richest of material and artistic cultures. They crafted humankind’s earliest ceramics and wrote its first novel; they turned out unique poetic forms, flowerless gardens, artwork that glorified the primitive and relished the imperfect. Confronted by China’s superiority in the seventh century, they undertook reforms that brought them abreast of that land by the eighth. Frightened by Western imperialists in the 1850s, they transformed themselves into a world power by the early 1900s. Asking how they achieved so much with so little is one of the historian’s most daunting tasks.

So is the search for explanations of the country’s ability to thrive despite an endless succession of allegedly ineffective political regimes. When two leading historians described the 1700s and 1800s as a “long but losing battle for the political authorities,” they could have been speaking of any era. The 700s, when the capital was located in Nara, saw bloody, uninterrupted struggles over power; the Heian era, which followed, witnessed some of history’s most inefficient administrations; during the medieval era, no group ruled competently. Genuinely effective administrations have appeared only rarely. Yet in almost every period, the economy has thrived; inventions have abounded; peasants have grown better off; religious movements have spread; and commoners, elites, and businessmen have produced the vibrant culture I have already alluded to. Even the late 1400s, when the country had no central authority worth the name, gave rise to impressive economic growth and some of history’s most original arts. Where did the growth-genius come from? This book will attempt to provide some clues.

A final characteristic of Japan’s past is the often overlooked dynamism of commoner culture. Scholars typically praise the cultural brilliance of the early Nara years yet ignore the heavy influence that songs, tales, and religious enthusiasms from the countryside had on that culture. When the modernizers began writing a constitution in the 1880s, mountain villagers composed their own drafts, but the elites paid little attention. When the farmers took up arms against high taxes and corrupt officials, officials paid much more attention but still gave the commoners no respect. Even plebeian arts—the woodblock prints of the Tokugawa merchants, the rock music of late twentieth-century bands—have provoked uncomprehending condescension more often than respect from the arbiters of culture. But in every era, what the historian Irokawa Daikichi calls the “common people’s vitality and recal-citrance” has fueled much of society’s innovation and growth. Those people’s stories may well be the most interesting; their experiences particularly need to be told.

James L. Huffman

Note: Personal names in this work follow the traditional Japanese order, with the surname preceding the given name, unless the reverse order was used in the original.

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