Japan's Encounter with the World: A Basic Reading List

Japan's Encounter with the World: A Basic Reading List

More than a century and a half after Japan entered its modern era, it is still common for many to see it as a nation traditionally isolated from the rest of world, even in its current relations. In reality, Japan has had a continuous, complex, and ever-changing relationship with the world around it. Indeed, Japanese history is incomprehensible without a firm understanding of the country’s foreign relations over the centuries. The earliest Japanese state, in the seventh century, was built on Buddhism introduced from the Asian continent and Chinese political forms, including architectural styles, and court ranks. The samurai Ashikaga rulers of the 14th century entered into a lucrative trade with China and Korea that deeply influenced Japanese artistic forms, while Chinese philosophy was adapted by Japanese thinkers and spread to commoners over the centuries. At each stage in their history, Japanese adapted what was introduced from abroad and fitted it into existing domestic political and social patterns—which both changed those patterns and altered the nature of what was imported, as well.

As fascinating as Japan’s pre-modern history is, most classes in American secondary schools will focus on the past 400 years, comprising the Edo period (so-called for the capital of the Tokugawa regime that controlled Japan), from 1600-1868, and the modern era, witness to modernization, imperialism, war, and economic recovery. The number of books dealing with these centuries has exploded in recent decades, but it is still useful to try and compile a core list of the most useful works on Japan’s encounter with the world, though any such list will be idiosyncratic given the plethora of choices. The following attempts to give a basic reading list in Japan’s foreign experience, doing so in roughly chronological order, and always with an eye to readable, synthetic treatments.

An excellent general overview is in the late Marius Jansen’s last work, The Making of Modern Japan (Harvard Belknap Press, 2002). Jansen, longtime professor of history at Princeton, covers both the early modern and modern periods, and the chapters on foreign affairs are woven into the larger narrative of Japan’s evolution from a feudal society to an industrialized, democratic nation through the crucible of imperialism, war, and recovery.

A classic examination of the impact of foreign affairs on the country’s development from the late-1500s through the late 19th century is in George Sansom’s The Western World and Japan (1949, Vintage, 1973). Sansom, the most literary of Western historians on Japan, places Japan’s encounter with the West in the context of Western exploration and imperialism, leading to Japan’s adoption of similar policies as it sought to maintain its independence in the modern world.

The civil wars that wracked Japan through the 1500s occurred even as Europeans reached Japan’s shores for the first time. An important study of the forgotten impact of Western religion on early modern Japan is by Jurgis Elisonas, “Christianity and the Daimyo,” in the Cambridge History of Japan, vol. 4. From trade to questions of divinity, Christian missionaries and Japanese converts played a crucial role in the closing decades of the civil war era, and helped to set the stage for the domestic and foreign policies of the Tokugawa bakufu.

The hoary view that Japan was isolated from the world during the 268-year Tokugawa period was punctured long ago by literature scholar Donald Keene, in his delightful The Japanese Discovery of Europe, 1720-1830 (1950; Stanford, 1969), which explores the numerous Tokugawa-era intellectuals whose passion for “Dutch Learning” not only laid the seeds for future modernization, but also led to bizarre schemes for expansion abroad, including into Siberia. The counterpart to Keene’s tale is Marius Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard, 1992), which similarly describes the continuing and complex influence of Chinese thought, goods, architecture and the like, on a supposedly “closed” nation.

A path-breaking study of the political formulation of Japanese foreign policy in the early Tokugawa period is Ronald Toby’s State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu (Stanford, 1991), which meticulously details the early bakufu’s attempts to secure domestic legitimacy by restricting and controlling all aspects of foreign relations, thereby unintentionally creating the image of a Japan closed off from the world for centuries.

The mid-19th century marked a profound turning point in Japanese history, and historians are still grappling with the lessons of Japan’s entrance into the modern world. The story of the arrival of the Western powers and the fall of the Tokugawa bakufu is one covered in numerous treatments of Japanese history. Perhaps the most useful overview is in William G. Beasley, The Meiji Restoration (Stanford, 1972), which devotes extensive attention to the confluence of foreign pressure, domestic unrest, political reform, and foreign policy formation in the early decades of the new Meiji government. A focused account of the first fifteen years of treaty relations between Japan and the West, and its effect on Japanese society, is in my Negotiating with Imperialism (Harvard, 2004).

Throughout the modern era, Japan’s relations with the United States have been paramount in its foreign affairs. An in-depth, one-volume treatment of Japan’s relations with America from Perry through the 1980s, though slanted towards the U.S. perspective, is Walter LaFeber’s The Clash (Norton, 1998). For a study of Japan’s cultural ties with the United States, 1850-1950, and their role in Japan’s modernization, see Robert Schwantes, Japanese and Americans: A Century of Cultural Relations (Harper, 1955).

The extraordinary events of the 1850s-1880s covered every aspect of Japanese life, but modern histories often subsume the intense effect political restoration and cultural modernization had on individuals. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa (Columbia, 2006) is an indispensable first-hand account of the exposure to Western ideas and ways of living by one of Japan’s greatest intellectuals of the age. From his travels to America as a samurai student to his call for equality for women, Fukuzawa encapsulated the changes of his age.

The fundamental feature of Japan’s modern international experience, of course, was its attempt to maintain sovereignty and avoid subordination to the West, ultimately resulting in the turn to colonialism and war. A comprehensive overview, though one focused less on the colonial experience and more on foreign policy, is in William G. Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945 (Oxford, 1991). The international environment that drove Japan to expansionist foreign policies is a particular focus of Beasley’s study. An intensive study of Japan’s road to empire is in Peter Duus, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910 (California, 1998). Duus equally covers the political, economic, ideological, and cultural aspects of Japan’s take-over of Korea. The fateful expansion of Japanese control in China is the subject of Louise Young’s Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (California, 1999). Like Duus, Young explores all aspects of the creation of Japan’s largest colony, and describes the spillover effects on the homeland, as well.

The road from imperialism to war seems a clear one, in retrospect, but a number of important studies show the uncertain nature of East Asian international politics in the early 20th century. Akira Iriye’s After Imperialism: The Search for a New Order in the Far East, 1921-1931 (Atheneum, 1969) is the classic treatment of the collapse of traditional alliances and the failure of multilateral attempts to maintain peace. World War II in the Pacific, of course, is the subject of hundreds of books; perhaps the most accessible one-volume treatment of Japan’s catastrophe is in Ronald Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan (Vintage, 1985), an absorbing retelling of the military operations in the war, as well as good coverage of the wartime political calculations in each country.

The Pacific War marked a searing breakpoint in Japan’s modern history, and the tale of its recovery and pursuit of different means to national power is still being explored. This postwar history, of course, cannot be told without extensive reference to the U.S. Occupation, from 1945-1952, and the subsequent alliance between the two countries. A useful series of essays on the interaction between America and Japan after the war is in Robert Ward, ed., Democratizing Japan: The Allied Occupation (Hawaii, 1987). One of the most absorbing accounts of Japan’s post-war experience (and pre-war imperial experience) is told by John W. Dower in Empire and Aftermath: Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience, 1878-1954 (Harvard, 1979), focusing on Japan’s leading politician and father of the post-war political system who also set the terms of Tokyo’s alliance with Washington, whereby Japan would largely rely on the United States for its national defense, freeing the country to focus in rebuilding industrial capacity.

That economic policy, central to Japan’s global trade revival, is the subject of Aaron Forsberg’s America and the Japanese Miracle: The Cold War Context of Japan's Postwar Economic Revival, 1950-1960 (North Carolina, 2000), which builds on earlier studies to show how the polarizing post-war international environment laid the groundwork for Japan’s export-oriented industrial recovery. An absorbing journalistic account of the fall of part of that post-war economic system, and the continued globalization of Japan’s economy is in Gillian Tett, Saving the Sun: How Wall Street Mavericks Shook Up Japan's Financial World and Made Billions (Collins, 2004)

The closer one gets to today, the fewer histories of Japan’s foreign relations one finds; rather, a large literature of political science studies on Tokyo’s foreign policy choices looms. A new overview of Japan’s post-Meiji foreign relations, with an emphasis on recent decades, is in Kenneth Pyle’s Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose (PublicAffairs, 2007); Pyle’s treatment of post-Cold War foreign policy is particularly useful. A more in-depth look at the mechanics of foreign policy-making in the 1990s is in Michael J. Green, Japan's Reluctant Realism: Foreign Policy Challenges in an Era of Uncertain Power (Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), although this is written more from a political science perspective than an historical one. A new study of Japan’s early 21st century foreign policy-making is in Tomohito Shinoda, Koizumi Diplomacy: Japan's Kantei Approach to Foreign and Defense Affairs (University of Washington, 2007), which explores how premier Junichiro Koizumi sought to strengthen the position and power of the Prime Minister’s Office, thereby bringing more centralization to the formation of Japanese security policy.

Japan’s encounter with the world is an integral part of its history, and it continues to influence how Japanese view themselves, how they decide their national priorities, and how they attempt to play a role in international affairs. The evolution of foreign policy-making is ongoing in Japan, and no book can fully capture the breadth of Japan’s global engagement. However, the list above, while incomplete, should give a fairly full, and hopefully enjoyable, introduction to the recent history of Japan’s foreign affairs.

Works Cited
Auslin, Michael R. Negotiating with Imperialism: The Unequal Treaties and the Culture of Japanese Diplomacy. New York: Harvard UP, 2004.

Beasley, William G. Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Beasley, William G. The Meiji Restoration. New York: Stanford UP, 1972.

Dower, John W. Empire and Aftermath: Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience, 1878-1954.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979.

Duus, Peter. The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910. New York: University of California P, 1998.

Elisonas, Jurgis. "Christianity and the Daimyo." Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. 4. New York: Cambridge  UP, 1988. 301-06.

Forsberg, Aaron. America and the Japanese Miracle: The Cold War Context of Japan's Postwar Economic Revival, 1950-1960. New York: University of North Carolina P, 2000.

Fukuzawa, Yukichi. Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. Trans. Eiichi Kiyooka. New York: Columbia UP, 2006; originally published 1899.

Green, Michael. Japan's Reluctant Realism: Foreign Policy Challenges in an Era of Uncertain Power.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Iriye, Akira. After Imperialism: The Search for a New Order in the Far East, 1921-1931. New York: Atheneum, 1969.

Jansen, Marius B. China in the Tokugawa World. New York: Harvard UP, 1992.

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. New York: Harvard UP, 2002.

Keene, Donald. Japanese Discovery of Europe, 1720-1830. New York: Stanford UP, 1969.

LaFeber, Walter. The Clash: U. S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History. Boston: W. W. Norton & Company, Incorporated, 1998.

Pyle, Kenneth B. Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose. New York: Public Affairs, 2007.

Sansom, George B. The Western World and Japan: A Study in the Interaction of European and Asiatic Cultures. Essex: Vintage, 1973.

Schwantes, Robert S. Japanese and Americans: A Century of Cultural Relations. New York: Harper, 1955.

Shinoda, Tomohito. Koizumi Diplomacy: Japan's Kantei Approach to Foreign and Defense Affairs. New York: University of Washington P, 2007.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Vintage, 1985.

Tett, Gillian. Saving the Sun: How Wall Street Mavericks Shook up Japan's Financial World and Made Billions. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu. New York: Stanford UP, 1991.

Ward, Robert, ed. Democratizing Japan: The Allied Occupation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii P, 1987.

Young, Louise. Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism. New York: University of California P, 1999.

Event of note: The U.S. & East Asia Under the Obama Administration. Wednesday, February 4, 6:30 PM at Japan Society of New York.  Also available as a live webcast on February 4 at 6:30 pm EST.