A History of Japan


I have been on an epic journey. Yes: a search for great history about Japan and China. Not historical fiction/sexy history, mind you, but well written, factually true history that is not afraid to embrace the narrative of history. This is to say that every book I have read on Japan or China is either a bit childish (i.e. a picture book of ninjas) or is a dry, academic tome that refuses to let the reader enjoy hisself. Fist of all, historians who write in the ‘academic style’ in the name of scientific accuracy forget that their book still forms a highly ‘biased’ narrative anyway, it’s just not a very good, much less enjoyable one. The ‘academic style’ reads like a report, a skimming, a fear to embrace the drama of history.

I want facts, tables, graphs, and hard-headed historical analysis, and that calls for in depth, rigours research. But I also want to be transported to a time and place; I want to drink in the pageantry, the heady atmosphere of the times. This means a narrative, some half-way decent writing, and above all, insight. Chinese and Japanese history is fascinating; it’s incredibly rich and varied and yet it remains totally remote from the Western reader. Also, since narrative is how most people come to understand and process complex information, narrative is crucial and legitimate, even in a ‘scientific’ sense.

My search continues with A History of Japan 1334-1615 (Volume 2) by Sir George Sansom. I guess it serves me right: this book was first published in the early ’60s. This book is a solid read, full of good information. Yet it covers Japan’s high middle ages, perhaps the most “exciting” period in their history, and Sansom largely avoids “telling the story” if you know what I mean. This is the “Age of the Country at War” a time when ruthless warlords where engaged in constant warfare, yet sought relief in the high arts. This is the period of the Japanese tea ceremony (where certain ceramic pieces used for preparing tea where not only named and nationally known but worth a fortune) and ninja and samurai and warrior monks duking it out in a wheels-within-wheels power struggle. Sounds interesting? Well, too dang bad.

Sansom provides an account whose frame of reference remains Western-centric. What I mean by this is that Japanese military activities and tactics are analysed in comparison to European tactics and history. Little light is shed on Japanese culture; the inner workings and assumptions and shaping environmental factors. Sansom either assumes we already know a lot about Japan, or is afraid of wading into waters he himself is unsure of. This books limits itself  to “high history;” the movements and commandments of great leaders.

Not a bad book, but it lacks narrative, depth and insight. The Search Continues.



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