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History of Japan


A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, Third Edition, paints a richly nuanced and strikingly original portrait of the last two centuries of Japanese history. It takes students from the days of the shogunate–the feudal overlordship of the Tokugawa family–through the modernizing revolution launched by midlevel samurai in the late nineteenth century; the adoption of Western hairstyles, clothing, and military organization; and the nation’s first experiments with mass democracy after World War I. Author Andrew Gordon offers the finest synthesis to date of Japan’s passage through militarism, World War II, the American occupation, and the subsequent economic rollercoaster.

[751] The Pillow Book – Sei Shonagon


” ” I have written in this book things I have seen and thought, in the long idle hours spent at home, without ever dreaming that others would see it, fearing that some of my foolish remarks could well strike others as excessive and objectionable, I did my best to keep it secret, but despite all my intentions I’m afraid it has come to light. ” ([S29], p.255)

The Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s diary during the time she serves as a gentlewoman (lady-in-attendance) to Empress Teishi toward the end of 10th century. The world and the scope of this book, originally meant for her own amusement, are the walled palace grounds and most particularly the household of the Empress. But throughout most of Japanese history, the Emperor himself, for all his prestige, has been effectively powerless. During Shonagon’s time, the real power lay in the hands of the Fujiware family, whose members dominate top positions in the court hierarchy. One of the chief aims is to provide from their immediate family the woman who would become the mother of the future emperor. Teishi is Emperor Ichijo’s first Empress through an arranged marriage by her father, so her position as the Empress rests precariously on the continued power of her father Fujiwara Michitaka. Her Majesty (as Sei Shonagon addresses her) enjoys a quiet life of artistic and literary pursuit on the palace ground and favors Shonagon over all the other gentlewomen.

Although Shonagon is profoundly affected by these political events in the court, they are almost entirely absent from her pillow book. In entries ranging in size from brief reflections (like a status update) to longer, lyrical tales, Shonagon’s gaze is determinedly fixed on the delights of this confined court life. She describes in details the pleasures of poetry, fashion, ceremonies, flirtations, and the excursions that puncture the monotony of court life.

From behind the haze of fine reed blinds and curtains, the world she observes is far from dull to the senses. Her writing revels in the nuances of sound and scent—the soft tap of a lid placed on a kettle, the ruffle of fine paper, the faint susurration of fire tongs gently stirring ash in a brazier, or the lingering scent of incense impregnated on clothes. Visual acuteness is also acute. She is quick to observe, to compliment, to criticize on colors and style of clothing. This heightened awareness of taste and aesthetic sensibility is ubiquitous apparent in the court culture that Shonagon so lovingly documents, and nowhere more so than in relations between men and women. Her taste and opinion affirm her identity with others in her social circle, and so individual variation is often looked at askance. She is as perceptive in observation as she is cruel in her commentary.

355 pp. Penguin Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[591] The Gods of Heavenly Punishment – Jennifer Cody Epstein


” To build new kitchens and garages, roads and cars and business connections until the old, war-torn city was no longer visible—any more than the broken people who had scraped out their lives there in the days following the Surrender. That Japan—defeated Japan—was now part of an unspeakable past; one its inhabitants saw in nearly as mythical terms as the Emperor’s once-presumed ‘divinity.’ It was simply—before. ” (Part IX, Los Angeles, 1962)

Set against the Tokyo bombing in 1945 during the Second World War is The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, a story of three families, Japanese and American, whose lives interweave and connect for almost 30 years. Epstein chooses to narrate through different time fragments in third-person perspective. First there is Cameron Richards who stumbles into love, marries Lacy, and becomes a pilot. Yoshi Kobayashi grows up speaking three languages and playing piano, under the tutelage of her mother Hana, who carries herself in a way that defies the Japanese standard of beauty and decorum. Against her will she marries below herself, to Kenji, a builder who aids the Japanese army in Manchuria as the Japanese assembles its overwhelming army.

Grinning, Kenji said something appropriately dismissive while Anton tried to imagine how this tiny East/West wonder had come to be. Of course, Hana had confirmed for them the marriage was arranged. But why would it have been arranged with Kenji? The differences went well beyond Old Japan and New Japan. (Part II, Karuizawa, 1935)

Hana is by far the most intriguing and interesting character in the novel but, to my dismay, has been neglected in the end. Raised in London, fluent in French, she’s an intellectual, a cosmopolitan. She confides in with Anton Reynolds, the prominent architect who is in love with the Japanese culture, tradition, and aesthetics, that her life has started dying when she married. For about two years Anton and Hana carry on an affair—until America declares war on Japan and Anton is summoned by American military to help prepare the devastating fire bombing of Tokyo.

Yoshi had wished only that her whole life could be like this—that she could be a normal girl, going out with her almost-normal mother, doing things normal families did together. (Part VI, Tokyo, 1945)

The novel is told in linguistic snap shots and photography plays a crucial role of the plotline involving the architect’s gay son, Billy. He later becomes an Occupation officer in Tokyo and reunites with the grown-up Yoshi. Despite the full circle at the end when all these lives finally come together in a tidy bundle, there is a lot left unsaid—especially who has become of Yoshi’s parents. Hana is accused of being a spy and her father a war criminal. That said, as the book winds down, we discover how people overcome hardships they dealt with during the war. Redolent in this well-researched historical fiction is the invincible human resiliency.

378 pp. W. W. Norton. Adanced reading Copy. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Relief for Japan

A week after the 9.o-earthquake that left northeastern Honshu in Japan completely devastated, the world is riveted at the aggravating nuclear crisis. Rate of relief donation is slower than Haiti, owing to the deception that Japan is prosperous enough to rebuild. Japan actually relies on imported food and supplies. If where you live doesn’t have a relief campaign, go to Charity Navigator to find a charity or donate directly to Red Cross Japan.

“The current situation of the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear plants is in a way the most severe crisis in the 65 years since World War II.” — Naoto Kan, Prime Minister of Japan, after country sustained its largest earthquake on record; the death toll is expected to exceed 10,000.

“In our history, this small island nation has made miraculous economic growth thanks to the efforts of all Japanese citizens. That is how Japan was built.” — Yukio Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan

“In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.” — The Road, Cormac McCarthy

For Japan the Bells Toll

Strong quake of magnitude 8.9 hit the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan. Sendai is most hard-hit city. My heart goes out to all the Japanese people and wish them safe and well. For latest information and people finder, visit the crisis response page.

Memoirs of a Geisha: The Film

Almost four years after I read the novel by Arthur Golden, I finally watched the movie that was said to cater toward American audience, or non-Asians in general. Starring Li Gong, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, and Youki Kudoh, the film invited a dispute over its credibility on the fact that three Chinese actresses were playing geishas—traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance. The political tension between China and Japan in 2005 might have fueled the casting controversy in which some of the most prominent roles, including Sayuri, Mahema, and Hatsumomo, did not go to Japanese actresses (although it’s agreed upon that the cast is box office-proof internationally).

Memoirs of a Geisha revolves around a young girl, named Chiyo, who is sold into the life of a geisha and her struggle as a geisha to find love. Chiyo’s road to become a geisha was thorny. She was constant the target of bullying from a senior geisha who hated anyone more successful than she was and who thrived to rid of all prospective rivals. Even though the senior geisha had falsely accused her, faulted her, and rendered her debut a standstill, her determination to become a geisha did not spring from the inventive to revenge on her enemy. The book focuses on Sayuri’s struggle and her search for love, hoping that one day, as a successful, well-sought geisha, she will become part of the life of the chairman, who had shown her kindness and gave her a handkerchief as a keepsake. The movie, dropping the details of a geisha training and the nuances of artistic rituals, emphasizes the intricate relations between four women who aspire to become geishas of their times.

Despite strong performances, the screenplay was lacking, the characters not engaging, the story (145 minutes) seems to have dragged on and, in deleting some of the details that have proven to be indispensable, it affords no real insights on being a geisha, other than the vicious competition and effacement between geishas. If Arthur Golden’s novel is meant to be an epic drama, the movie presents itself as an overripe melodrama that climaxes at the outcome of feuding geishas. Unlike the novel, the movie really lacks the drive.

Read Along: The Tale of Genji

GenjiThat I was in the middle of the controversial Chapter 6 of The Satanic Verses barred me from starting The Tale of Genji, the latest read-along selection. I’m reading the Penguin Classics deluxe edition, translated by Royall Tyler. All references, quotes, and discussion of events henceforward would refer to this edition. I do notice there are abridged editions of this book.

From the editorial note:
Written in the eleventh century, this exquisite portrait of courtly life in medieval Japan is widely celebrated as the world’s first novel. Genji, the Shining Prince, is the son of an emperor. He is a passionate character whose tempestuous nature, family circumstances, love affairs, alliances, and shifting political fortunes form the core of this magnificent epic. Royall Tyler’s superior translation is detailed, poetic, and superbly true to the Japanese original while allowing the modern reader to appreciate it as a contemporary treasure. Supplemented with detailed notes, glossaries, character lists, and chronologies to help the reader navigate the multigenerational narrative, this comprehensive edition presents this ancient tale in the grand style that it deserves.

The Tale of Genji is divided into two separate stories. The first part of the story is about Prince Genji, the son of the emperor and a low ranking consort who dies due to her rivals’ jealousy. The second part of the story are the grandchildren of Genji and it takes place after Genji has died. At 1216 pages, the book is divided into 54 chapters, I plan to attempt 3 to 4 chapters a week. The first four chapters total about 80 pages. This easy pace hopefully will put us at the finishing line in early fall. Show a hand if you’re reading along!

Wounds and Hatred

A newspaper article (South China Morning Post, Hong Kong) sent by a friend piques my interest in Chinese spies and the traitor government during the Second Sino-Japanese War. More than 70 years after Japan marched into large swathes of China, hatred of the invading nation remains strong. Whether it is an attempt to heal old wounds or to establish new ground to sustain this hatred, historians and academics never fail to find ways to remember the horrible tragedy the scale of the Holocaust that took place in Nanjing. In 1937 the Japanese invaded China and set up puppet governments across the country. Many historians have blamed the actions of these spies, or hanjian, which literally translates to Han evil, helped justify torture, murder and oppression on a scale that changed the collective personality of the country, creating hatred and mistrust for Japan that persists today. One of the most well-known traitors is Wang Jingwei, as portrayed in Lust, Caution, who advocated peace negotiation during the Second Sino-Japanese War and set up the Nanjing “Nationalist Government” puppet state with the assistance of Japanese Army. It’s difficult to judge if someone was really a traitor–maybe ambition or sense of public service prompted him to step forward and assert leadership in troubled times.

I read an article that discussed why China loves to hate Japan during my stay in Hong Kong. The problem is that just as Japanese soldiers once dehumanized Chinese, Beijing’s propaganda often paints Japanese as pure monsters. And indeed this is still the case in mainland. You don’t have to look far to see why Chinese grow up learning to hate Japan..Grade school textbooks recount the callous brutality of Japanese soldiers in graphic detail, and credit the Communist Party with defeating Japan.Why keep up the propaganda onslaught 60 years after Japan’s surrender? Many suspect (my father included) China’s unelected leaders hope to use anti-Japan sentiment to buttress their own legitimacy. Ever since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, support for the Communist Party has rested on the shaky foundation of economic growth. Nationalism, by contrast, could prove more enduring. Until China’s leaders have some new pillar of legitimacy, I think the Japanese will remain the devils for China.

I’m looking forward to reading this book, the third non-fiction on the roll.

[107] Sword and Blossom – Peter Pagnamenta & Momoko Williams

sword.jpgTears well up in my eyes and trickle down my face as I was about 30 pages to the end of this memoir.

If Author and Masa have to blame fate for tricking them, they might as well thank fate for allowing them to meet at the first place. Spanning over half a century, the memoir follows their enduring attempts to make a life together and chronicles inevitable social prejudices and snobbery they have encountered.

It began when a smoldering quarrel between Japan and Russia over their competing interests in the territory of their weaker neighbors, China and Korea, has flared up around the turn of the century in 1900 and might soon turn to war. That the Japanese appreciate the aesthetics of gardening lends a chance for the British officer to meet the young Masa Suzuki at the Tokyo Officer’s Club for peach blossom viewing. He is smitten immediately and continues to seek her out. That Masa has carried the stigma of divorce (from a pre-arranged marriage that favors the family’s fortune), and that Arthur has spent years stationing in isolated posts in India and South Africa help expedite their relationship. By the time they settle down in Shinjuku, in 1907, he is emotionally engaged with Masa and Japan. Overcoming periods of separation help their relationship move to new stage. For her part, Maza is being regarded as a person in her own right, for the first time in her life, by a man who wants to know her views and respect her opinion. She acts with Arthur in a way that Japanese men and women might find shockingly forward.

After the saddest and tensest parting in 1911, Arthur leaves for Europe to enlist into a battalion that escalates into what becomes of the Great War.  When frequent military movements put Authur out of touch with Masa, she for first time, despite her patience, begins to worry about how she will manage with a Western looking child as she stands out in the streets of Tokyo where conformity to the traditional values matter.

More than a love story, Sword and Blossom, which is made possible by the 800 some letters of correspondence between Aurthur and Masa, delineates one of the most political unstable and belligerent era of the 20th century. As both individuals strive to maintain contact and sustain the hope of reuniting with one another, their petty but intimate exchanges also reveal details of daily life during the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I, and the destructive earthquake that leveled half of Tokyo in 1923. Registered in between their words are poignant scenes of starvation, deaths, pestilence, and prospect of yet another war, as the Japanese launches a full attack on China on the eve of World War II. This book provides a very touching and private view of two individuals from completely different background and culture and their relationship against the backdrop of historic events.

Reading Sword and Blossom

I have been reading Sword and Blossom: A British Officer’s Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman. It’s a true story of an extraordinary love affair that began when a young British Army officer fell for a Japanese woman in early 20th century. Owing to unforeseen cirumstances of war, Arthur Hart-Synnot took up postings all over Asia. Separated for years at a time, they stayed in touch through long, deeply affectionate letters. I’m amazed at Masa Suzuki’s patience and conviction for a destiny etched out amid the war:

“Masa had grown used to being patient, and her faith in Arthur was undiminished, but in the meantime she was paying a price. She told him about difficulties with unpleasant neighbors, who were shunning her or gossiping. As a single woman with two Western-looking children, an income that came from abroad, and experience of travel and the wider world that went beyond that of her neighbors, she stood out in a Tokyo street where conformity was valued above all else.” (p.139)

Women demonstrate an incredible capacity for love and longing. In The Woman Who Waited, Vera subjected herself to a life of invincible solitude, refusing to love anyone else, remaining faithful to the absent. In the novel Waiting by Ha Jin, a farm-woman refused to divorce her husband, who took a mistress in the city. She waited for 17 years before the prodigal man returned to her bosom. In this memoir, Masa Suzuki, a typical Japanese woman who left school at age 14 to work in a shop , who would kneel at a respectful distance while her father and brothers ate, risked her family’s disapproval and society’s shunning eyes to be with a foreigner. The racial prejudice and social snobbery she encountered, alone, with two mixed children whose father wasn’t even present most of the time, must be so poignantly ineffable.