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Japan's Strange Democracy
Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 by Ian Buruma

Far Eastern Economic Review
May 1, 2003

World War II was over. Japan lay prostrate and smouldering, and the voice of Japan's Emperor Hirohito crackled over the airwaves with a plea for "a grand peace." Usher in this new era, he said, "by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable."

In other words, embrace defeat and reinvent yourselves. Reinvent itself Japan did. But the post-war period was just the latest instance, as Ian Buruma's slender, readable primer on modern Japanese history makes clear, of Japan's going back to the political drawing board -- a process that had been going on since at least 1853 and the portentous arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry's "black ships."

From the Meiji constitution to the late 20th-century dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan's peculiar brand of democracy is Buruma's chief concern. It was, he writes, a "sickly child from the beginning." The spirit of the Meiji constitution, "was a mixture of German and traditional Japanese authoritarianism," he writes. The document limited voting rights and made the armed forces answerable to the emperor, not a civilian government.

A quasi-democracy persisted into the Taisho period, when even so-called liberals like Yoshino Sakuzo saw nothing wrong with a Japanese colony in Korea. With thinking like that, says Buruma, "it becomes easier to understand how Japan could later embark on far more perilous military adventures." Those adventures include the battles leading up to and during World War II, which to the Japanese was "a war against liberalism," the author writes.

And yet, Japan has had its fair share of liberal reformers, like the educator Fukuzawa Yukichi, on whom Buruma, a committed democrat, lavishes praise. Buruma has shown his political colours in previous books such as Bad Elements, a study of Chinese dissidents, and The Wages of Guilt, about Germany and Japan. But he is clear-eyed enough to recognize that Japan is still, in a way, a developing nation. He points out the undying power of bureaucrats and criticizes Tokyo for "an infantile dependency on the United States." He also frets that Japan may move into "illiberal directions" if cynicism about politics forms an unholy trinity with "frustrated nationalism" and economic woe.

Inventing Japan is not a work of ground-breaking scholarship but serves as a solid introduction to an Asian nation's rise to modernity, and to Japanese democracy.

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