Go Wizardry

All About the Many Aspects of Go
We have millions of friends around the world... and they all play go!

Japan Rising

Book Review

Japan Rising

The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose

By Kenneth B. Pyle

There are so many things that are inexplicable about Japan and the Japanese people. For many years the whole reasoning of Japan behind the military action in Asia just before and during the Second World War was beyond my understanding. Not only that, I asked many Japanese people why it occurred and never received a satisfactory answer.

Kenneth B. Pyle offers an explanation in “Japan Rising” that is more plausible than anything that I’ve ever read. He sets out the matter in the introduction, entitled, “The Japan Puzzle”:

One of the most demanding challenges for the historian of any country is to explain the underlying processes of history and national character, what the British historian A. J. P. Taylor referred to as “the profound forces,” that impel a nation along one course rather than another. Modern Japan’s international behavior has fluctuated widely and wildly—from isolation to enthusiastic borrowing from foreign cultures, from emperor worship to democracy, from militarism to pacifism.


Why did Japan go from being completely isolated from the rest of the world to take a leading role in international affairs in just a few decades? Why did they attack the US at Pearl Harbor? Why did the Japanese economy just seem to go dead in the 1990s and fail to reignite despite all of the efforts of multiple Japanese administrations to revive it?

On a personal note, one episode in Japanese cultural life has always seemed particularly bizarre to me, and probably to many others as well. That is, the suicide of the famous Japanese novelist, Mishima Yukio. On November 25, 1970, Mishima went to the Japanese Self-Defense headquarters and gave an impromptu speech to the cadets there urging them to return to worshipping the emperor and fighting against the Western Powers. He then committed ritual seppuku. How could this irrational act possibly be explained?

In fact, Pyle does just that and more in “Japan Rising.” Just to get the Mishima question out of the way to begin with, Pyle writes that:

Chalmers Johnson, reflecting on this event, wrote that Mishima’s effort to revive the “withered soul” of Japan, while viewed at the time as an aberrant act, nonetheless remained in the minds of many Japanese “an exemplary metaphor for Japan’s frustrations with its dependent foreign policy.”

The quotes there are taken from an article by Chalmers Johnson in Asian Survey 26, no. 5 (May 1986), p. 559, entitled, “Reflections on the Dilemma of Japanese Defense.” Pyle goes on to explain in a footnote that:

As one of Mishima’s biographers, Henry Scott Stokes observed that his suicide struck a responsive chord among Japanese who were “deeply traumatized” by the constitution that was forced upon them and that required the abandonment of ancient traditions of martial valor, replacing them with materialist and merchant values. Mishima, who had organized a small army of right wing students, was privately helped by Satō Eisaku, the prime minister, and Nakasone Yasuhiro, who was at that time director-general of the JDA. Satō’s connections to right-wing businessmen facilitated support for Mishima’s small militia, and Nakasone made it possible for this militia to train at a self-defense base. Satō, Nakasone, and many other prominent Japanese sympathized with Mishima’s effort. Henry Scott Stokes, “Lost Samurai: The Withered Soul of Postwar Japan,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1985. Shortly before his suicide, he had written that Japan must recover the essence of its culture, which he defined as miyabi, “courtly elegance,” as epitomized in The Tale of Genji.

Pyle explains Japanese behavior like this, in the case of individuals, as well as the nation as a whole as being caused by the necessity of having to deal with the demands of the outside world. The most dramatic example of that is in Japan’s response to events in the 19th century. The book focuses on the Japanese reaction to the “gunboat diplomacy” of Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853 that forced Japan to open up to the West. In the rest of Asia, countries forced to deal with the English, French or Americans fiercely clung to their own cultures. However, the leaders of Meiji Japan embraced the modern world, adopting many of the technologies and even the cultural forms of other countries. Those leaders spent two years touring the West, going to nine states in the US and visiting several European countries to study the situation intensely. They based their own constitution on that of Germany, their laws on those of France and other institutions from other countries. Pyle writes that:

To protect its own security, and to compete in the anarchic realm of international relations, Japan had to adopt the most efficient and effective weapons, strategies, and technologies. Japan was socialized into the international system by emulating the practices of the more successful states in the system.

Pyle even sees the adoption by Japan early in its history of many aspects of Chinese culture, including its writing system, as a defensive measure. China was a huge nation close by on the continent and represented a threat that could potentially become very dangerous. It already dominated the affairs of Korea and other cultures that existed nearby. Japan was never drawn into its sphere of influence. It is Pyle’s contention that Japan avoided that by embracing enough of the Chinese culture to deal with the situation effectively.

During the Cold War, the international state of affairs was again perilous. Japan accepted American military protection and exploited the circumstances to build a powerful economy.”Japan Rising” explores this matter and its ramifications minutely. Japan became rich during that period but at the same time it failed to develop its own ethos for its society. When the Cold War ended, Japan was left without an international system to react to and it lost its bearings. The question is how it will regain them.

“Japan Rising” deals with matters that most books about Japan just gloss over. At many points in the book one finds word like, “although not interpreted this way” or “contrary to the common interpretation” or “usually explained as…” Pyle takes on the most difficult subjects and elucidates them in unique ways.

He is also not shy about confronting the willful blindness of all of the cultures involved in the history here. He criticizes Japan for its actions in China, such as the massacre of Nanking in 1938 or the germ warfare that it conducted during World War II in that country. In connection with this, he notes that China objected when Japanese textbooks omitted those matters in new printings. However, he also notes that Chinese textbooks fail to deal with the crimes of Mao Zedong that resulted in the death of millions of people.

How does it all end? Who knows? This is living history and Japan has yet to come up with a way to deal with its malaise. There have been many determined efforts to revise the Japanese constitution that was written by the American occupation forces after Japan’s surrender in 1945. With China flexing its military muscle recently, Japan has been moving toward an expansion of its own armed forces. Towards the very end of “Japan Rising,” Pyle writes something that may be taken as a summary of the situation:

The rising status of the defense forces was reflected in its ability to attract bright, young, strategically sophisticated career bureaucrats. It was also reflected in the Defense Agency’s stunning new headquarters. In May 2000, the agency moved into a mammoth new state-of-the-art complex of buildings in the Ichigaya district of Tokyo. Imposing enough to house a corporate giant, the soaring buildings are on the site where the Imperial War Ministry headquarters once stood. At the new complex, the Defense Agency chose to keep and restore two significant pieces of Japanese history: the high-ceilinged room where the War Crimes Tribunal was held in 1945, and a small adjacent building where the novelist Mishima Yukio committed harakiri in 1970 to protest the postwar loss of martial spirit. Despite the disturbing nature of these memorial sites, the new SDF complex is more about the future than the past—a striking indication of the change that Japan is undergoing.

Anyone who wants to understand the underlying factors that have determined much of Japan’s character is urged to read “Japan Rising.”

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply


book cover

Go on the Go Collection: Volume I

Three booklets have been assembled into the collection here.

Buy this Book at Amazon

Go For Everyone

Go For Everyone

A New Method for Learning to Play the Game of Go

Buy this book

Book Cover

Journey to the West

This is a semi-autobiographical novel that depicts a unique American success story; a rags to riches tale of a man escaping his humble origins to make millions of dollars, but then he throws it all away due to the ancient character flaw of hubris.

Buy this Book at Amazon