Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma

January 26th, 2021

I don’t remember when, where, or why I acquired a copy of this book, but I decided it might be interesting to read after having read A Tale for the Time Being earlier this month, since that novel and this book cover some of the same years in Japan’s history. I did recognize some of the things mentioned in Buruma’s book from Ozeki’s novel (including the “I-novels” of the Taishō period), and those moments of recognition were satisfying. Overall, though, I’m probably not the ideal reader for this book. I found Buruma’s style engaging and readable, but Inventing Japan focuses on military and political history, which is not my favorite kind of history to read. Buruma covers almost a century in less than 165 pages, so some of the reading experience just felt like mentions of people and events flying by. It was interesting to read, near the start of the book, about how in the 1850s early Japanese nationalists made use of some Western ideas as a way to “emancipate Japan from the Chinese cultural orbit” (12), and about how those opposed to the shogunate began “to politicize the imperial institution” (19), and to read, as the book continued, about where those things ended up leading.

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