Review of Japan in World History by James L. Huffman Oxford University Press

Japan in World History. James L. Huffman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780195368086

James Huffman begins and ends his book with a reference to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, mythological progenitor of the Imperial line from the mists of prehistory. The first reference at the beginning of the book is appropriate in a treatment of Japan in world history since it pointedly reveals the tensions between a Japan that exists in relative isolation, and a Japan that is an integral part of the world. When Amaterasu sequesters herself in a cave in protest at the rocky relationship she has with other gods, one can interpret this as Japan attempting to isolate itself from the greater East Asian region. The goddess is, however, eventually drawn out of her cave to rejoin the world. Likewise, Japan has often experienced this same tension, for instance in the Edo period when Japanese authorities tried to limit contact with Europe and the Asian continent after a prolonged period of vibrant economic, military, and social interactions. Huffman concludes the book on a similar theme, stating that unlike earlier periods in Japan’s history, the leaders of the country in the future are likely not to hide from the world, but rather to engage with it.

At 128 pages of text, it would be difficult for the most accomplished of historians to paint a comprehensive picture of fifteen hundred years of history. Instead, Huffman manages to convey to the general reader a concise and clear sense of the sweep of Japanese history, from earliest recorded history to the turn of the millennium. And, as the title of the series suggests, Huffman takes special pains to place Japan “in world history,” or perhaps more appropriately, in an international and interregional context. Thus, Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors in premodern times, its interaction with Europeans in the early modern period, and its interactions with an increasingly globalized world in the modern period are all highlighted. This is complemented nicely by an attempt to highlight the diversity of ethnicities within Japan, from the Emishi/Ainu in the north to the Ryukyu Islanders to the south, and the burakumin, or outcasts, in between.

Perhaps the most difficult task for the historian of Japan is to try to bring together the many paradoxes and contradictions that make up Japanese history. For example, despite being labeled the period of the “closed country,” for the entire Tokugawa period Japan was not closed at all as it conducted vibrant relations with Koreans, Chinese, and Dutch. Similarly, from very early times, Japan has had an emperor, but for most of the last thousand years, the emperor did not rule, yielding power instead to a military strongman known as a shogun. In economics, during the early modern period Japan was officially a rice-based economy, but the reality in the city was that the increasingly urban economy was facilitated by merchants who thrived on turning rice into cash and driving a flourishing money lending business. And finally, in the medieval period, patterns of landowning were so complex as to be almost beyond description, as less powerful landowners entrusted their estates (shoen) to the elites in the capital in an effort to reduce their tax burden, resulting in a patchwork of landholding and making a mockery of the official taxation policy. These are just a few of the very difficult historical phenomena that Huffman manages to convey to the general reader without the burden of specialist jargon and without a whole host of Japanese terms.

Another admirable quality of Japan in World History is that is pays a great deal of attention not just to the elites of Japanese history, but also to a number of other groups such as peasants, merchants and artisans (collectively known as “townspeople”), entertainers, and outcastes. As Huffman states in the preface, “When historians ignore commoners, when they leave out women, farmers, workers, and outcastes, they muffle important voices” (xii). This is certainly not to say that the book is a Howard Zinn-like “People’s History of Japan,” but only to make the point that Huffman’s narrative of Japanese history takes a balanced approach, pairing domestic with international topics and elite culture with the culture of commoners.

One possible criticism of Huffman’s work is that while he states categorically that there are groups such as the Emishi/Ainu who are continually marginalized in Japanese history and society, nowhere in the text are we actually exposed to their histories. Similarly, we are told that until the modern period Okinawa was a separate kingdom with distinct cultures and ethnic identities, but again, Huffman provides no further details about Ryukyuan history or culture. I suppose that such omissions are necessary in such a brief work, and to be sure, those histories are told elsewhere. Furthermore, Huffman in no way denies these peoples their separate histories; he simply does not have the space to delve into them. In the end this is a very minor criticism and should in no way detract from the fact that James Huffman’s account of Japanese history will prove eminently useful in surveys of Japanese history, especially if paired with his recently published primary source reader entitled Modern Japan: A History in Documents, also published through Oxford University Press.

Reviewed by Michael S. Laver, Rochester Institute of Technology
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2012 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]