World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


Kingston, Jeffrey. Japan in Transformation 1952-2000 (New York: Pearson Education, 2001). 230 pp, $18.00.

      Few nations provide greater interest to the world historian than Japan. The island nation is a fascinating case study of cultural adoption and adaptation, and a major actor in world history. As the first non-Western industrial society it is extremely important to comparative studies, challenging us to consider different paths to modernity. In recent years Japan has moved perhaps further than any other country toward the future that awaits most developed societies: post-industrial and high-tech, its population aging. Jeffrey Kingston's book will be a useful text for a course in recent world history that seeks to include or give a special focus on Japan. 1
    Japan in Transformation 1952-2000 covers the second half of the twentieth century from the end of the U.S. occupation to 2000. In the brief introductory chapter Kingston explains his major theme, what the author calls the "ideological transformation" of Japan—the way the Japanese view their world and act in it. A subsidiary theme is the tensions between prevailing norms and shifting realities. He proceeds topically into what he regards as the key elements of this transformation. The second chapter deals with the U.S. occupation, the efforts at democratization, the security arrangements that were established at that time and their legacies. Chapter three analyzes postwar politics from 1950s to the 1990s; the next addresses the extraordinarily rapid economic growth of the 1950s to 1989. Chapters five and six examine Japan's foreign relations. A chapter each is devoted to the changing status of women, the challenges facing Japan as an aging society, and Japan's corporate restructuring during the economic stagnation of the 1990s. The last chapter briefly surveys the fin de siècle headlines: the Kobe earthquake, the Aum Shinrikyo cult, delinquent youths, persistent discrimination against foreigners and Japanese minority groups. 2
    A brief outline introduces each chapter, followed by thirty documents. Most are primary sources such as the 1947 constitution and Prime Minster Ikeda's "Income Doubling Plan" but some are excerpts from previously published articles by Japanese and Western scholars. The issues are clearly and concisely presented, and the documents are useful and relevant. Kingston also provides a chronology, a glossary and a "Who's Who" section. The last two while useful, are rather short, omitting some important concepts and individuals. 3
     Some of the author's insights and observations are quite helpful in understanding Japan's recent history. For example, he argues that the real "economic miracle" was not the impressive economic growth of postwar period but "how many have shared in the fruits of progress and how few have been left in the wake of development"(3). In reference to the political system Kingston points out that despite Japan's failure to produce a multiparty political system with a creditable alternative to the dominant and often corrupt Liberal Democratic Party, recent decades have seen a greater involvement of ordinary middle class citizens in a variety of NGOs and watchdog groups that have had a salubrious effect on politics and society. Particular interesting is the section on what Kingston calls the "demographic time-bomb," the declining birthrate which, combined with the world's highest longevity rate threatens to undermine the country's entire economic and social system. None of this is new, nor does the author present any novel interpretations but his summaries make a good introduction to recent and contemporary Japan. 4
     However, a number of issues—Japan's dynamic pop culture, its pressure-cooker education system and the Nihonjinron debate over national identity, to name a few—are omitted or only mentioned in passing. World historians might wish Kingston had given more comparative context for the issues he discusses. Nor are the chapters well integrated. In fact, they can be read independently. This may be the principle use of the book—to provide a brief introduction to one or more of the issues Kingston highlights.   5
     Japan in Transformation also has the problem shared by books that deal with contemporary history, it can easily become outdated. In some ways it already has. Written during Japan's "lost decade" of economic stagnation, it reflects, especially in its last chapter, the angst of the 1990s. The past several years have seen a strong economic recovery and a resurgence of Japanese nationalism, developments beyond the scope of Kingston's work. Despite these limitations, Kingston's concise and balanced presentations of the main issues in recent Japanese history will provide a helpful introduction to world history survey students.  6
Michael J. Seth
James Madison University

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use