Japan: A Concise History

A book review:

“Japan: A Concise History”


By  Milton W. Meyer

This is a Fourth Edition published in 2009 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Plymouth, UK.


What can I say? This is a history book. Some parts were interesting, some not so much.

I have a huge problem with the basic structure of this book. The author decided to dedicate two huge slices of the book to the Tokugawa regime and the Meiji period. No doubt, they are important parts of Japanese history which allow us to see the evolution of the country which exists today. BUT, if it is to be a concise history, I wonder that the author decided to dwell more on some parts, and completely skim over others?

Like I said, there are plenty of facts but this source doesn’t seem entirely fair and it is biased. There are certain parts, little remarks that reek of an over-Westernised perspective. It would have been nice if the writer was able to keep his opinion to himself. Unfortunately that is not the case all the time. (These little remarks are small, and it is only because I am reading this text with a critical eye that I am aware of what Meyer is doing.)

I wanted to read this book to get a better understanding of Japanese trade, culture, development of their art forms and technology, and how this may have shaped their perspective and nationalistic tendencies. I wanted to know how normal, lower class citizens lived throughout the ages. Sometimes Meyer would briefly state that the peasants were the worst off, that they had to finance the empire though taxes and sometimes there would be “rice riots.” That’s it.

I just wish there was more of certain parts and less of some others. For example, I wish there was more written about the cultural developement. Instead, Meyer has decided to go down the beaten track of recounting every single emperor in the course of the Japanese empire, their wars, conflicts, alliances, and so on. He has also decided to write extensively about the religions of the land. Certain things like the war with China and Russia were mentioned briefly; the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Atomic Bombs received 3 pages. It just felt attached to another chapter. Meanwhile, the conspiracies and continuous rotations of shoguns and political leaders received more coverage. Meyer did include a timeline of key events at the end of each chaper, but in some cases that wasn’t very useful because in some chapters the chronology was just a list of names with dates.

When I read the last three chapters my eyes completely glazed over. Meyer spoke about economics and politics in a way that was both boring and incomprehensible. The way he structured the last three chapters didn’t make any sense. He keeps going over the same timeline, but with different facts. There is no continuity, it feels like he keeps on jumping from timeline to timeline based on what information it took his fancy to include.

I liked the fact that Meyer clearly split the book into sections and it was relatively easy to find a particular time frame from the table of contents. (I don’t agree with how much space he allocated to each subject, but I do like the fact they are clearly labelled.)

I would recommend this book, it’s a relatively easy read if you want to know the basic structure of Japanese history. But, I wouldn’t rely on it too much, certainly I would double check this book against other sources. Be warned; some of the statements the author makes are biased and unjustified. Be careful what information you use from this book should you use it as an academic source.



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