Date finished: March 10th 2016
I have a tricky relationship with history books. I find the subjects fascinating and firmly believe that the right author can make any topic engaging. But dry school and university set texts have made me wary of historians who are too fond of reciting dates and old documents accompanied by turgid analysis. These works have their place for serious scholars, but they’re often impenetrable to the lay observer.
So it’s always nice to find a work of history that can come at a topic from an original angle and really intrigue the reader. Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival is one such book, in which Financial Times journalist David Pilling investigates the cultural, social and economic history of Japan through the nation’s reaction to the multiple crises it has endured in the last century, with particular attention to the post-war period, its economic crises, and the aftermath of the devastating 2011 earthquake/tsunami.
Pilling paints a land of strange contradictions, delving into Japan’s earlier history and its development from the Meiji restoration era (1868-1912), its aggressive expansionism in the period up until the Second World War, and how the US occupation in the aftermath of the war forced it to radically rethink its approach to both foreign and domestic policy.
From here, Japan focused on its industry and trade, becoming an economic superpower. However, after 1990 the economy ground to a halt and began to stagnate, and the situation has remained more or less the same for the last twenty years, the various attempts to kickstart the economy found wanting. Present day Japan is a conflicted country: an economic powerhouse with no growth; a country of Western power trapped in a tense eastern ocean; one of the most thoroughly modern countries on the planet which gives a huge amount of time over to ritual and tradition. Japan is an exceptional and strangely-isolated nation on the world stage but much of this image is self-perpetuated, and this attitude has held Japan back.
With this unique take on Japanese history, Pilling is able to crack open this somewhat introverted country and explain the idiosyncrasies of Japanese society and culture – which are often the result of a unique amalgamation of ancient tradition, Western aspiration, and reinvention under pressure – whilst simultaneously providing an engaging narrative history of the country’s past century and an insightful analysis of its successes and failings. Pilling gives a voice to the citizens, economists, politicians and influential figures within Japan as well as external observers of its history and politics. These, along with comparisons with Western and Eastern powers, give a multi-faceted perspective on the Japanese situation.
In Bending Adversity, Pilling has created a thoroughly informative and enjoyable narrative history of modern Japan, broaching the varied topics and aspects of the book with a unique mix of respect and critical analysis. If you’re looking for a recent history of Japan, I strongly recommend that you start here.