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America as Japan Scholar to the World : THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF JAPAN Volume 5: The Nineteenth Century edited by Marius B. Jansen (Cambridge University Press: $89.50; 828 pp., illustrated; 0-521-22356-3). : THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF JAPAN Volume 6: The Twentieth Century edited by Peter Duus (Cambridge University Press: $89.50; 866 pp., illustrated; 0-521-22357-1)

August 05, 1990|David Williams | Born in Los Angeles, Williams currently teaches Japanese government and politics at Oxford University. and

Nations, like men and women, have their intellectual infancy, but it should not go on too long. Every ambitious country must at some point learn to write its name in what the Victorians called the book of ideas. For a set of complex and not always flattering reasons, it is only in our century that America has made almost every branch of human learning its province.

One result is that until the 1920s, it remained fashionable for educated Europeans to echo the wounding impertinence of the 19th-Century English wit who asked: "Who reads an American book?"

Such doubts persisted even after William James became the flavor of the month in European intellectual circles, and two of America's most consequential cultural defectors--T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound--were to reshape the modernist sensibility on two continents. It could hardly have been otherwise in an era when American society had achieved so much; yet its contribution to the world of disinterested thought and bookish intent seemed, on a continental scale, so thin.

Since 1945, this situation has altered beyond recognition, and nowhere have the labors of American scholars and centers of higher learning--what an earlier generation of intellectual historians termed the "American mind"--had more one-sided impact than on the Western understanding of Japan and its civilization. The result is that when a European reads a book on Japan today, it is more likely than not to be by an American.

The work under review here is therefore a double monument. In honoring Japan and her unquestioned accomplishments as a nation, these volumes of the Cambridge histories, that great British intellectual project begun by Lord Acton some 90 years ago, have provided a grand occasion to celebrate the scholarly achievements of the American Century. This is no rhetorical flourish, for U.S. dominance of every branch of Western learning about Japan is the direct or indirect consequence of this country's profound encounter with her trans-Pacific neighbor over 60 years of war and peace.

These two volumes on Japanese modern history (the first four in the series treat Japan before 1800) have been ably edited by Marius Jansen of Princeton and Peter Duus of Stanford. Of the 27 individual contributions, more than half are by Americans.

The international character of this Cambridge history is reflected in the work of those outstanding foreign contributors who have made U.S. universities their homes: Australian Harold Bolitho, who has written on the Tempo reforms of the Edo period, teaches at Harvard; Akira Iriya, the Japanese expert on prewar imperialism, at Chicago; and Koji Taira, the Japanese labor-market scholar, at Illinois (Champaign-Urbana). Ann Waswo, on the other hand, is a California scholar, trained at Stanford, who teaches at Oxford.

The implication is clear. It is not only U.S. money and organizational skills that are helping to animate the proud cultural institutions of Europe, such as the Cambridge histories, but also American minds and universities. In this way we are repaying the debt acquired in the 1930s and 1940s when a flood of European scholars transformed the American academic landscape.

In the face of this achievement, it has been astonishing to encounter repeated attacks in the mass media, in both Europe and Japan, on the Cambridge History of Japan for ideological bias, particularly elitism and conservatism.

To blame this distinguished group of scholars from four continents for failing the "common reader" by not producing a modern sequel to G.B. Sansom's three-volume History of Japan is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of the Cambridge histories. This is accessible scholarship, not popular history.

A sensible balance has been struck between the demands of analytical history and the claims of traditional narrative, most obviously in Ikuhito Hata's thoughtful essay on Japanese prewar expansion and Alvin D. Coox's deft summation of the campaigns of the Pacific War. Gilbert Rozman, on the other hand, illustrates the strengths of the analytic approach by probing the factual foundation of many of the key concepts used to explain 19th-Century Japanese society.

Such rigor also is reflected in H.D. Harrotunian's stimulating essay on late Tokugawa culture and thought, which exploits conceits and styles of argument of European cultural criticism after Rousseau. It is furthermore true that the challenging articles by E. Sydney Crawcour, Takafusa Nakamura and Yutaka Kosai demand some fluency in basic economics.

What is nonetheless striking here is how open the door of the historian remains to the reader with a sound but general education. Can the same be claimed for contemporary anthropology or international-relations theory or textual criticism?

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