Constructing modern Japan

Every social scientist must struggle with the question of human agency. Are human societies the product of grand social forces or are they the product of the decisions of individuals — Carlyle’s heroes?

The question is particularly important for Japan, which was pushed on to a drastically different path in the late nineteenth century when confronted with the encroachment of imperial powers into Asia. But was Japan’s modernization the result of powerful impersonal forces — the international system, economics, Japanese culture — or was it driven by the decisions of the elites who forged the new system?

This is the swamp into which MIT’s Richard Samuels waded in Machiavelli’s Children: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan. Samuels, in essence, “brings the individual back in” to a discussion of the winding roads followed by late-developing Japan and Italy during the 150 years of their existence as modern states. And he succeeds admirably — in the process explaining in rich detail how Prime Ministers Yoshida and Kishi, building upon the prewar past, designed, for better or worse, the Japan we see today (the Japan that their heirs are struggling to bring into the twenty-first century).

As Samuels suggests in his introduction, the comparative analysis of Japan and Italy strikes many as counterintuitive, perhaps because Italy needed Fascists to make the trains run on time. But beyond the superficial dissimilarities — including the widespread stereotype that Italy has dynamic leaders and poor followers, while Japan has faceless leaders and obedient followers — he finds that despite facing similar conditions, constraints, and opportunities as Gerschenkronian late developers, each made drastically different decisions about governance of the economy and society, liberalism, foreign relations, and, in the postwar period, how to rebuild their states and reconstitute their political systems under the American aegis.

There is far too much in Machiavelli’s Children to do it justice in this space, and, as such, this is my latest book recommendation. (NB: I will henceforth give book recommendations on a monthly basis, or else whenever I feel like it; recommending one every week was too grueling.)

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