In considering the full curriculum of Japanese culture that I’ve undertaken, it became clear to me as soon I as finished Premodern Japan that I should have read it before doing anything else. It is such a comprehensive look at Japan from its earliest written records up to the Meiji restoration that it puts anything I could be reading or watching into a solid, real state.
Premodern Japan is a history book, and a fairly broad one at that. It covers almost two thousand years worth of Japanese history. Basic Western history books usually cover the period of Ancient Egyptian civilization into the various eras after, which this book does not. Written records in Japan did not stretch back that far, and Premodern Japan begins before the CE break, the year one as history records it, and not much before. History is hazy for the country pre Common-era times, and mythology is as much a source as anything. According to some of the earliest myths, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu created Japan as the first among all nations, and every Emperor has been divined by Her since the dawn of time (I didn’t even know Japan still had Emperors, but apparently a fellow named Akihito is the current one). Premodern Japan covers those initial mythologies, then becomes more factual up to the middle of the 19th century. It does so in a comprehensive and incredibly readable way.
Could I tell you the history of Japan now? Not really. I could likely recite a few facts, tell you what a few terms meant, and might even be able to place a name should you toss it my way. The point of Premodern Japan isn’t to make one an expert in Japanese history, at least as far as I can tell. Rather, the point of the book, much like whatever World History book you may have read in college or high school, is to give an outline of Japanese history in such a way that you feel a grasp of the country from one point in its existence to another. Before I read his book, I had only the vaguest idea of how the country was formed, what the Emperors functions were, what the term Shogun even meant, or why and how Japan closed its borders for hundreds of years to all outside influence. My knowledge to this point had been picked up here and there from movies and literature, neither of which have any responsibility at accuracy.
Thanks to this book, I now feel equipped and intrigued to dive into more succinct history books about Japan. Not only does Premodern Japan boast a dizzying bibliography of sources to follow up with, but it’s given me specific points of interest to learn about. I now know that the early rulers of Japan were often female. I’d like to know more about that, and will be looking for a book that dives deeper into those early female leaders (particularly the famed Himiko). I learned that ninja were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in popular culture, and that the notion of a samurai’s honor, so prolific in our thinking, is not really as romantic as we might wish to believe (most of the samurai in Japan’s history were more interested in greed and self-survival than they were in duty, loyalty, and honor).
I feel better equipped now to forge on with a curriculum that is almost finished, and to start a new one with a better focus and aspects that are more synergistic with each another. It’s odd how growing up with history classes in school, even if I wasn’t always paying that close attention, has molded my general framework for how the world was formed. Yes, those books had a Western bias and left out key areas of the world, but I can see a timeline in my head of where and how the main body of Western humanity coursed across the land and where the hearts of civilization were. Premodern Japan has done a similar thing for me, as I can now close my eyes and watch the rise and fall of Shoguns and daimyo and various other political powers as easily as I can envision Alexander the Great sweeping across Europe or the Civil War tearing America apart. It’s refreshing, and I can hardly believe I attempted to study Japanese culture without giving myself this most basic of lessons first.
And here are a few nerd moments. As I neared the end of Premodern Japan and the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the book started to feel like a novel to me, and I was visibly excited as I read about the final players in this very real drama. After finishing, I found myself eager to learn more, which I hadn’t expected at the end of this curriculum of mine. While I want to learn about other areas and interests, I am so deeply invested in Japanese history and culture, largely thanks to this book, that I don’t think I’ll be moving on quite yet. I’ve already downloaded a podcast that gives a similar overview of Japan’s history, and I’ve found lists of movies that take me through the different eras of the country in a cinematographic way. If only I could have had this kind of excitement in college…