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National Observer Home > No. 52 - Autumn 2002 >Book Reviews

History of Japan

by James L. McClain

New York, 2001: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., pages 632 notes and index.

James L. McClain is Professor of History at Brown University, Rhode Island, and is a recognised scholar of Japanese history. “A Modern History of Japan” commences in 1603, when Tokugawa Ieyasu was named the shogun of Japan, and ends in 2000. Necessarily, therefore, it is, despite its substantial 632 pages, an outline, but an interesting and valuable outline nonetheless for those who are not expert in Japanese history.

The author dwells at length on the military history of Japan, which was marked by extraordinary bloodthirstiness and cruelty. Often those in defeated towns and armies were executed to the last man and woman. But the author also discusses social, political and religious conditions at the various times, and the development of Japan from a feudal to an industrial economy.

Japan acquired the beginnings of a colonial empire after vanquishing China in the war of 1894-1895, and the author deals at length with Japan’s period of expansion, which ended with its defeat in 1945, closing the Second World War. Of particular interest to readers is the author’s account of the circumstances that led to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour.

Japan wished for the United States’ acquiescence in its conquering of China and for the supply of strategically valuable materials. When the United States refused Japanese requests, an attack on the United States followed immediately. The ill-judged Japanese intention was not to attempt to conquer and occupy the United States, but rather, to force a settlement that safeguarded Japanese interests.

The war between Japan and the United States is dealt with fairly shortly and is followed by an account of the years of occupation of Japan, and of events to the present time.

Professor McClain’s history is elegantly written, and the author has succeeded well in presenting his account in an enjoyable and interesting manner. The generality of his work is necessitated by the extent of its subject matter, but it is informative and useful, and the purchase of this book is recommended.

R.M. Pearce


By Richard D. Anderson Jr., M. Stephen Fish, Stephen E. Hanson and Philip G. Roeder.

New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2001, 195 pp. and index.


Anderson, Breslauer (who writes an introduction), Fish and Roeder have professorial positions at the University of California and Hanson at the University of Washington. They have co-operated to prepare this analysis of governments in post-communist (post-1990) states that were formerly part of the Soviet empire but are now independent. As Breslauer notes, Roeder examines the initiation of transitions from authoritarianism; Fish analyses regime stability once democracy begins; Anderson considers changes in politician and citizen behaviours in the transition to democracy; and Hanson explores regime consolidation.

The political positions in the fifteen former Soviet states vary greatly. As at the end of the 20 th century only four (Lithuania, Moldova, Russia and the Ukraine) are categorised by Roeder as democracies; six (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) are categorised as autocracies, which are governed exclusively by a small group; three (Armenia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan) are categorised as oligarchies, where the selectorate is a broader group of bureaucrats; and two (Estonia and Latvia) are categorised as exclusive republics, where the selectorate comprises a wide section of society, but not all persons of voting age. These categories are arbitrary but useful in understanding the political conditions in the various countries.

It is evident from the authors’ analyses that the transition from complete authoritarianism to democracy has been extremely difficult. For example, a number of countries (Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have regressed from oligarchies to autocracies; and a number of democracies have regressed either to autocracies (Azerbaijan) or to oligarchies (Armenia and Georgia).

The principal difficulty in all these countries has been the absence of an informed middle class with appropriate political traditions (generally the middle classes were eliminated by the Soviet regime). Democracy depends upon cultural acceptance, and for many countries several generations may be needed before a suitable environment is developed. An attendant difficulty has been the fact that the economies of the various countries have been so primitive that the transition from communist control has not led to sufficient immediate benefits and has in some cases involved very substantial albeit temporary reductions in standards of living.

This book will be of particular interest to those who are concerned with European and Asian political affairs. Recent events in Afghanistan and Pakistan have shown that Australians should take an increased interest in transitions from authoritarian regimes to democracies and that they should support this process generally, and provide encouragement and aid within reasonable limits. It is certainly true that democracies are much less likely to commence wars than totalitarian states, and on this basis the democratisation of as many countries as possible should be a principal priority of the West, including Australia.

R.M. Pearce









National Observer No. 52 - Autumn 2002