Friday, 4 October 2019

Book review: Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo, Nick Kapur (2018)

This history of postwar Japan looks mainly at the years around 1960, a time when its security treaty with the US (the “Anpo” of the book’s title) was renegotiated. Popular discontent with what were seen as unequal aspects of the treaty led to street protests in front of the Diet (the national parliament) that were televised and written about in the print media.

Kapur uses these events as a lens through which to examine modern Japan and in order to do so he examines how the Anpo demonstrations affected the lives of a number of individuals, as well as how it affected the broader community. I found this book to be deeply engrossing and a lot of fun to read, although in parts it gets quite complex as you deal with the (Anglicised) Japanese names of things and with the names of (sometimes) a large cast of characters.

As an introduction to contemporary Japan this book from Harvard University Press is very useful. One of the people Kapur turns his attention to is the prime minister who came after the disgraced Kishi Nobusuke (the man who had rammed the treaty legislation through the Diet and who had subsequently been forced, in the face of popular discontent, to resign his position). The new prime minister was Ikeda Hayato (using the traditional Japanese naming method which puts the person’s surname first and the given name last). 

Ikeda’s “low posture” approach (or, to put it another way, his avoidance of conflict) impacted on different aspects of his job, such as the relationship with the US, the Opposition, and members of his own party (the LDP) in its various factions, enabled him to forge a new type of democratic settlement where one party has been able to stay in power for most of the period since the war. Ikeda was helped in his work by a growing economy and also by a more liberal (in the US sense of the word) president in the figure of John F Kennedy who, himself, took a much softer line with regard to his country’s former enemy than his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had done. Kennedy was aided in taking this stance after he sent an ambassador to represent his country who spoke Japanese and who had deep ties to Japan.

Kennedy worked hard to keep Japan within the sphere of influence of developed democracies as it was not certain that, at the time, Japan would not become drawn into the embrace of Russia or China. Japan was still poor in the 1950s and even though salaries doubled in the 60s, Ikeda made doubling worker incomes a key policy platform of the LDP. Access to the US market for Japanese exports was critical for the success of this aspiration, and Kennedy obliged Ikeda in this regard.

These are just a few select fragments taken from what is a rich collection of stories in what turns out to be a fascinating history of a country that is, still nowadays, largely misunderstood. Though we consume Japanese cultural products enthusiastically most people in the West do not really understand what makes the country tick. Reading this book can help them to do so.

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