wombat_socho (wombat_socho) wrote,

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Department stores and the American Caesar

When we talk about history, we shouldn't restrict ourselves to talking about generals, emperors and Presidents (although I'm going to do that a little further down) because that's obviously not all there is to history. There are department stores, too, and studying what those stores did for America and its cities is worth the time, since it helps you understand how America changed in the 20th century almost as much as a grasp of what Henry Ford and his company were up to. Jan Whitaker's Service and Style looks like a worthy contributor to the genre of American history, and based on Christina Larson's review (thanks, Rachel!) I think I'll have to pick it up and give it a thorough reading.

And then we have American Shogun, which is a more conventional sort of history, although it renews the argument that Japan's noble families merely traded swords and samurai retainers for corporations and salarymen. It also presents the unusual spectacle of George Kennan as a spiteful villain opposed to General Douglas MacArthur's well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual attempts to impose genuine democratic/capitalist reforms on Occupied Japan; normally, Kennan is presented in histories of the Cold War as a benign academic figure, the architect of the "containment" policy toward the Soviet Union, and not someone involved in the sort of bureaucratic and political knife-fighting depisted in this book. I'm not finished with the book yet, but overall I've found it rather disappointing. The presentation of the book makes it look like a comparative biography of General MacArthur and the Showa Emperor, but in fact the book provides a very detailed examination of Japanese society during the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods, much more so than I remember from Reischauer's book The Japanese. Particularly interesting is the sociologial treatment given to the Japanese Army and the distinction drawn between the senior officers (who made common cause with the zaibatsu families to form the Control Faction) and the junior officers whose enthusiasm for a reformation of the brutally exploitative corporate system led them to form the fascist Imperial Way faction; in its examination of the political and social history of the times, Harvey is at his strongest. Unfortunately it also digresses into a an excessively detailed (and annoyingly error-riddled) history of the Pacific War, e.g., B-52's destroyed at Clark Field by zero fighters.

The book comes into its own for the second time in describing the studied non-cooperation of the Imperial Household and the civilian bureaucracy with MacArthur's directives, which ultimately led to a re-establishment of the very corporate and bureaucratic powers that Harvey argues got Japan into the war against China and the United States to start with. Unfortunately, this section of the book is marred by repeated off-topic references to the current situation in Iraq, which at best don't help one's understanding of the issues faced by MacArthur in the least and at worst threaten to turn this section of the book into an anti-American polemic. My overall opinion of the book is that while it does shed some very useful light onto the history and evolution of the Japanese government and society, it would have benefitted greatly from a good editor and a greater concentration on the impact the alleged continuity has had on Japan, especially with regard to the political unrest there in the early 1960s. It has definitely made me considerably more sympathetic to our Pacific Rim allies, who are of the opinion that Japan has yet to show convincing remorse as a society for the conduct of its troops during the Pacific War.
Tags: books, history
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