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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / politics


Japan and the
Shackles of the Past

R.Taggart Murphy

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To purchase Japan and the Shackles of the Past

Title: Japan and the Shackles of the Past
Author: R.Taggart Murphy
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2014
Length: 397 pages
Availability: Japan and the Shackles of the Past - US
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Our Assessment:

A- : very good introduction to and presentation of the Japanese condition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 10/1/2015 .
Financial Times . 2/1/2015 David Pilling

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)n his insightful analysis of what ails Japan, Taggart Murphy (...) focuses on the continuities. (...) Mr Murphy also blames the continuity of Japanís governing institutions." - The Economist

  • "Taggart Murphy knows his Japanese history. His theories about Japanís political economy (...) shed interesting light on the country. They can, however, be taken to extreme. (...) There is much useful rumination here. (...) This latter example reveals the authorís propensity to see in every facet of modern Japan the ghosts of an unreconstructed past." - David Pilling, Financial Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       R.Taggart Murphy originally set out to write a book about Japan for Oxford University Press' What Everyone Needs to Know®-series, but it mutated into something rather larger, with a more focused thesis. Yet the final product, Japan and the Shackles of the Past, seems to benefit from its origins, as the resulting volume offers an excellent overview of Japan -- perhaps not everything, but certainly a great deal that readers should know about the country, its history, and its culture.
       Murphy doesn't get bogged down too much in the past -- this is a book mainly about modern, and especially contemporary Japan -- but his historical introduction is an excellent succinct overview. He highlights 1603 -- the year of: "the formal establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate" -- and the 'opening to the West' in 1868 as the watershed points of development, and comes down on the side of those who find 1603 the more significant, in both directly establishing the framework which still dominates Japanese government and in creating (by way of its enforced seclusion, if not outright isolation) the "highly distinctive national culture" that remains so defining. Meanwhile, by the mid-nineteenth century, an opening to the rest of the world had become inevitable.
       Murphy offers a quick tour of the significant developments in Japanese culture and society -- sometimes very casual, but at least engagingly so ("ironically Kabuki started as a sort of early seventeenth-century equivalent of pole-dancing"). Much reinforces the picture of a society with a peculiarly (to foreign eyes ...) managed reality (borrowing, as Murphy does, the enormously influential Karl von Wolferen's concept of the Japanese 'Management of Reality'), and Murphy tries -- and succeeds, for the most part -- in explaining these Japanese peculiarities, and what lies behind and beneath these differences between appearance and reality. This leads also to some understanding of the motivations behind many of the more baffling courses of action taken by Japanese politicians and policymakers -- the infamous, ridiculous (and very expensive) white elephant projects in the middle of nowhere, and the continued draw of the Yasukuni Shrine for prominent politicians being two of the more notable examples.
       Murphy makes a case for policy-making in Japan being: "almost entirely rudderless" -- part of his larger thesis of Japan not being a fully functional independent state but rather the American 'occupation' still continuing, the United States still controlling what should, in fact, be sovereign areas -- notably those of foreign relations (especially, obviously, regarding the military defense of the nation). The post-war domestic politics Murphy describes is hair-raising, structured -- at American behest and insistence -- to avoid the possibility of any 'leftist' government (even as the opposition socialists could be trotted out and used when convenient -- to avoid Japan getting sucked into America's Vietnamese quagmire, for example). While allowing for the Japanese economic miracle -- well-chronicled here -- the costs have also proven high, in particular in a legacy that contemporary Japan remains entrenched in.
       Murphy sees an inability to acknowledge past mistakes as one of the fundamental flaws of contemporary Japan, contrasting how Germany dealt with its legacy from the Second World War and how Japan has failed to. But this refusal to acknowledge having taken the wrong path extends broadly to other areas as well, making necessary economic adjustments, for example, near impossible. Meanwhile, the political system, while nominally democratic, is gamed to an extent that can make American-style gerrymandering look good.
       Murphy is blunt and clear in his statements, making for a refreshingly direct argument. Admiring much about Japan, he nevertheless gets directly to the faults, too -- and finds faults galore. The United States, meanwhile, fares little better, especially its 'Japan experts', and, by way of discussing Japan's reliance on the United States, he argues:

     The American Empire is doomed to failure because it is structurally and institutionally ignorant of the wider world.
       While his focus is on Japan, his conclusion (or observation) applies equally well to American adventurism elsewhere: the past twenty-five years in the Middle East prove exactly the same point.
       Murphy is carefully explicit: he faults structural and institutional ignorance -- not lack of individual or academic expertise, for example. The same goes for Japan, and 'the shackles of the past' he understands Japan needs to free itself from are those entrenched structural and institutional ones, which he does an impressive job of describing and explaining -- including explaining both their roots and the difficulties in overcoming them.
       In its examination of the Japanese economic miracle (and the stagnation of the past decades, which is also not nearly as simple or uniform as commonly portrayed), as well as Japanese politics in recent decades (Murphy gives a quick tour of Japanese governments right up to the present), Japan and the Shackles of the Past offers an excellent picture of contemporary Japan, helpful in explaining the issues it faces and how it is trying to deal with them.
       Thorough but not overwhelming, Japan and the Shackles of the Past is an excellent -- and engagingly written -- introduction to Japan, and a thought-provoking work of political and economic analysis (with quite a few lessons for America and other nations, too).

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 November 2014

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Japan and the Shackles of the Past: Reviews: R.Taggart Murphy: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       R.Taggart Murphy teaches at the University of Tsukuba.

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