History of Japan from the Heian period through the Second World War

For readers who like to study history, whether rigorously or simply for the enjoyment of historical discussion, last week I finished listening to a series of podcasts – much more like a series of extensive lectures, with each entry spanning 4 to 5 hours in length – on the history of Japan and its involvement in the Second World War. The talks by Dan Carlin (see bottom) have been published over the course of the past two years, and serve almost as a narration of Japanese history (from Carlin’s view) beginning roughly from the Heian period through to the events of the Asiatic-Pacific theatre.

Carlin, it must be said, is not a historian (it is fair to say that he is an amateur historian). And while it is generally the case that many historians applaud his podcast and popular engagement with history, it is important to approach his presentation as a form of popular history, firstly. That is to say, I take it as history as a way of seeking and exploring lessons, and thus, too, as a way of speculative theorising connections of factual historical events. This is not to say that Carlin is not brilliant at presenting history. He is in every sense one of the best popular history presenters, who, as I see it, has a first-principle motivation to give context to historiography by highlighting the human experience of an event. History is bloody, absolutely; and the ‘human factor’ that Carlin ensures is not lost in history is deeply important, not least philosophically. It must also be said that he provides plenty of support for his views and never fails to provide his full list of references, which usually includes both primary and secondary sources; but, again, the insisted nuance is that rigorous historical study and popular history are two very different things. The point of discretion here is just to say that one must approach each talk critically, for example discerning when Carlin is presenting his own theory or views and when he is directly citing a primary or secondary reference.

In more ways than one, listening to Carlin’s historical presentations – especially his emphasis on the human aspect of history – reminds me of an allegory on history by Albert Camus. This is something I should maybe return to and write about sometime.

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Admittedly, the history of Japan is something I know of in discrete, disconnected pieces. It’s just not something that has been a focus in my history studies. Like a puzzle picture, some parts I have filled in but mostly in passing or in unconcentrated ways. For example, I have some understanding of its pre-historic period, mainly from books covering our best known research on early human migration that happened to include the Japanese archipelago. Over time I have also picked up some bits on ancient Japan and things like Heian culture, famously the era in which the samurai emerged. I’ve also read bits on Japan’s involvement in World World II but, again, my focus has largely been on the European theatre. Both of my grandfathers, one on my Scottish side and the other on my English side, were involved in the war. I grew up with the Second World War being a regular topic of discussion, with the Battle of Britain and other notable events often a focal point. As a kid, I also studied planes and I really liked the old British war planes, like the Spitfire, and used to build models of them as a hobby. All of this is to say that I’ve never focusedly studied the Asiatic-Pacific theatre in the same way I’ve done the European.

This is perhaps one reason why I found myself thoroughly enjoying Carlin’s series. One can approach his telling of the history with the aim in mind being a study of Japan’s involvement in both world wars. For this reason the focus is narrowed on pertinent historical and cultural developments preceding the great wars, before finally covering the events in the Pacific theatre. There is far too much to comment on, as the range in subject matter is vast. One thing that I found interesting is Carlin’s emphasis on colonialism as it relates to Japan’s motivation, military emergence, and ultimately resource-focused campaign in Asia. But before this, there were so many pertinent socio-cultural and historical developments in Japan’s history, as Carlin tells it, which contribute to what is described as a certain cultural and behavioural fanaticism. This fanaticism is expressed, in one way, through the eyes of the Japanese soldier of the time and finally culminated in an extreme barbarity that very much defined the Asiatic-Pacific theatre.

Carlin starts by first examining the phenomenon of Hiroo Onoda, the last Japanese soldier to come out of hiding from a Philippine jungle and surrender in 1974. What drove Onoda to behave in a way that, in one frame, may be described as going beyond the valour of duty, or in another frame may be described as fanatical and delusional, is a driving question in Carlin’s thesis. It is what shapes his telling of the history, because it leads Carlin, in the prologue, to introduce the observation – very much as we observe across all societies, I would argue – that human beings are malleable for better or for worse, and the ways in which we may be shaped or perhaps even deformed in extreme ways are based on our sociohistorical-cultural circumstances. So what were these circumstances? How did they develop? And what are the deep historical roots, not least related to Japan’s foray into imperialism?

Again, there is much to say, given the range of Japan’s history covered. I encourage the reader to listen to the series, because, while at times Carlin seems to make some drastic theoretical connections, the way he tells the story is absolutely gripping and, no doubt, within his recounting of many first-hand accounts, there are kernels of truth disclosed that are overwhelmingly moving in the sense that the Asiatic-Pacific theatre, in its sometimes unrelenting barbarity, was a deeply human tragedy.

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I will leave the reader with this comment, as it is particularly on my mind. The prologue to Carlin’s series, described above, and much of how he traces key developments in Japan’s history – it reminded me very much of Edgerton’s study on social pathology, in which it is argued that a society may be more or less pathological, with the degrees of variance characteristic of the particular sociohistorical-cultural moment. This was also the thesis of my book, Society and Social Pathology, published a few years ago. Within it I argued, if we are to understand social pathology in a critical way, conceptualizing the complex interconnection between the individual subject and his/her social conditions is the first place to start. In studying the relation between one’s sociohistorical-cultural conditions and the impact those conditions have on the individual subject, my thesis argued toward a more comprehensive, systems view of society, its development, its pathology, and its discontents. As a matter of perspective, if nothing else, a number of questions that Carlin asks – for instance, what leads to the development of the sort of behaviour displayed by Onoda – reminded me of similar questions when coming to study the importance of obtaining a well-defined and rigorous concept of social pathology. Below is an excerpt from when I was thinking about such matters:

One incredibly important argument that we will discuss […] concerns how […] all societies, just like individuals, can be pathological to greater or lesser degree (Edgerton, 2010). This is an important feature of my present thesis. In a survey of literature on the history of human society, it would appear fairly safe to conclude that social pathology as defined in this book is a reoccurring characteristic across cultures and epochs.  Overcoming the pathological development of human society is, to borrow the words of Kenan Malik (2014), “a historical challenge”. That is why although capitalism […] may take a central focus in the present study, due to the fact that capitalism as a particular social formation is what defines our present social world, this particular period of human social development is also part of a significantly broader history. For this reason if the intention is to look at the facts, the realities, the many social phenomena, which defines a large part of modern life, in attempt to understand why needless social suffering persists and why irrationality prevails, to accomplish this task we must also come to grips with […] a philosophy of history [that] intersects with and combines numerous disciplines, from anthropology and archaeology to psychology. And it will help us contextualize a framework for understanding both the ongoing process of pathological development throughout history, as well as the ongoing process pertaining to our present conditions.

Episodes:

*Image: Pacific Theater Areas, Wikipedia.