Blaise Pascal, it is said, once apologised for having written a long letter, saying that he did not have time to write a short one. On that basis, Ian Buruma must have spent ages writing this short but marvellous book. For, with great elegance, eloquence and insight, he really tells you all you need to know about more than a century of Japanese history in a mere 150 pages (plus a useful glossary).
And what a century. In 1853, when American ships turned up in Tokyo Bay and bullied the Japanese to open up their country to trade, Japan was a fairly poor, feudal place that had cut itself off from the outside world for about 200 years. Afraid of being overrun by Christian missionaries and European colonialists, Japan's warlord rulers had driven out the Christians and then banned all contact except with a single nation, Holland, and through a single trading post, an island off Nagasaki. But then internal instability, combined with fear of western power, persuaded the Japanese to change course, open up and try to become powerful enough to survive and even compete. By 1964, when the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo, Japan was fast becoming one of the richest countries in the world.
Naturally, a few things happened in between: wars with Russia and China around the turn of the 20th century that established Japan as a budding great power; the taking of colonies in Taiwan and Korea; the invasion of Manchuria and then China as a whole in the 1930s, along with massacres by the Japanese imperial army; Pearl Harbor, two atomic bombs, and then utter defeat and devastation; an American occupation, led by General Douglas MacArthur, that laid the foundation (and the constitution) of modern, democratic Japan (unlike in Iraq, France did not argue for a rapid transfer of power to a Japanese provisional government).
The story told by Buruma, an experienced writer on Japan as on much else besides, is essentially one of modernisation, monarchy and the role of national identity. Until China, South Korea and other Asian countries managed to do it in the 1970s and 1980s, Japan was the only non-European country to take on the industrial revolution and to modernise successfully and raise its living standards to European levels. Unlike 19th-century China (but very like the China of today), it decided that in order to beat, or at least fend off, the outside world it had better learn from it, absorbing technology and even political and social ideas. Yet in order to do so while remaining Japanese, a powerful defensive mechanism was erected: the emperor, and a whole series of newly invented nationalist myths.
Japan, as one is told tiresomely and endlessly in Tokyo, has an unbroken imperial line stretching back thousands of years to an original descent from a sun goddess. This myth sounds silly enough, to modern ears, but it contains within it another, more important one: that the emperor has always been, as it were, imperial. He hasn't. In 1853, when the old order fell into chaos on being nudged by the American navy, the emperor was a nobody, who had long been sidelined in the provincial city of Kyoto, well away from the real capital of Tokyo (then called Edo). Into the chaos Emperor Meiji stepped, or was brought, as a unifying figure, rather like King Juan Carlos of Spain after the death of Franco. Meiji became the central element of a new Japanese nationalism, with a reshaped religion, Shinto, in which the emperor not only claimed a divine right but also divinity itself.
The effect of this, over time, was somewhat similar to the evolution of Iran since the fall of the shah, only a lot more successful. A semi-democratic political and legal system was established, but in parallel to an imperial theocracy, in which, as in Iran, the word of god (in Japan's case, the emperor) provided the ultimate source of loyalty and could in the end trump the word of man. Paradoxically, this powerful centralisation of national duty and identity created a vacuum of leadership beneath it, permitting - or even encouraging - different groups to break off in different directions, doing their own thing (such as massacring the Chinese in Nanking in 1937) supposedly in the name of the emperor.
It ended, as everyone knows, in disaster and American occupation. The then emperor, Hirohito, may not have been a Hitler figure, planning invasions and massacres from his palace, but it was both the strength of the imperial idea and the weakness of counterbalancing political forces (especially amid the economic depression of the 1930s, as in Germany) that made those disastrous ventures possible. So obviously, in 1945, the thing to do must have been to abolish the Japanese monarchy. Many of the western allies argued for it. But the Americans, faced with essentially the same dilemma as the newly opened Japan had faced in the 1850s, decided that once again the emperor was needed as a unifying figure. Hirohito renounced his divinity and kept his throne.
Buruma's decision to end his book in 1964, at the moment when Japan symbolically emerged from the ashes of defeat and showed it had rejoined the developed nations, prevents him from exploring an interesting and important extension of his theme. This is to ask whether the same problem that led Japan astray in the 1930s, that of a vacuum of leadership, is not also Japan's central political problem today. The constitution bequeathed by MacArthur was admirably liberal and democratic, but also produced a system in which politicians, especially the prime minister, are made weak in every respect except raising money. It worked well during the go-go years of the 1960s and 1970s, but since the stock market crash of 1990 it has produced stagnation and political paralysis.
The prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, is struggling to gain the power to bring in reforms, against a barrage of vested interests. Japan's social unity has stopped economic stagnation from leading to chaos, but its political disunity has prevented revival. Meanwhile the current emperor, Akihito, remains as the only unifying figure, a man with no political role, considered an odd irrelevancy by younger Japanese, but still surrounded by myths of divinity for all his father's renunciation in 1945. It may never happen, but amid some sort of nationalist reaction to economic and political failure, the potential for the revival of the imperial system remains.
Bill Emmott is editor of the Economist and the author of 20:21 Vision: the lessons of the 20th century for the 21st (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press)