Category Archives: Japan

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

1946: The Making of the Modern WorldI’m a huge sucker for books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. Last year I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. Over the last year or so, I kept seeing a book at my public library called 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen. However, despite my love for these single year books I never felt compelled to grab a copy. Sadly, I’m embarrassed to say I never did so because I disliked the book’s cover. Then one afternoon I came to my senses, put my petty prejudices behind me and helped myself to an available copy. I’m sure glad I did.

1946, while it might not make my year-end Best of List, could very well end up being one of my pleasant surprises of 2017. Made up of short chapters and employing a direct writing style, Sebestyen’s informative book makes for quick, but fascinating reading. Structured chronologically, it skips around the globe, largely ignoring Africa and the Americas and spending the bulk of time discussing seminal events and developments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sebestyen’s 1946 chronicles a world in transition. With Nazi German and much of Europe in ruins, the United States and the Soviet Union have emerged as superpowers and their ensuing rivalry would eventually morph into the Cold War. On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan lies defeated, occupied and no longer able to impose its will on East Asia. In Japan’s place is a regional power vacuum with America to a degree the USSR to a slightly lesser degree rushing to fill the void. On a related note, with Japan vanquished Chinese Communists and Nationalists could now be freely fight each other for mastery of the country. Also in Asia, the sun began setting on the British Empire as India/Pakistan moved towards independence and in the Middle East armed Zionists intensified their fight for a modern State of Israel born from the ashes of the Holocaust. Lastly, Britain’s eclipse as a colonial power was part of a larger global trend in anti-colonialism that would in the coming years drive France from Indochina and Holland from Indonesia.

If you end up reading 1946 and would like follow-up books to read let me offer the following suggestions. I would start with Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. From there I would proceed directly to Keith Lowe’s masterpiece Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and then to Anne Applebaum’s outstanding book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.


Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

About Time I Read It: The Twilight Warriors by Robert Gandt

9780767932417_p0_v1_s192x300I have a feeling when looking back on 2015 I’ll probably consider it as the year I made a strong push to read books from my personal library that I’d been meaning to read for a long, long time. Like dominos falling, one by one I whipped through Spilllover, Sacred Trash, The Myth of the Muslim Tide, Bloodlands and Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Each one of these books I thoroughly enjoyed. So much so I felt like kicking myself for not reading them sooner.

Well, add one more title to that parade of excellent books. Robert Gandt’s The Twilight Warriors has been on my shelf for five years, ever since it came in the mail as one of my default selections from the History Book Club. However, even after seeing praised online I made no effort to read it. Then one day, perhaps feeling inspired to read yet another ignored book in my personal library I picked it up. Holy cow, it’s good. Once again, I found myself asking why oh why did I wait so long to read this terrific book.

The Twilight Warriors is Gandt’s fast-paced chronicle of the Battle of Okinawa. Fought during the waning months of the Second World War, the Americans saw the conquest of Okinawa as the first step towards the eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands. The Japanese, fully aware of the island’s significance, heavily fortified it in addition to deploying heavy artillery. On top of that, the Japanese planned to unleash its newest weapon, the kamikaze upon the American Navy. Lastly, the pride of the Japanese fleet, the Yamato, the world’s largest battleship, stood by and awaited its final mission.

In the end, both sides shed unfathomable amounts of blood for nothing. The Japanese, despite waves of deadly kamikaze attacks and their dogged resistance on Okinawa were unable to inflict enough casualties to force America to the negotiating table in hopes of securing a truce, as opposed to the unconditional surrender they horribly feared. As for the Americans, once Japan quickly surrender after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no need to use Okinawa as a jumping off point for an invasion of Japan.

This is a very good book. Not only is it fast-paced, but it’s also well-written. From what I can tell, Gandt did a heck of a good job researching The Twilight Warriors. Perhaps above all, I really liked how the story is told mainly from the perspective of those men who did the fighting. Therefore, it’s for these reasons I have no problem whatsoever recommended this superb book.

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Filed under East Asia, History, Japan

About Time I Read It: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

9780609809648_p0_v1_s260x420If you’re like me, there’s nothing like finally reading a book that for years you’ve been wanting to read. And if you’re like me, the only thing better than that is when you finally do read it, it’s even better than you had hoped. That, my friends is how I felt when I finally got around to reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

I’ve been wanting to read Weatherford’s book for over decade, ever since it was published back in 2004. Sadly, I never got around to doing so, even after I received a copy as a Christmas present several years ago. Even with this prized book in my possession I’m embarrassed to say it just sat on my desk gathering dust. But with 2015 shaping up to be the year I tackle the many ignored and unread books of my personal library perhaps it’s no surprise I finally picked up Weatherford’s book and read it.

As the book’s title hints, this isn’t just the story of Genghis Khan. Yes, his incredible rise from impoverished Mongol horseman to emperor of Eurasia is all here. But Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is much more than that. If any leader could be called an enlightened despot than Weatherford’s Genghis Khan would be him. Under his rule religious toleration abounded, ethnic communities and local customs were respected and international trade flourished. His empire was also the first to promote such modern concepts like universal literacy, paper money and diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and envoys. With an empire stretching two continents and served by a meritocracy-based civil service, state-run postal service and rule of law (not to mention an aversion to torture as a tool for justice and means of state control) Genghis Khan’s kingdom was not only impressive but by today’s standards much a head of its time.

Some have criticized Weatherford for painting too rosy of picture of Genghis and his empire. Others have questioned his book’s historical accuracy. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s well-written and fun to read. Much like Thomas Cahill did with his books How the Irish Saved Civilization and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea:Why the Greeks Matter Weatherford has the ability to make  history enjoyable and fascinating. Therefore, I highly recommend Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.


Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Islam, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Last year, as part of the European Reading Challenge I read The Girl with the Pearl Earring since the setting for Tracy Chevalier’s fictional account of a young woman’s encounter with Dutch painter Vermeer is Holland. This time around, for the European Reading Challenge I’ve selected another book in which Holland, and especially Vermeer takes center stage. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is yet another one of those books I kept seeing on the self at the library yet never grabbed. However, last week or so I finally grabbed it. After finishing after a series of fits and starts I asked myself if I liked it. Honestly, I’m really not sure. 

According to Brook, what we now call globalization, began clear back in the seventeenth century. International trade, consumption of foreign goods, sweeping cultural shifts and global conflict began to accelerate at an unprecedented rate during Vermeer’s lifetime.  In Vermeer’s Hat, Brook breaks down several of Vermeer’s paintings, in addition to two other pieces of art not by Vermeer but from that era to illustrate his points. For instance, the officer depicted in the painting Officer and Laughing Girl wears a stylish beaver pelt hat, signifying not only the growing wealth of Holland’s merchant class but also the lucrative beaver trade in North America. To Brook, the young woman in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is quite possibly reading a letter from male relative, spouse or similar loved one who’s off seeking his fortune overseas with an entity like the Dutch East India Company. The globe shown front and center in The Astronomer epitomizes an expansive and rapidly unfolding world, much in the way the anchored ship in View of Delft is evidence of Holland’s growing participation in international trade.

By using examples from the art world to trace the evolution of early globalism, Brook has taken on an ambitious project. While it looks like some readers have compared Vermeer’s Hat to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses to me it reminded me a lot of John E. Wills’s 1688: A Global History and David Fromkin’s The Way of the World. But in the end, I’m not sure this ambitious project completely satisfied me. Sometimes I found Vermeer’s Hat a bit dry for my taste. Who knows, maybe I was just expecting too much. At least I received a nice history lesson. Can’t go wrong with that.


Filed under China, East Asia, Economics, Europe, History, Japan

Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

In my last post, I mentioned Rebel Land as book I kept seeing at my public library but never grabbed until just recently. Another book in this same category is Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein. Just like with Rebel Land, every time I’d walk by Tokyo Vice I was tempted to check it out. Then, a few seconds later I’d think about all the unread library books stacked by my bed. After coming to my senses I’d sigh a bit, leave Tokyo Vice on the shelf and continue my slow meander along the shelves. Finally, during one of my library visits that little devil in my ear whispered, “of course you’re reading too many books right now, but remember all that stuff in Misha Glenny’s book McMafia about the Japanese Yakuza? You enjoyed reading that, didn’t you? I bet there’s even more in Tokyo Vice.” Needless to say, I yielded to temptation and added Adelstein’s book to my towing pile of library books.

   Published in 2010, Adelstein’s memoir covers the decade he spent in Japan as an American expat. Fluent in Japanese and a recent graduate of Tokyo’s Sophia University, Adelstein began his career as an entry-level journalist’s for a Tokyo newspaper. After spending his early years in a Tokyo exurb waiting hand and foot on the bureau’s senior staff while covering the local news scene (mostly suicides) eventually his hard work and perseverance would lead to an assignment covering the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. During his years writing about Tokyo’s dark underbelly he would investigate gangland killings, illicit sex clubs, human trafficking and loan sharking. In his role Adelstein also searched for missing persons, including 21-year-old British hostess Lucie Blackman. (Her 2000 disappearance is the subject of Richard Lloyd Parry’s book People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman which was reviewed on Jo V’s blog in April.) His investigation of an elaborate criminal conspiracy involving Yakuza crime lords, money laundering, illegal organ transplants and government-protected informants would end his career as a reporter and nearly cost him his life.

I enjoyed Tokyo Vice and I’m dumbfounded why some people included it on such Goodreads lists like The Hate List and Books Not To Read. But love it or hate it, author Jake Adelstein and his publisher will probably have the last laugh. A movie adaptation of Tokyo Vice has received the green light and filming begins early next year with Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as reporter Jake Adelstein. I can’t wait.


Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, East Asia, International Crime, Japan, Memoir