Book Review

Showa: A History of Japan 1926 – 1939 by Shigeru Mizuki

interesting entry-level text about modern Japanese history

Written October sometime

This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a while and I finally purchased a copy from one of my favourite [not-secondhand] bookstores, the wonderful Librairie Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal. Each time I visit that real-feeling city, I return to the less-real Toronto with a bulging, overflowing sack of texts. I bought this one during my solo mini-break back at the start of Autumn. Nice!

Showa: A History of Japan was written and illustrated by Shigeru Mizuki, a bestselling manga artist, and it was originally published in the 1980s. This book – and the similar-sized three further volumes that complete the project – were translated by Zack Davisson and published in English between 2013 and 2015, those halcyon misspent years of my miserable young adulthood.

Showa offers a contemporary history of 20th century Japan, which isn’t really something I’ve ever spent any time considering. I didn’t know, for example, that Japan uses concepts of “eras” to delineate periodic histories, much as we do in England with our queens and occasional kings. The Showa era was named for the period of Emperor Showa, which lasted from 1926 to 1989, therefore encompassing the vast bulk of the last century and what is generally seen to be its most significant global events (i.e. my birth, James Bond, Lady Chatterley’s Lover). 

Going into this, everything I know about Japanese history came from novels and the general “goodies and baddies” oversimplification of geopolitics that is spoon-fed to the public in England, so I basically knew nothing.

To clarify that previous point, in English schools we are taught that the baddies are pretty much everyone who isn’t “English”, and the goodies are the English and people who fought against the English but were killed by mutual enemies, i.e. Gandhi. I can’t think of any other examples to be honest, maybe Nelson Mandela, but not really: I think most English people would consider him a bit too “right on” to be commendable and also he died old.

Anyway, I learned a lot, and though this book is quite surface-level (as it is aimed at children) and has passages narrated by fictional characters from Mizuki’s less serious, non-realist, best-selling manga series, it’s a pretty wide-ranging introduction to the national, geo-political and socio-cultural changes that happened in Japan in the lead-up to the international military exercise of WW2.

Mizuki explores how imperialistic invasions of mainland Asia and financial destabilisation affected the lives of ordinary people, which is something a lot of broad-strokes history texts tend to ignore, at least they do in England.

I’m not going to rush out and hunt down the rest of the books that complete Mizuki’s Showa, but if they ever organically cross my path, I’d more than happily give them a read. The book is inquisitive, engaging, informative and – again, you wouldn’t get this in England – broadly willing to acknowledge that politicians and political parties can – and must – be held responsible and culpable for violations of human rights committed in their name.

As I often repeat on this blog, Winston Churchill committed genocide via planned starvation in India, and this fact would never find its way into a mass market, child-friendly history of the United Kingdom. The English remain ignorant children for this very reason, hurtling ever deeper into a blind conservative hole powered by fantasy nostalgia and wilful ignorance. Blunt honesty about the moral failings of the past is essential for personal, and societal, growth.

Order Showa direct from Drawn & Quarterly via this link

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