book review

'The Call of Japan: A Continuing Story - 1950 to the Present Day'

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By Henry Hilton

Imagine the biggest lecture theater at the University of X. The distinguished lecturer is holding forth on the standard history of postwar Japan and then asks for any questions. 

From the back of the audience a lone hand is raised. The brave gent then proceeds to give his own, first-hand, version of how he has carefully watched Japan unfold from the end of the Allied occupation in 1950 to the coronvirus crisis in May 2020.

The man in question is Dutchman Hans Brinckmann and his new book is "The Call of Japan: A Continuing Story - 1950 to the Present Day." If you want to see and smell the nation's transformation from a bombed-out shell after defeat to the glory years of boom and on to the present so-called "lost" decades, this ought to be your first port of call.

As an 18-year-old, Brinckmann arrived at the wooden sheds of Haneda by a DC-6, falling immediately "victim to Japan's seductive powers." But don't be fooled. While Brinckmann did indeed inhale powerful and lasting doses of the nation's cultural and spiritual values, he was also learning to be an expat banker. All this against the backdrop of a country working desperately to get back on its own two feet after the triple traumas of unconditional defeat, major enforced reforms and lengthy foreign occupation.

This is a graphic, honest account of how a sensitive and impressionable European apprentice worked and played hard as he rose in tandem with Japan's extraordinary progression. In the process an outsider became almost an insider, able to negotiate and explain between civilizations - ready to sound off on Japan's faults and admiringly note its successes in an unusually balanced manner.

It is both a highly personal set of memoirs and a rich, accurate explanation of how Japan quickly and deliberately moved up the international food chain from being a nobody to being a key player in global economics and a major political force for good in the world.

Brinckmann's text is reinforced by a set of photos that underline what postwar Japan has accomplished and how it has done it. Take, for example, the author's own pictures from 1953. He snaps what looks like an ancient Rolls Royce fit only for a motor museum with Emperor Hirohito ensconced inside as the imperial vehicle slowly passes through downtown Kobe to the acclaim of flag-waving crowds. Their enthusiasm is clear, though, just to be on the safe side, the police with their back to the vintage car are on the spot to make absolutely certain no one gets up to any mischief.

Equally, the old steam engine that is slowly puffing its way through Brinckmann's local station in 1952 is contrasted with the author's shot of the sleek, ultra-modern Nozomi shinkansen of half a century later. The super-express train is shown standing regally besides a pristine, tiled platform quite unknown to the current world of travelers in London or Paris.

"The Call of Japan" will be an eye-opener to those used to the idea that today's affluent, somewhat self-satisfied, nation somehow won its spurs as if by magic. Brinckmann's text is a reminder of the hardships that had to be endured and the skills and shortcuts with which financial and official circles drove things forward. Yet, whether it is the issues of radiation levels at Fukushima, declining birth rates or seemingly endless "history" lessons with its neighbors, Japan is rarely let off the hook.

In the process he looks tenderly at the cultural and social resources of his adopted country and writes lovingly of his marriage, but never forgets that there were and remain plenty of "fundamental problems" that have yet to be properly confronted or conquered. 

Brinckmann's work comes warmly recommended as an additional perspective to the college texts.

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