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  • An Ecological View of History: Japanese Civilization in the World Context
  • Johann P. Arnason (bio)
An Ecological View of History: Japanese Civilization in the World Context. By Tadao Umesao; edited by Harumi Befu; translated by Beth Cary. Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne, 2003. xviii, 208 pages. $44.95, cloth; $29.00, paper.

This is the first English publication of a book that has been widely read and discussed in Japan for more than three decades. The original version consists of essays written from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s; a much later text on "The Ocean and Japanese Civilization"—first published in 2000—has been added to the English translation. As Harumi Befu and Josef Kreiner note in their introduction, the older essays reflect an early phase of postwar contacts between Japan and various countries on the Asian continent. But for those who will now read the book in a very different context, descriptive details are less important than ideas that link up with later debates in other parts of the world. The recent revival of interest in the comparative study of civilizations makes it easier to discuss and appreciate Umesao's work from a broad perspective. In that sense, the translation is well timed; and as will be seen, some suggestions that might have seemed unclear or far-fetched in the 1960s can now be read as glimpses of patterns and connections that have in the meantime become more visible.

The first point to note about Umesao's line of argument is that his "ecological view of history" is to be understood in a very broad sense. It is not synonymous with the current conception of environmental history. Rather, the emphasis is on geohistorical contexts and on successive formations that take shape in response to them. This approach has some affinities with the theory of "multilinear evolution," developed by American anthropologists. But Umesao seems to leave open the question of the ultimate meaning of his "succession model": it might lead to the discovery of historical laws, but it can also be defended on the minimalist grounds that it provides a more concrete picture of social change (p. 53).

Within this framework, Umesao proposes a new account of the relationship between Japan, Western Europe, and the rest of the Eurasian macroregion. Apart from a very brief reference to American settler societies and the building of civilization in "virgin territory" (pp. 65-66), the field of inquiry is limited to Eurasia (including the north coast of Africa, which had closer historical links with Mediterranean and Near Eastern neighbors than with the sub-Saharan part of the continent). It seems clear that Umesao's main reason for retheorizing the configuration of human cultures and societies on this very large scale was dissatisfaction with prevalent notions of [End Page 436] Japan and its place in the world. He rejected the widespread view that Japanese society could be understood as a mixture of Eastern and Western elements, and he found the treatment of Japan as a "satellite civilization"—first of China, then of the West—no less objectionable. Arnold Toynbee's version of the latter thesis provoked him to construct a countermodel, set out in the core essay "An Ecological View of History: Japanese Civilization in the World Context" (pp. 38-61; there is no reason to doubt Umesao's claim that the underlying ideas had developed independently of any contact with Toynbee, but the most trenchant formulations are inseparable from a sustained polemic against "Western-centric" views).

An alternative to Toynbee's theory—and to the more general metahistorical perspective it exemplified—was bound to entail a rethinking of the whole distinction between East and West; and for Umesao the first step was a new interpretation of commonalities and contacts between Japan and Western Europe. Instead of the asymmetric image of Japan as a precocious Westernizer with a favorable indigenous background, he posits a parallel evolution. Fundamental similarities can be traced back to early beginnings: both Japan and Western Europe were located in the temperate zone, at some distance from early centers of civilization, and with sufficient rainfall for agriculture to be possible without major irrigation works. At a certain level...


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