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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 153-155

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Book Review

Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan

Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan. Edited by Stephen Vlastos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. xvii + 328. $45 (cloth); $17 (paper).

Mirror of Modernity should be read by anyone who is interested in modern Japan or in the appropriation of the past. The essays in this volume, edited by Stephen Vlastos, will force readers to ask themselves what they think they know about Japan, and how and why they acquired those impressions. And the essays, especially the introduction, will remind readers that invented traditions also are tools of opposition and sites of contestation. Resonating beyond Japan and Japan studies, the analyses of the contributors, who include historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, will offer insights into how elites in other societies hurtling toward industrialization, subjected to threats or practices of colonization, or slipping from the moorings of the "present" produce(d) and re-produce(d) historical and less historical pasts.

Cultural traditions often are "chosen, not inherited. Fabrication enters when the rhetoric of Japanese 'tradition' functions to deny the historicity of cultural production" (p. 12). As the subtitle also warns, Vlastos and his colleagues depict a Japan where traditions are not always intangible cultural assets pronounced as such and bequeathed to yet another generation. They also show the Japanese seeking to fasten themselves and/or their communities amid globalized engagements with capitalism, imperialism, colonization, and war. In their studies, sumo, tourism, villages, interpersonal relations, national identity, and workplaces are among the sites where the past imposes or challenges order, or distinguishes or connects the present and the future with preferred visions of the past.

The book is divided into six parts--Harmony, Village, Folk, Sports, Gender, and History--framed by an introduction and an afterword. In his introduction Vlastos urges that "the invention of tradition" not be discarded because of its theoretical shortcomings but be used for interrogating how tradition is formulated and for contextualizing those constructions. Invention, be it imagination and contrivance or creation and deception, is often reflected in Mirror of Modernity in treatments of social conflict and national identity (pp. 6-7). Several authors also highlight tensions between conflict and harmony, showing the former being deployed against the latter and the latter being used to silence the former.

The writers reveal, for example, selections and ideologies intended to buttress capitalism and the nation-state. Workplaces in the late nineteenth century were such a site. There, Andrew Gordon raises [End Page 153] serious doubts about the image (now a stereotype?) of harmonious management-labor relations. For example, capitalists had to create words to describe the ancient customs that they claimed permeated and defined hierarchical relations at the factory or the office. The selection and promotion of tradition may also be observed in the production and praise of the nonlitigious Japanese. Frank K. Upham argues rather that political leaders have linked "traditions" to policies, a practice that has resulted in "a society where litigation and resort to law is even more difficult, expensive, time consuming, and dishonored than it is in most societies" (pp. 57-58).

Lee A. Thompson shows that many aspects of sumo, as we know this "traditional" Japanese sport today, are creations of the past several decades. The highest rank of yokozuna was created only in recent years, and appointment is made by unclear rules. It also is a status of shifting expectations, as one American-born star learned in the early 1990s and another during the summer of 1998. As the traditions of sumo are shaped, how will the sumo association react to the widely publicized problems in the reigning sumo family, where the younger yokozuna brother refuses to speak with his older yokozuna brother, his mother, and his father, who himself was a high-ranking sumo star? And in an essay whose relevance extends far beyond her chosen topic, Carol Gluck describes how the Edo period (1603-1868) has served writers since the Meiji Restoration as "un-pre-proto-post-modern...