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  • Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan by Martin Dusinberre
  • William W. Kelly
Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan. By Martin Dusinberre (Honolulu, University of Hawai'i Press, 2012) xiv, 247 pp. $55.00

The subject of Dusinberre's fine micro-history, which is both locally centered and globally expansive, is Kaminoseki, a small port town on an [End Page 652] island at the western end of Japan's Inland Sea. The Inland Sea, a beautiful waterscape bounded by three of Japan's four main islands, has been a corridor of political, economic, and cultural connections throughout Japan's history. Using published sources, local archival materials, and oral-history interviews, Dusinberre gives us a rich account of the town's trajectory from the early eighteenth century to the present moment.

Broadly, Dusinberre's study depicts four epochs of town history. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the major maritime routes for trade and diplomatic relations led into the Inland Sea, Kaminoseki 's protected harbors became favored anchorages. Some local householders emerged as shipping agents and chandlers, and much of the local fishing and farming population was drawn to this highly commercialized economy, at least on a seasonal and part-time basis. Mercantile and service operations transformed the political economy and brought unequal prosperity and widening stratification to the local population.

The importance of Kaminoseki began to fade, however, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Japan's Meiji decades), with changes to Japan's transportation technologies and its industrial economy. The local elite could retain their power by filling administrative positions, but many of Kaminoseki's residents migrated to Hawaii, the U.S. West Coast, or the Japanese imperial territories of Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria. Dusinberre's microhistory shows that this development did not entail irrevocable loss and isolation; contributions and communications from a number of the migrants trickled back to Kaminoseki.

After the Pacific War, Kaminoseki witnessed the departure of many of its young people, this time for work opportunities within metropolitan Japan. The town's steady population decline and its dependence on government subsidies, which characterized much of regional Japan during the mid-twentieth century, have not been reversed. But in the early 1980s, Kaminoseki became the site of a highly contentious campaign to construct a nuclear power plant. The aggressive efforts of Japan's regional power interests to develop stations throughout the country by identifying and bribing pliable local communities with offers to finance development and increase employment opportunities are now well known. What Dusinberre contributes to this story is a fine-grained account of the divisions of one local struggle and its grounding in the social conditions of the past. Families split; local elections became heated referenda on support or opposition; and even festivals became highly politicized.

Through his extensive local archival work and extensive interviews, Dusinberre demonstrates that the conflict about this issue, which persisted for nearly thirty years, followed long-standing fault lines between elite individuals, who actively lobbied for the plant, and most of the other residents. What was at stake were competing visions of the town and its future. Ironically, groundwork for the nuclear power plant actually began in late February 2011, a mere three weeks before Japan's tsunami tragedy and the ensuing crisis involving the Fukushima nuclear [End Page 653] power plant. The Kaminoseki project was immediately suspended, but many local supporters for the project remain convinced of its necessity for the town's survival.

The "hard times" of the title refers to Kaminoseki's twentieth-century fate. Dusinberre believes that the town's decline challenges unilinear narratives of Japan's modern growth, although few historians or social scientists claim such a simple dynamism for Japan or its localities. Dusinberre's attempt to show "the actions of ordinary people in the making of modern Japan" is not novel either (194). However, his account of the embedded and consequential actions of Kaminoseki's villagers across temporal and geographical spans, as grounded in his composite methodology and his ethnographic understanding, provide us with an admirably nuanced analysis of the town's ongoing "struggle for survival...