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  • Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan by Martin Dusinberre
  • Takehiro Watanabe
Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan. By Martin Dusinberre . University of Hawai'i Press, 2012. 264 pages. Hardcover $55.00.

Towns, like empires, rise and fall, but sometimes against macrohistorical trends. This is the overall assertion of Martin Dusinberre's Hard Times in the Hometown, a historical monograph about the port town of Kaminoseki, which is located at the southern tip of Honshu facing the Inland Sea. Based on research in local archives and interviews with key local households, the volume is refreshing in its focus on regional society and in its bridging of the two great divides in the historiography of modern Japan-1868 and 1945. It gives a ground-level ac­count of a town that flourished during medieval and premodern times and became a center of political activity during the Meiji Restoration, but was sidelined as the nation developed into a modern global power. In a timely fashion, it also adds historical and sociological depth to considerations of the nation's post-Fukushima transformations by chronicling the conflict over Kaminoseki's planned, but later halted, construction of a nuclear power plant.

Dusinberre is to be commended for telling the story of a single location over a long span of time. The appeal of individual sections of the book, however, may vary depending on scholars' specializations. Part 1, which introduces the region and its pre-Meiji history, shines as a contribution to Japan's maritime history, as accounts of Murakami pirates and Korean embassies frame Kaminoseki as a vital node in a nautical network that extended beyond the Japanese archipelago. Part 2, which gives a social history of the town and the role it played in the Meiji Restoration, examines the ways in which local elites leveraged their power amid political and economic upheaval. This focus on rural politics pays off in part 3-a section of particular interest to scholars of Japanese immigration-in which the author considers how local factors created both incentives and obstacles to pre-1945 overseas migration to Japan's former colonies and to the Americas. Parts 4 and 5 resonate most strongly with post-3.11 Japan, because they report on how rural economic decline and the postwar fantasy of the countryside as peripheral and underdeveloped helped make building nuclear power plants in rural areas a viable option, despite the dangers and local opposition.

Even with the book's variegated concerns, a few themes are constant. One of these is com­munity politics. It would be apt to describe the volume as a political history of Kaminoseki elites, whom the author depicts as having proactively sided with the Meiji revolutionaries. This bottom-up portrayal of village elites counteracts the prevailing image of the Meiji Res­toration as vanguard-led. It also illustrates how these local principals welcomed the revo­lutionary government and its establishment of a repressive oligarchy, thus indicating that, rather than representing an indigenous democratic spirit, they instead aided in the deeper entrenchment of state power in community life.

The book's main methodology, which is to track key households over several generations, allows the author to tease out links between the town and larger trends. It also lends local [End Page 384] voices to history, thus offering clues about the personal motivations behind pivotal, life-altering decisions. For example, merchant families in the Murotsu region, such as the Ita-ya (Yoshida), Higo-ya (Yoshizaki), and Sawa-ya (Ogata), supported the Meiji revolutionaries in order to gain personal recognition and protect their shipping businesses from foreign competition. In another example, Awa-ya, a shipping household that first appears in the book as it receives a succession of Korean embassies during the Tokugawa period, later pops up again, when one of its descendants emigrates to colonial Korea in the 1910s to establish an agricultural business. With this instance of historical irony, the author illustrates the need for once-prosperous families to expand business abroad because of economic hard­ship. He ends this section by commenting on the possible motivations for emigration: "To emigrate from...