Lost Japan

Lost Japan, by Alex Kerr (Penguin, 2016)

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Lost Japan is a sort of love letter to the author’s adopted homeland in the Far East. In this collection of essays (which are edited together pretty well into a coherent narrative), Kerr uses his many decades of expertise in Japanese history and art to let us know why Japan was such a brilliant and unique nation.

Japan is a treasure house of uniqueness. As an island off the Asian mainland, it was able to absorb cultural influences from China and Southeast Asia while at the same time preserving near-total isolation as a society. It became a sort of pressure cooker into which many ingredients went, but from which none came out.

He goes on for countless pages about the beauty of kabuki and the wonderful simplicity of Japanese homes and arts. It is not the lines on the page, nor the notes in the song, but rather than space between it all that is what makes everything so beautiful… 

However, his book is not just a love-letter to Japan. It is lament for the fact that Japan is now just about the ugliest place on earth, in his assessment. He observes the numerous ways in which Japan has been destroyed – and not by the Allies in WWII, but rather by its own people. Its arts and culture are all but dead, he says, and the “The wholesale collapse of the natural environment…will one day been seen as one of the major events of this century.” He tells us how the countryside has been raped by industry, how forests have been cleared and replaced by uniform pine trees, and how the cities are ugly cesspits marred by pachinko parlors.

But at least it’s not as bad as modern China…

It amazes me that Kerr won a prestigious award for this book back when it was first released – in Japanese – in the mid-1990s. I don’t mean to say it’s not a great book because it really is excellent. Rather, it’s so astoundingly critical of Japan that it’s hard to imagine people there accepting the word of a foreigner in such matters. Certainly, that could never happen in China or South Korea. Yet such is the clarity of his explanations and the passion for an old Japan long since ruined that readers could hardly deny his vision.

Last Hope Island

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, by Lynne Olson (Random House, 2017)

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Where we come from to a great extent determines how we view the past, and this is true even for major events like World War II. Although we might think that because it’s in recent memory and because there are so many records of what happened we know the whole story, sometimes our viewpoint obscures large swathes of the reality. If you’re American, you might view the story of World War II as revolving to a great extent around the Pacific and ending with the atomic bomb being dropped over Japan. If you’re British, you probably think of the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and Normandy.

In Last Hope Island, Lynne Olson tells the story of the war from a perspective many of us probably haven’t taken. She looks at the war through the eyes of six governments in exile from their homelands – Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. After each country was quickly and violently taken over by the Nazis, their leaders soon found themselves attempting to coordinate resistance movements from London.

Olson’s book is beyond fascinating. Her wide-ranging narrative takes us to the exploits of the frighteningly incompetent intelligence agencies of England and the underground movements that helped downed airmen escape from occupied territory. She looks at the complex political jostling between nations even within nations, as well as exploring the incomparable value of the BBC as a tool for communicating with the subjugated peoples of Europe.

The book is heartbreaking, particularly in the case of Poland, which fought so bravely during the war. In the beginning, their pilots were mocked by prejudiced Brits, but soon they were the pride of the RAF. Yet by the end of the war, after giving so much, their nation was traded away to the Soviets, who took retribution against those heroes who fought for Allied Europe.

We all know that it was a brutal war and countless lives were lost. We all know that the suffering is hard to appreciate precisely because it was so great. Yet Olson’s book opens up stories we haven’t heard before and reminds us of just how terrible humans can be – but also how brave and wonderful they are. In her stories of lives lost so needlessly because of poor decision by government officials, we see beyond the façade of good guys and bad guys to the fact that, in this world, often people suffer because of inaction or poor choices.

Last Hope Island is a wonderful book and a must-read for anyone interested in World War II.

The Mongols and the Islamic World

The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion by Peter Jackson (Yale University Press, 2017)

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In this dense study of the Mongol conquest of Dar-al-Islam, or the Islamic World, Peter Jackson aims to dig further than previous books have done. For most people, the Mongols were a blood-thirsty group who spread quickly across most of the known world and subjugated all the peoples they came across to their violent rule. Naturally, the truth is more complex than that. Professor Jackson looks at all the available sources, including some previously untapped, to examine the reality not only of the Mongol conquest, but of life under Mongol rule. It explores how Mongols managed to rule such a great expanse of land, how the Muslims felt about Mongol rule, and how the Mongols were eventually converted to Islam.

So what was really at the core of Mongol success? For one thing, according to Professor Jackson, the inability of the Islamic world to unite against the infidel invaders. For another, the Mongols were far from the vicious savages they have often been portrayed as. Rather, they were incredibly adept at learning from the people over whom they ruled. In one city or country they would learn techniques that would help them annihilate the next. And it was not just ideas that they took. By the time the armies of Chinggis Khan had spread all across Asia, they were not comprised of Mongols from the steppe… they were made up of the people over whom he ruled. As he dominated the Islamic world, his fighters were often Muslims.

Professor Jackson’s book is an incredibly long and detailed history, with a full hundred pages of notes. It is not an easy read, but it is certainly informative and goes well beyond previous works.