井の中の蛙

4/10/2008

Studying Keene’s Emperor Meiji

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:42 am

Much of my Meiji Japan course is taken up with Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World, 1852-1912. It’s been a pretty good experience, but I probably won’t do it again. I’ve enjoyed reading it1 and my students do seem to be getting a great deal out of it, but it is too long and really fails to answer some of its own critical questions. My students are in the process of writing about it now, and I thought it was time to share some of my own reactions.

As part of the reading process, I created a page of short chapter highlights: one of Keene’s quirks is that the book’s sixty-three chapters are neither titled nor listed in a table of contents. The book is arranged almost entirely chronologically, so it’s not too hard to find what you’re looking for if you know when it is, and it has an index (with definitions of Japanese language terms, so it doubles as a glossary), but it still seems deliberately perverse — or perhaps novelistic — to have such fine-grained divisions without explanation.2

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  1. I read through it last year along with my directed study students, but I was doing the directed study on top of a four-course, four-prep semester, so it was a perfunctory read. []
  2. Another moment of perverse traditionalism comes from the pages of untranslated French on p. 707 recording thoughts on Meiji’s reign by the late Itō Hirobumi, Suematsu Kenchō and an “astute” French journalist and p. 709 recording “the sorrow of the Japanese people.” I will add translations of those to the summary page when I have them. []

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