A History of Japan in Manga: Samurai, Shoguns and World War II

Image of A History of Japan in Manga: Samurai, Shoguns and World War II
Release Date: 
March 7, 2023
Tuttle Publishing
Reviewed by: 

"A solid introduction to a complicated history and a good model for innovative uses of graphics to make history come alive."

Shunichiro Kanaya takes on an enormous task in this single volume. He proposes to fit the history of Japan, from pre-history to the modern era, in one book of roughly 300 pages. That's a lot of ground to cover. The only way to do it in so few pages is to provide more of an overview for each period than an in-depth discussion. The book then is more guide than history, but as an introduction to the subject, manages to squeeze in a lot.

Kanaya uses the graphic format effectively. Each chapter includes at least a few pages in manga style to convey a sense of narrative with vivid characters. These sections work especially well in describing battles and dynasties. Between the manga sections, there are maps, charts, lists, other ways of presenting information quickly and visually. So for the Stone Age, there is a map of rice cultivation routes. The development of rice as a staple crop is described, along with the impacts that had on political and social structures. An "Important Historical Note" is featured in each chapter as well. These notes can read as fun facts while conveying essential information.

For example, the prehistory chapter has this as the "Important Historical Note":

“The beginning of the Yayoi period is about 50,000 years earlier than previously believed.

The Jomon and Yayoi periods are divided by the beginning of rice farming. It is theorized that the Yayoi period began around the 4th-5th century BC. However, recent research has revealed rice paddy remains and farm tools in Kyushu and western Japan from the late Jomon period. It is now believed rice cultivation was introduced in the 10th century BC. Future research is required to trace the history and routes of transmission."

Other chapters look at the development of language, the transmission of Buddhism, the Mongol invasions, and wars inside and outside of Japan. No single period is thoroughly covered. As much is left out as is included, but there is enough in these pages to whet the interest in learning more. The encounter between East and West merits more pages than most, describing American pressure to open up the country to trading with the West. The end of the samurai provides some of the best Manga sequences:

"It's been a long time, but finally . . . a new era has arrived!'

"Let's create a new Japan with the power of the Japanese people!"

"Forged in the fires of the end of Edo, they share a strong bond."

Those looking for an introspective look at Japan's role as an imperial power will be disappointed, however. The subject is only lightly touched on. The cruel invasion of Korea is mentioned but skirted over in one of the Important Historical Notes:

"Did Saigo Takamori truly wish to invade Korea?

Seikanron was a theory that Japan should open Korea by force. Saigo was opposed to this. He himself was named ambassador plenipotentiary to Korea. He insisted on opening the country through peaceful negotiations. With the government decided and Saigo waiting to be dispatched, Iwakura Tomomi and others returned from their overseas tour. They worked behind the scenes to get Saigo's appointment rescinded. Angry at this, Saigo leaves the government and returns to Satsuma."

Still, the author packs a lot in and makes good use of the graphic and manga pages, assembling information in different ways that are sure to appeal to readers who might not consider a history book otherwise. A History of Japan in Manga is a solid introduction to a complicated history and a good model for innovative uses of graphics to make history come alive.