Modern Japan Syllabus


This course is an introduction to the politics, culture, and ideologies of Modern Japan. While still a course covering the years 1800-2000s, we will focus on four major “moments” in modern Japanese history: The Meiji Ishin 1830-90, The Crisis of Nation-State-Capital, 1919-45, the formation of postwar capitalist society, 1955-89, and the collapse of the Bubble Economy and the “Lost Decade” 1995-.

Our key moments are

  1. 1868 The Meiji Revolution
  2. 1931 The Manchurian Incident
  3. 1960 The Anpo Protests
  4. 1995 The Kobe Earthquake and Aum Shinrikyo Gas Attacks


Course Goals

We will use Japanese history to explore human thought and action in times of intense change with special attention to the mutual determinations of historical event and structures. We will study in period by looking in-depth at a significant year, paying attention to what went into that moment and what came out the other side. This will help us keep a focus on the accidents, contingencies, and historicity of these moments. But it will also consider how this events continue to reverberate in contemporary Japanese politics and cultural production. This will in turn help us see that turning point as the product of a history and not a teleology* of Japan.

*look up this term and know what the dictionary definition is and what form it might take in the context of national history.


Required Texts

  1. Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol 2, part 2: 1868-2000; de Bary, Gluck, and Tiedmann (eds.),
  2. Natsume Soseki, Kokoro
  3. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, In Praise of Shadows
  4. Murakami Haruki, Underground

Requirements and Grading

Grading will be based on one film paper (2000 words), four short  papers (1000 words/ea), an in-class mid-term, and an in-class final. In addition, there will be occasional short, graded writing exercises at the start of class. These will be included in a discussion participation/writing grade.

We will not take attendance in lecture, but often at the start of class, you will be asked to write a short paragraph or take a quiz on the day’s or week’s readings. These will be graded as either 0-did not respond to the issues, 1-shows knowledge of the text’s issues, or 2-shows knowledge of the text’s issues and relates them to our course’s themes. You get two free misses for any reason whatsoever. But this also means that any misses over two will count regardless of excuses. Note that a score of “0” is one you’d probably like to drop as one of your free misses. In other words, don’t do what some have in the past: skip two sections and then get sick for a third, because that third, sick “0” will count. On the other hand, do not read a “1” as merely 50% or a D-. At the end of the semester the totals (less two misses) will be totaled and broken down into grades based on the relative performance of the class–not the absolute score.

  • Film Paper 25%
  • Mid-term 15%
  • Discussion / In-Class Writings 15%
  • Short Papers 20%
  • In-Class Final 25%

Tips for Success

When reading primary sources, keep in mind all these authors are writing because they feel some sense of crisis so your first step should be to identify this crisis; second, identify the author’s concepts and categories and their relation to each other. (In the interpretation of historical sources, it is rare that an argument that depends solely on factual details). Reading for categories is difficult because the author may not always explicitly announce them—or may even consciously hide them.

Interpret the source as evidence in an argument about what happened in the past. History is imagination disciplined by evidence and cogent explication. Historians want to know not only what happened, but how and, if possible, why.

Analyze the source on its own terms. This means avoiding anachronism, projecting our present into the past, and teleology, which means seeing the present as the inevitable result of the past—this slights real historical struggles and reduces past actors to merely “keeping appointments.” Every human society, past and present, has its own values and ways of thinking—often different from our own.

Our case is further complicated by studying non-Western nations, where it is often inappropriate to project our “common sense” onto the motivations of the historical actors. When Oshio Heihachirô rebelled in 1837, his banners did not read “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” but rather, “Sincerity—Truthfulness.” You must learn to read analytically to identify these terms and then determine what those terms meant to him, not you. (This is a historically specific definition. It is also the reason dictionary definitions will be useless.)

Evaluate the work. Give your thoughts on the pros and cons of the text’s arguments. Does it have any factual errors? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? Does it use its own categories consistently? What issues do the language and categories address and what issues do they ignore or fail to see? If you can, try and determine if these inclusions and omissions are due to mistakes or to ideological reasons.

Exercise critical judgment about what you read and hear. It is not enough to merely identify an author’s personal bias. You must show how and why the argument itself—the categories or logic—is racist or progressive or fascist or Marxist, etc.

Create “historical knowledge. Themes and concepts like “modernity,” “nationalism,” and “colonialism,” or even “famine” are developed through historical investigation in a way that they would not be in fields like economics or law.

To reach these goals, you will have to engage in active learning. You will not only be asked to read and understand, but to apply those skills to analyzing, interpreting, and, finally, evaluating both primary and secondary sources. Then, you will have to demonstrate these skills by critiquing primary and secondary sources and expressing your interpretation clearly in writing.


This method requires that you make a temporarily sympathetic reading of the text. Since we are going to be reading texts that are sometimes in favor of war, colonialism, racism, or sexism this temporary moment can be offensive to many readers. In these cases it is important to keep in mind the difference between being descriptive and being prescriptive. We need this temporary sympathy if we wish to offer a more complete and convincing critique of not only the author’s conclusion, but also the categories, structure, and assumptions. If in class discussions or lectures you are ever unclear if we are being descriptive or prescriptive please stop one of us and ask.

Office Hours

Office hours: Weds 11-1 & by appt.

Robert Stolz
Associate Professor, East Asian Studies
Faculty of Arts and Science
19 University Place #508
New York University
Email: robert.stolz@nyu.edu


1868 The Meiji Revolution

Course Introduction


SEPT 17/19

SEPT 24/26
Modern Japan

1931 The Manchurian Incident

OCT 1/3
The “Social Problem”

OCT 9/10
Taisho Democracy and Culture

OCT 15/17

OCT 22/24
Empire & War

1960 The Anpo Protests

OCT 29/31

NOV 5/7

NOV 12/14
Apotheosis of the Sarariman

NOV 19
Bubble Economy & Nihonjinron

1995 The Kobe Earthquake and Aum Shinrikyo Gas Attacks

NOV 26/28
Kobe & Aum

DEC 3/5
Koizumi & Beyond

DEC 10/12
Culture Wars