As much psychology as history, Inventing Japan is a brisk, penetrating look at the rise and fall and rise of a nation jolted out of 250 years of isolation by the arrival in 1853 of Perry's menacing flotilla. Like others who have put modern Japan on the couch, Buruma concludes that the feverish drive to Westernize left the insular nation with a permanent identity crisis and a bad case of cultural indigestion. But his diagnosis is subtler than most: he suggests that the reactionary forces that led Japan into World War II promoted myths of Japaneseness—including the Emperor cult—that were themselves based on ideas borrowed from the West. In short, Japan's cultural schizophrenia runs deep. It explains, Buruma writes, why many Japanese today believe that foreign pressure—gaiatsu—is needed to force the nation to reengineer its wheezing economy.
Buruma argues that modernization-cum-Westernization came relatively easily to Japan because it had been looking elsewhere for new ideas for centuries. Unlike China's rulers, who believed themselves to be the center of the world and exacted tribute from the barbarians around their empire, the Japanese turned without compunction to the Asian mainland for everything from their writing system to their Confucian values.
For Buruma, nothing in modern Japan is completely Japanese. Even the myth of a divine Emperor, he contends, was assembled using imported parts. The old samurai who wrote Japan's first constitution in 1889 borrowed the nation-building blueprint of Europe's wiliest soldier, Otto von Bismarck, transforming Shintoism from a nature cult into a unifying national faith by grafting on German dogmas of military discipline and national essence.
Critically, Japan's new conscript armies were made accountable only to the Emperor, who was cast in the role of a living deity who would reign but not rule. Starting in the 1930s, Buruma writes, this "militarist monster" lurched from Manchuria to Pearl Harbor as factions of courtiers, generals and bureaucrats jostled for power, their decisions often driven by fanatical subordinates in the field.
Buruma also finds fault with General Douglas MacArthur for botching the chance to rebuild Japan on a solid democratic foundation. MacArthur's self-serving notion of the Japanese "as a childlike people who would run amok without imperial guidance" led him to protect Emperor Hirohito from prosecution as a war criminal, Buruma asserts, blurring the nation's responsibility for atrocities carried out in his name. And the war-renouncing constitution written by the Americans merely shifted the highest prerogative of state from the hands of a divine Emperor to a foreign capital, he says, institutionalizing an "infantile dependency" on the U.S.
Inventing Japan ends abruptly in 1964, with a peaceful, prosperous Japan welcoming the world to the first Olympics in Asia. Buruma's point, made in a wistful epilogue, is that the country has been run the same way by the same people since the 1950s, when conservatives grabbed power with a "monomaniacal concentration on economic growth" intended to smother public debate on constitutional reform and foreign policy. But the implosion of the world's second-largest economy has now damaged that system beyond repair, and Buruma warns that despair and cynicism could again nudge the country in dangerous directions. Until Japan confronts its past, in other words, we shouldn't expect much from attempts to reinvent its future. But hey, those little cell phones really are something.