The race between the Totman and the Hane

Like most teachers, I have a tense relationship with textbooks: too much of one thing, not enough of another; too old, or updated annually; too hard to read, or too simplistic; boring or sensationalistic or, worse, trying to be student-friendly and failing; etc. Still, they are pedagogically useful, as long as they’re not actually harmful. In most of my classes, I use a survey text: ideally, it provides a foundation of basic information, frees me from having to explain everything in lecture. Basic stuff.

But in my Japanese history classes, I’ve been getting away from them. When I offered my Early Japan to 1600 course in 2003, I used Hane’s Premodern Japan. I didn’t like it, though: I’ve always thought Hane’s coverage of issues was quirky, and his politics a bit obvious. When I offered it again in 2004, I dispensed with Hane and used the Encyclopedia Britannica Online for basic narrative background. Maybe it was too early: students just didn’t spend enough time online, or something, and very few of them kept up with it or could make connections between that and the readings. In 2007, I gave up on that, too, and went textbook-free, though I was using Lu’s Japan: A Documentary History which had a lot of good background in it. Mostly, though, I focused on the sources, using the questions raised by the readings to direct my lectures. I thought it was a neat bit of modern pedagogy, almost constructivist: students hated it.1

So I’m reconsidering the Early Japan course now. First of all, I’m shifting the chronology a bit: going up to 1700.2 I still like Lu’s documents, supplemented with literature, for the main event readings.3 But I think a good textbook might be worthwhile. That’s the problem: a good textbook.

  • Hane: see above on coverage and tone.
  • Conrad Totman’s Japan Before Perry: just reissued. Not updated, mind you, and it was assigned to me when I was an undergrad (and I don’t remember it making much of an impression). Anyone used it recently and want to comment on how creaky it is?
  • John Whitney Hall’s Government and Local Power is out of print, for sure, or I’d use it in a heartbeat.
  • I could use a text which covers all of Japanese history, and keep using it for the second half of the course. I used Varley’s Japanese Culture many years ago, and it was updated in 2000. There’s also Walthall’s Japan: A Cultural, Social And Political History, the replacement for the venerable Reischauer/Craig. Varley has the advantage of better context for the literary readings, but Walthall’s likely to be better on the political and economic stuff. Not having seen it, though, I’m a bit nervous.

At the moment, I think I’m actually leaning towards the last option — Varley or Walthall — but I’m curious to know if anyone out there has any thoughts.

  1. The same method actually worked quite well in my Japanese Women’s History course. More than once. Go figure.  

  2. I’m actually giving up on the three-course sequence. I like it, and it makes great historiographical sense. But students never seemed to figure out what was going on in the middle course (Qing or Tokugawa-Meiji) and I think you really need a much larger student body than I’m ever going to have to work with for these courses to actually draw enough audience. I’m not going to the 19c contact=modernity model, though. I don’t think I could stomach it at this point.  

  3. McCullough’s Genji/Heike again, probably, but I need some later literature. Something on drama, with both Noh and Kabuki?  


  1. Early classes are a pain for textbooks. If you want to do an all-Japan book have you thought about Totman’s A History of Japan? It has an environmental focus that makes it less useful as a quick summary, but there is a lot more to it than Japan before Perry. Plus it has a pretty big pre-modern section, unlike most of the “all of Japan” books which try to get to Meiji in about 7 pages.

    Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.

  2. I may actually have a copy of Totman: I forgot about that. But it turns out to be a false alarm: due to a bit of a mix-up, I’m actually going to be teaching Samurai next semester.

  3. Reading your comment, I see that you won’t be teaching the course next semester, but I have to agree with the first comment: Totman’s general history has a fresh perspective and is well-written. While it moves along rather quickly for my tastes, Totman was judicious in his choice of topics for discussion.

  4. I’ve used Souyri’s “The World Turned Upside Down” as a text for my pre-modern class (in combination with Lu’s document book).

  5. Greetings, I’m just going through the new _Traditional Japanese Arts and Culture_, edited by Stephen Addiss, Gerald Groemer, and J. Thomas Rimer. It’s wonderful in its presentation of primary sources of all types; not just texts. I recommend it. MGS

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