Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan

Hardback: $55.00
ISBN-13: 9780824835248
Published: February 2012

Additional Information

264 pages | 10 b&w images, 2 maps, 5 line drawings
  • About the Book
  • Hard Times in the Hometown tells the story of Kaminoseki, a small town on Japan’s Inland Sea. Once one of the most prosperous ports in the country, Kaminoseki fell into profound economic decline following Japan’s reengagement with the West in the late nineteenth century. Using a recently discovered archive and oral histories collected during his years of research in Kaminoseki, Martin Dusinberre reconstructs the lives of households and townspeople as they tried to make sense of their changing place in the world. In challenging the familiar story of modern Japanese growth, Dusinberre provides important new insights into how ordinary people shaped the development of the modern state.

    Chapters describe the role of local revolutionaries in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the ways townspeople grasped opportunities to work overseas in the late nineteenth century, and the impact this pan-Pacific diaspora community had on Kaminoseki during the prewar decades. These histories amplify Dusinberre’s analysis of postwar rural decline—a phenomenon found not only in Japan but throughout the industrialized Western world. His account comes to a climax when, in the 1980s, the town’s councillors request the construction of a nuclear power station, unleashing a storm of protests from within the community. This ongoing nuclear dispute has particular resonance in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima crisis.

    Hard Times in the Hometown gives voice to personal histories otherwise lost in abandoned archives. By bringing to life the everyday landscape of Kaminoseki, this work offers readers a compelling story through which to better understand not only nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan but also modern transformations more generally.

  • About the Author(s)
    • Martin Dusinberre, Author

  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • "Hard Times in the Hometown is a meticulously rendered, yet uncommonly expansive, history of two centuries in the life of a struggling Japanese community . . . proving that a microhistory does not have to feel small. . . . In the wake of the 2011 disasters, this nuanced account of a recent debate over atomic energy will surely attract readers interested in the local politics of nuclear power. But there are many other reasons to pick up this wonderful book, which puts a community in an often-overlooked region at the center of a compelling alternative narrative of modern Japanese history." The American Historical Review (119:2, 2014)

      "This original, engaging book is a history of Kaminoseki, a coastal town on Japan's Inland Sea. One can appropriately call it a work of local history, but it occupies a unique position among the various books on Japan that fit in that methodological category. . . . [Dusinberre's] greater contribution lies in his efforts to trace how premodern, hierarchical networks in Kaminoseki continued to shape local life in the modern and contemporary periods. . . . Dusinberre's discussion of emigration is fascinating, and it is especially welcome in light of the infrequency with which the topic figures into the historiography onmodern Japan. . . . He [has] an eye for ethnographic detail and an impressive ability to weave the stories of individuals and households into the text without disrupting the larger narrative. This combination of strengths makes Dusinberre's book both a compelling read and a valuable scholarly contribution." —The Journal of Japanese Studies (40:1, 2014)

      “Dusinberre is a good storyteller. This book flows, engaging the reader with the daily lives of ordinary people and local-level drama against the backdrop of larger national and international events. It is suitable for an educated non-academic reader interested in Japan or in history, and for undergraduate teaching. Because of its thoughtful use of sources and its empirical originality it is also appropriate for postgraduate and researcher audiences.” —Japanese Studies (33:3, 2013)

      “[T]he most interesting and valuable contribution that this book makes to present-day discussions on regional life in Japan is to show that individuals', families' and communities' circumstances are very much rooted in their own history and geography, and that community fortunes may wax and wane alongside, or in opposition to, the national context. Most importantly, however, is the fact that, despite feeling constrained or guided by external constraints, the choices that people make are also almost always just that—choices. Dusinberre's book is a welcome and valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on the history of regional Japan. This literature is, slowly and painstakingly, laying bare the hegemonic narratives of Japan's ascent into the front rank of highly developed countries.” —Pacific Affairs (86:3, September 2013)

      “By the end of this very human and humanely told story, the explicit vision of what constitutes residents’ sense or ‘community’ is itself the object of bitter debate, currently over the nuclear plant, but (the author contends) reflecting long divisions within the residents of the historic rural settlements that today are bound into the single administrative unit that is modern Kaminoseki. . . . While national means and medians are important, so too are variations around and from them. To the degree that we are not exposed to the diversity of Japanese society and its history, we are condemned to fail in efforts to analyze and understand them. In this alone, in helping readers understand the variety of experience and diversity of Japan and its history, this is a welcome contribution, one that testifies to the survival of ingenuity and initiative even in ‘group-conscious’ Japan.” —Journal of Economic History (73:2, June 2013)

      “The timeliest portion of this book, a topic that receives slightly more attention than others, is the masterful micro history of the pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear tension in the village. . . . One of the strengths of this book is its broad chronological scope. Most specialist books in any field of modern history tend to focus on a decade or two, but Dusinberre weaves together over a century of local history, and necessarily so. Understanding the twists and turns of the nuclear issue alone, for example, is made richer by tying hometown structures of the nineteenth century to the present. Dusinberre carefully avoids simple teleology. In fact, his work highlights the importance of historical dead ends and why they matter. In this way, his book makes a good supplementary reading in a modern Japanese or East Asian history course, with students following along, over the course of a semester, how Kaminoseki compares to national and international trends.” —Journal of Social History (46:4, summer 2013)

      “The subject of Dusinberre’s fine micro-history, which is both locally centered and globally expansive, is Kaminoseki, a small port town on an island at the western end of Japan’s Inland Sea. The Inland Sea, a beautiful waterscape bounded by three of Japan’s four main islands, has been a corridor of political, economic, and cultural connections throughout Japan’s history. Using published sources, local archival materials, and oral-history interviews, Dusinberre gives us a rich account of the town’s trajectory from the early eighteenth century to the present moment. . . . [H]is account of the embedded and consequential actions of Kaminoseki’s villagers across temporal and geographical spans, as grounded in his composite methodology and his ethnographic understanding, provide us with an admirably nuanced analysis of the town’s ongoing ‘struggle for survival.’” —Journal of Interdisciplinary History (43:4, spring 2013)

      “This superbly told tale about the waxing and waning fortunes of Kaminoseki town over the past four centuries presents some interesting local counterpoints to the more familiar national narrative. . . . Dusinberre, a former teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, draws on a cache of local archival materials and extensive interviews to provide a unique and compelling view into the family feuds, class resentments and political maneuvering that animate this ailing community. Kaminoseki’s story is especially fascinating now because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is from Yamaguchi and he is already weighing in on one of the town’s long-standing battles. Abe’s sudden chance at redemption as a political leader five years after his humiliating ouster represents a stunning reversal of fortune that, among other things, signals the revival of the town’s divisive nuclear power project. Dusinberre masterfully recounts the ins and outs of this three-decade-long local confrontation over hosting a nuclear reactor.” —Japan Times (17 February 2013)

      “Based on research in local archives and interviews with key local households, the volume is refreshing in its focus on regional society and in its bridging of the two great divides in the historiography of modern Japan–1868 and 1945. It gives a ground-level account of a town that flourished during medieval and premodern times and became a center of political activity during the Meiji Restoration, but was sidelined as the nation developed into a modern global power. In a timely fashion, it also adds historical and sociological depth to considerations of the nation’s post-Fukushima transformations by chronicling the conflict over Kaminoseki’s planned, but later halted, construction of a nuclear power plant. Dusinberre is to be commended for telling the story of a single location over a long span of time. . . . Hard Times in the Hometown provides an overview of a rural community responding to hardship. It engages deftly with the historical material in a way that demonstrates the author’s attention to how local politics has shaped one town’s civic identity, including the history it tells itself and the futures it envisions.” —Monumenta Nipponica (67:2, 2012)

      “This is a beautifully produced, fluently written, succinct and stylish book which succeeds in making a small-scale and in many ways individual local story the catalyst for discussion of a wide range of interesting and thought-provoking ideas and arguments. Dusinberre never patronises or idealises his subjects and is indeed at times ruthless in exposing political manipulation and the pursuit of self-interest. In showing that the taking of sides in the nuclear debate was as much about a long history of intra-village inequality and control as it was about employment opportunities or radiation risk, he casts a new light on the conflicts that surround key energy and environmental issues in Japan and demonstrates just how important the skills of the historian are to an understanding of the present. . . . Readable, stimulating and to be recommended highly.“ —Japan Forum (24:3, August 2012)

      “This is superb historical writing with a purpose and I expect Hard Times in the Hometown to become not only required reading in economic and social history classes but essential for scholars who have been grappling with issues of understanding the historical weaknesses of Japanese civil society. In short, I am so bold as to claim that Dusinberre’s book will become an instant classic in Japanese history and essential reading for anthropologists and political scientists.” —Harald Fuess, professor for cultural economic history, Heidelberg University

      “This is an illuminating book. Dusinberre traces the transformations that have made modern Japan from the perspective of one ‘hometown’ and its constituent households. He powerfully recaptures both the local and the global dimensions of a complex and ambiguous process of change extending from the Meiji Restoration to today’s nuclear policy dilemmas, and renders the story vividly human.”—Keith Wrightson, Randolph W. Townsend Jr. Professor of History, Yale University

      “Hard Times in the Hometown is satisfying on many levels. Dusinberre is an engaging story-teller, and the book has a great story to tell: that of the ups and downs of a small community far from Japan’s political center, and of its leading families, over several generations. The thoroughly enjoyable narrative style does not detract from the serious contributions the book makes to modern Japanese history. By taking the story of a single community and tracing it over the course of almost two centuries, Dusinberre addresses a variety of key historical debates. These include the effects of technology on economic development and on the understanding of national geography (the Kaminoseki region was a pivotal entrepot in the nineteenth century, but road and rail transportation have turned it into a remote backwater); the symbiotic relationship between regional communities, emigration, and empire; the nature of local politics and the persistence of local elites even across different political systems; and the ideology and politics of ‘machizukuri,’ or rural redevelopment, in an era of massive urban concentration. The book ends with a particularly timely (and fascinating) account of the politics and ideology surrounding the development of nuclear power in Japan’s rural peripheries—a debate that has been thrown onto the international stage after the nuclear disaster of March 2011.” —Simon Partner, Duke University

      —compiled reviews
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