Entrenched historical narratives defy change. Certainly, that is true of accounts of the Meiji Restoration, which long have focused on the impact of Westernization and modernization. Emory University's Mark Ravina is a defier, determined in this synthetic survey to demonstrate that other factors better explain Japan's transformation between the 1840s and 1881. His gives us neither new actors nor fresh sources. Rather, he impressively rereads and recasts the old material to provide new interpretations of what caused Japan's course change in the late Tokugawa and early Meiji years.

The central question people were asking then, he says, was: “How could the Japanese polity be turned into a Japanese nation-state?” (p. 7). For answers, he posits, people of all stripes looked everywhere—to the past, to the present, to the West, to the East, to Japan itself—driven by two sets of tensions: “radical nostalgia” that drew on olden times to justify innovation,...

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