Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose by Kenneth B. Pyle Perseus, HK$240 Marco Polo reported hearing of a mysterious land of the rising sun called Zipangu. Ever since, much of the world - especially the west - has been baffled by Japan. Jesuit missionaries who started infiltrating Japan in 1549 tried to fathom it but failed. One concluded: 'They have rites and ceremonies so different from those of all the other nations that it seems like they deliberately try to be unlike any other people. The things which they do ... are beyond imagining and it may be truly said that Japan is a world the reverse of Europe; everything is so different and opposite that they are like us in practically nothing.' Later, an American academic would compare Japan to the moon, and an obscure American politician would bemoan the capacity of the alien nation's inhabitants to suddenly 'go ape'. But, despite his misgivings, the missionary conceded that the Japanese were cultured and prudent. Analyst Kenneth Pyle agrees, painting them as deeply resourceful and resilient. In the wake of that 'lost decade' in the 1990s when the economic miracle faltered, the Rising Sun could be poised for a resurgence of 'power and purpose', Pyle argues. If anyone is qualified to make that prophesy, it's this professor of history and Asian studies at the University of Washington and founding president of the National Bureau of Asian Research. During the past 38 years, he has written and edited countless books on the country, including The New Generation in Meiji Japan (1969), The Trade Crisis: How Will Japan Respond? (1987), The Making of Modern Japan (1996), and From APEC to Xanadu: Creating a Viable Community in the Post-Cold War Pacific (1997). Even more tellingly, Pyle was decorated by Emperor Akihito with the Order of the Rising Sun in 1999. Curiously, Japan Rising proves to revolve less around resurgence than the machinations of yesteryear. Like a history book, it documents one-and-a-half centuries of change, taking the reader from when Commodore Matthew Perry strong-armed the country into trading with the US in the mid-19th century, to the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (a mid-20th century Japanese-led Asian bloc aiming at independence from the west) and the postwar alliance with the US. Along the way, Pyle addresses the perennially dysfunctional Sino-Japanese relationship marked by what he calls 'mutual distrust' but redeemed by several reasons for co-operation. The key reason is trade: Japan exports much-needed sophistication to the Middle Kingdom and in return buys cheap products that help lower its tottering economy's cost structure. Another reason for rapport is that the Japanese have taken a shine to China's promotion of 'multipolarity', which Pyle glosses as a thirst to curb America's economic dominance. More glossing throughout the book would be helpful because Japan Rising sporadically gets bogged down in abstract terms such as 'capital equipment'. True, Pyle conveys the impact of the military upgrade that has made Japan one of the Asia-Pacific region's most formidable forces. He suggests that, as the cover shot screams, the nation that spends more on its armed forces (US$50 billion) than Britain is no longer a pussycat. Whether he reckons that Japan might one day use the SDF (Self-Defence Agency) aggressively never becomes clear, however. Pyle just says the SDF's soaring new Tokyo headquarters could house a corporate giant and is more about the future than the past, mirroring the new mood of assertiveness embodied by ex-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and current incumbent Shinzo Abe. Pyle ends his chronicle on a note of ambivalence, saying: 'As Japan becomes entangled in the tensions and turmoil of international politics, the trends will be more difficult to discern, their meanings harder to decipher, and the foreign policy choices more contentious.' He seems to have been so influenced by the subtlety, tact and complexity of Japanese culture that the exposure clouds his case. The reader may finally feel trapped at Zipangu, still puzzling the question: 'Whither Japan?'