Irokawa was born in 1925 and graduated from the Department of National History at the University of Tokyo in 1948, just a few years after his country surrendered unconditionally after massive wartime destruction, including detonation of two atomic bombs over Japanese cities. Subsequently he became Professor of Japanese History at Tokyo University of Economics and has been a major force in Japanese history. He served in the Imperial Navy and developed an intense skepticism about Japanese pre-war thought. The nation’s authoritarian rulers and their record of militarism and repression shaped him as a radical. He came to view Japanese history after 1868 as an evolving social
and political system imposed from the top down with little regard for the lives, needs, and “culture” of ordinary people. Especially culpable in his eyes was the “emperor system” claimed as a “spiritual structure”
that came to prevail after Japan was launched on a program of modernization: “Meiji liberated the natural talents of the Japanese people … On the other hand, it also gave birth to desperate farming villages, to shockingly uncivilized conditions among the urban poor, and to the emperor system … Its poison invaded the body of the masses to form a deeply rooted slave mentality” (19). The spirit of doubt and criticism he cultivated also included as a target the slavish acceptance of Western culture, which he believed had penetrated the hinterland and damaged Japanese consciousness. He rejected the prevailing fashion of Marxism:
I wrote this work … in the fall of 1969 when the concept of ‘people’s history’ had yet to win acceptance among Japanese historians. The hold of Marxism was still so strong then that it fettered most of us and stiﬂed scholarly creativity. Most of us were trying to explain our nation’s past from the material base of society by studying land ownership and other economic relationships, or else through a thesis of class conﬂict … between ruling elites and opposition leaders.