“I have known, and was personally known to the men whose story I have endeavored to tell. They are now honored under the simple e of Genro,—statesmen of Revolutionary Times. Of the brilliant array of patriots whose names appear in these pages, only Ito, Inouye, and Okuma remain!”
—Robert Van Bergen
American Scholar in Meiji Japan wrote Asian histories for Children
Robert Van Bergen was one of the first American scholars to study in Japan after its opening to foreigners in the 1860’s. In addition to mastering Japanese and other oriental languages, he taught English to the Japanese and was personally known to many of the revolutionary statesmen of Japan who transformed the country from a feudal empire, with medieval customs to one of the most advanced technological countries in the world in only a single generation. His fascinating biographical account, A Boy of Old Japan is the true life story of one of the Choshiu samurai who led the rebellion against the Tokugawa government in 1868. Although the subject himself was not personally acquainted with Van Bergen, (he died during the revolution), many of the other characters in the book were well known to the author. It is an insightful account of one of the most important periods of Japanese history.
All of Van Bergen’s other books, which include comprehensive histories of China, Japan, and Russia are excellent introductions to the study of the Asian empires. They were written at the turn of the century, so they do not consider the dramatic dislocations in Russian and Asia during the 20th century, but instead provide excellent insights into indigenous eastern cultures, and the manner in which they first confronted the irrepressible forces of modernism.
Many “world” history books present selected stories from the histories of eastern nations, such as Japan and China that are important historically from a Western point of view. Van Bergen’s books take a different approach by telling the whole fascinating story of each nation from its early legendary history, taking care to explain the fundamental differences in culture and outlook between Eastern nations and western ones. He writes however, at a Middle School level, and explains provides a clear and succinct description of important characters and events. Although he greatly admires some of the best characteristics and achievements of Eastern cultures, he does not idolize or romanticize foreign cultures, and so provides a very balanced account. His first hand experience living in Japan during a period of tremendous change provided a truly unique and wonderful perspective that is not possible for modern scholars to duplicate.
Middle school histories of Japan, China, and Russia written by Robert van Bergen are shown above. A Boy of Old Japan is the biographical story of one of the samurai who led the rebellion against the Tokugawa government during the Meiji restoration. You can read HTML versions of Robert Van Bergen’s books by clicking on the images. The Story of Russia is included in our Modern Europe collection. The other three books, relating to Japan and China, are included in our British Empire Classical Curriculum.