Review of Timothy Brook’s Collaboration

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:33 pm

In the most recent issue of The Journal of Asian Studies there is a review of Timothy Brook‘s new work Collaboration: Japanese Agents and Local Elites in Wartime China written by Susan Glosser. I was very disappointed with this review which, except for a few conciliatory lines in the beginning of the review, was very critical of Brook’s work. While I agree with Glosser on one or two points, I found her to be far too harsh, sometimes irrelevant (she complains that he does not offer a glossary with the Chinese names of all the organizations mentioned, but they can be found under the index entry for every organization) and in several instances clearly wrong in her assessment of the book, which I believe is a truly excellent contribution to the scholarship on Chinese collaboration during the occupation.

Timothy Brook’s work is a careful look at the issues surrounding Chinese wartime collaboration through a close examination of a number of case studies from the Yangtze delta. With the exception of some work I have read in Japanese and some coming out of Taiwan, this is the most detailed source based research I have seen of this kind to date.

Here I just want to contest three points in Glosser’s critique of Brook’s work that I think particularly unfair. She argues that 1) Brook doesn’t discuss the “problem of generalizing from one city to another.” 2) She complains about Brook’s allegedly unproblematized use of the word “pacification” (such as in referring to Japan’s “pacification teams.”) 3) Glosser spends almost a third of the review critiquing Brook’s “desire to avoid moral judgments” and his allegedly “neutral stance” on issue of Chinese collaboration.

On the first count, Glosser is certainly correct in worrying about the generalization involved, but I think Brook is also well aware of the dangers and admirably avoids them in many places more adventurous scholars would not. He has already focused his study on only one area of occupied China, the Yangtze delta, and laments, in some detail, the paucity of available sources. He goes into considerable length to describe his sources and the various problems which accompany them in his opening chapter, even showing specific examples of the kinds of contradictions present and strategies he used. He works with Japanese sources (writings of the pacification team members), Chinese sources (such as memoirs), and Western sources (witnesses in Nanjing, for example) depending on their availability.

I am more than satisfied by his explanation that, “I chose seven cities and counties across the Yangtze Delta for intensive study. This selection was not based on whether the sites were typical or unique (some would prove to be one, some the other, and some both), but only on whether the documentation was sufficiently dense to allow for a more than superficial portrait of what local people did in the face of military occupation…After the case studies were written, I chose to include in the book five that were sufficiently distinct in terms of the themes that the sources allowed me to explore…”1 and did not find any of his major claims to be based solely on individual findings in any one city or place. On the contrary, I imagine the accusation of generalization would be particularly offensive to Brook since he has urged the reader to try to overcome some of the stereotypes and classic images we have of the wartime collaborators and allow for the many different forms and levels of cooperation with the occupying forces, their varying motivations, costs, and ultimately levels of moral responsibility.

Glosser for some reason takes issue with the fact that Brook uses the term “pacification teams” which is a direct translation of the Japanese term. She seems so concerned that we maintain a sufficiently condemnatory tone in our work on Japan’s activities in occupied China that this direct translation doesn’t seem to be sufficiently insidious. I find no issue with the fact that he calls these teams by the best English translation available (“pacification” is originally 宣撫, which in one of its two related definitions in Japanese specifically means to pacify a people in an occupied territory), especially since he does not, by this, ever try to hide the fact that the Japanese were guilty of horrible atrocities.

She says that he uses the word “pacification” for “his own description of events (p. 134)” but I can’t find any use of that word on the page, for any purpose. Instead, page 134 makes use of another term which we are all familiar with, when he discusses Japanese “counterinsurgency operations” in Nanjing. It is on the same page where he notes Japanese military promises to offer “care for disarmed Chinese soldiers” even as they carried out a policy of executing captured soldiers in Nanjing and, at the bottom of that page tells of the summary execution of fifty policemen which had just been promised permission to operate after negotiations with Nanjing’s International Committee.

Finally, Glosser seems to think that Brook has a “neutral stance” with respect to collaboration and wants to “avoid moral judgments.” I’m afraid this kind of comment shows that she has completely misread Brook’s careful argument. Perhaps she missed Brook’s simple request in his introduction that, “All I ask of the reader is to suspend judgment as to who is guilty for having worked with the Japanese until after we have seen them at work.”2 Brook wants to point out that the costs and consequences of collaboration, its form, and the motivations are all very much tied up in the contingencies of specific situations. Also, he reminds us that, “Ambiguity of intention is only half the problem. There is also the ambiguity of unknowable consequences.”3 He is “neutral” to collaboration in one important respect: the word “collaboration” is already a morally loaded word, and I think he would argue that without some special care, this can get in the way of any interesting and productive look at the interactions between Chinese and Japanese during the war.

I think Glosser fundamentally misunderstands Brook when she protests his claim that “history does not fashion moral subjects, nor produce moral knowledge.” I completely agree with her when she says that, “All histories [are] embedded in an ethical view of the world.”4 However, I’m not sure how Brook is to be understood as denying this. Brook admits how his own “ethical view of the world” has affected his description of some of the historical figures he describes in the book. On the very same page as his comment about moral knowledge, he has this to say, “Without question, many of [the choices of collaborators] were venal in inspiration and destructive in impact, and the historian is not disqualified from documenting that venality or tracking the damage these choices led to and declaring them to be damaging. I have found it impossible to suspend my personal distaste for some of the characters who appear in this book, and it would be facetious to suggest that the reader should, particularly when the consequences of collaboration were as stark as they were in a place like Nanjing.” I think what Brook, who it might be noted collected and edited the important Documents on the Rape of Nanking (1999), wants to argue for is a more careful consideration of some of the “inconvenient facts” that produce a more complex picture – a complexity that we must face if we are to have any chance at understanding the kinds of choices faced by individuals every day in extreme times. It is because of some of these ambiguities that we cannot “deduce the causes that prompted people to act from the moral claims we impose, nor evaluate their actions solely in relation to consequences the actors could not anticipate.”5 This is as true for collaborators with the Japanese occupation regime as it is with anyone who collaborated with Chinese Communist regime in its most violent hour, and as it is for the daily choices of policemen, soldiers and government officials of an occupied Iraq today. An analytic calculus of atrocity and the clarity of hindsight does not help us in the least in understanding the people thrust into extreme positions during times such as war, occupation, imperial domination, or under highly repressive governments — or for that matter the choices they faced.

1. Timothy Brook Collaboration: Japanese Agents and Local Elites in Wartime China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 26-27.
2. ibid. 13.
3. ibid. 241.
4. Susan Glossar review of Brook’s book in Journal of Asian Studies vol. 65 no. 1, 149.
5. Brook ibid. 248.

3 responses to “Review of Timothy Brook’s Collaboration

  1. […] Even scholars are sometimes prone to put blame before understanding, but that doesn’t mean that we should privilege this. On the other hand, I have the greatest respect for John Dower as a scholar, teacher and individual: if he agrees that these images need more context, I will respect that. […]

  2. Hsingyuan Tsao says:

    Dear K. M. Lawson ,

    I enjoyed reading your review very much. May I make a suggestion: please revise a little bit and submit your review to a goodplace for publication. I want more people read your view of the book rather than being confined only by Glosser’s review.

    If you like, I could send my suggestions for revising.
    Hsingyuan Tsao

  3. K. M. Lawson says:

    Professor Tsao,

    Thanks for your comment, I would indeed welcome your suggestions (I’ll email you a copy of this comment). Re-reading it I see a number of missing words and awkward sentences which ought to be cleaned up and I would be willing to post an updated version of this.

    As for publication, I’m a bit reluctant to submit a “review of a review” as my first entry into the world of scholarship, even if it were considered worth publishing somewhere in some form. It will continue to be available here online in this public form and I have no objections to it being distributed freely. I appreciate the suggestion though and do realize the importance of more professional reviews in journals.

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