井の中の蛙

4/13/2014

ASPAC 2014 Abstract: Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:29 pm Print

It’s that time of year again, when procrastinators do their taxes, spring cleaning, and summer abstract writing in one weekend!

My proposed paper for ASPAC this year (at Western Washington in Bellingham) is a variation on something I’ve been working on for a while now, no surprise to longtime readers of this blog, or of HNN, or to my students who have heard me rant and rail about the tragedies of historical fiction and historical movies for a decade or more. I’m going to try to focus on a kind of historiographical reading of the movies, and to talk about how we as public experts, teachers and writers, might productively respond to or use these works.

Here’s the abstract itself, which was limited to 100 words:

Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema
History is a rich vein of stories and settings, and popular historical movies can have immense effects on the historical understanding of general publics. This is especially true in Japanese history in English-speaking societies, where knowledge is often limited to one-sided understandings of unique episodes and orientalist mythologies of unchanging culture. This paper will examine a number of English-language movies, recent and older, not to catalog historical errors, but to understand how historical memory and Japanese historical processes are understood and portrayed. Finally, this paper will consider how that might affect the work of Japan specialists addressing these audiences.

I have a preliminary list of movies to address, most of which I’ve seen. I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has ideas about other films to consider?

  • The Last Samurai
  • 47 Ronin (see also)
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • The Barbarian and the Geisha
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Shogun
  • Karate Kid 2
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

Obviously, some of these are more important than others, in terms of audience range and likely effect on people’s ability to think about history in a coherent fashion: KK2 is probably more important than TMNT3, and the John Wayne, whatever its flaws or virtues, isn’t going to be more than a faint echo in the historical consciousness of contemporary audiences. The more recent films, including the wretched mess from Christmas, are going to weigh more heavily.

12/30/2013

Yes, I watched it.

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:10 pm Print

As Jamie Noguchi said, I see these movies so you don’t have to: my review of 47 Ronin is up at HNN. As expected, it’s a blazing failure, with few details of either the original incident or famous dramatizations left intact. A subtitled video of the 1748 Bunraku play would have been better, artistically and probably commercially.

I left a few quibbles and comments out of my review, for clarity, space and relevance. That’s what a blog is for, right?

  • Language and accents: The cast is almost entirely Japanese by birth, probably to avoid the “Memoirs of a Geisha” casting backlash. But this means that the entire cast, with three exceptions, speaks with a variety of Japanese accents, often straining; Keanu Reeves flat American sound and two British-sounding Dutch are the only people who sound comfortable, almost improperly casual. Very few untranslated terms, except for “Bushido,” which shows up at the end, unexplained as near as I can recall.
  • Style: I wrote “wacky colors” in my notebook. There are some nice clothes, but neither entirely period nor contemporary, and apparently dramatic collars are in for women in Ancient Feudal Old Japan. White for weddings, of course, and a gold crane for a love token. And men’s hair was a mish-mash, but shaved pates and chon-mage were not at all in evidence. Mostly close crops and flowing locks, some ponytails. Women’s hair included some fairly straight Edo-style updos with lots of bling, as well as some implausibly vertical ponytails, and a half-up/half-down thing that looked like it was cribbed from a Star Wars sketchbook.
  • Weird choices: the armor looked more like leather than lacquer (except for the medieval-style tiger skin helmet brigade, and the big ugly guy in lumpy plate mail), and the horse trappings were leather as well: I thought Japanese used mostly cord, with wooden saddles.
  • For a 2+ hour film, it felt rushed in places, and I suspect a director’s cut might fill in some of the plot holes, psychological implausibilities. Or maybe I’m an optimist, and I’m not sure I care enough to watch a longer version and find out. But the editor should be ashamed of that work: I’m not much of a film auteur, despite Scott Kaufman’s best efforts, but even I could tell that it was a hack job.
  • The only hint of humor in the whole thing was delivered by the fat samurai, who was the only one of the 47 besides Oishi and his son (‘Chikara’ instead of Rikiya) to have any real life, and it was pretty pitiful, at that. Apparently, fat is funny, and fat samurai are stupid and cruel, but nice enough to apologize while dying, and like a good joke, even when choking on blood. At least I think he was choking on blood: you see very little blood in this movie, even after beheadings. The movie is bloodless, literally and figuratively.
  • Remember how, in Chushingura, Oishi and the 47 spend a year pretending to not care to throw off suspicion? This time Oishi gets to spend the year in solitary confinement, “to break his will” and the time is marked with a “one year later” transition card. The unintentional way Oishi and Kai trick Lord Kira into thinking they’re dead – an almost Shakespearean ‘here, use my sword until you die in a fire’ – turns out not to matter much, and nobody seems all that surprised when they turn up alive.
  • The guy playing Lord Kira, coincidentally named Asano, really looked like he was having fun. Apparently he can sing, too, so if someone wants to cast him as Mordred in “Camelot,” I’d probably pay to see that. As for the rest of them, the usual confusion of serious purpose and dour demeanor was rife. Kikuchi Rinko as the fox/witch/dragon/sexpot lady had some life, too, but the writers failed her as badly as everyone else. She tells Lord Kira’s fortune and but misses his impending death, though maybe she was doing the “he will be famous, I just can’t tell for what” trick; the movie wasn’t smart enough to do what “Babylon 5″ did with a similar opportunity.
  • There was a ronin named Basho. No relation to the poet, as near as I can tell. But it’s a little disconcerting when Oishi says suddenly “this was Basho’s sword” as if that should matter, but it really doesn’t.
  • I’m not sure there ever were 47 ronin on screen at once, though the scene when the blood oath was signed came close.
  • There’s a passing reference to the legend of Obasuteyama, and infanticide through exposure is pretty much how Keanu Reeves’ character becomes interesting.

My standard lament, which I mention at the end of the review, still pertains. I maintain that a movie which hewed more closely to either the actual history or to the traditional popular fiction would have been better, and would have performed better, financially. And we would have less un-learning to worry about.

6/8/2013

Modern Japan in Anglophone Historical Fiction

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:25 pm Print

ASPAC 2013
Jonathan Dresner
Pittsburg State University

“But writers of fiction do not stumble onto locales or times: they choose them and they use them to serve their narrative and aesthetic ends.” — Jonathan Dresner

“…flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. … I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and I rarely read it (especially in my own field!).” — Jonathan Dresner

Roughly Chronologically:

  • Gai-jin (James Clavell, 1993): 1862-1863
  • The Apprentice (Lewis Libby, 1996): 1903
  • The Teahouse Fire (Ellis Avery, 2006): Bakumatsu and Meiji.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden, 1997): subject born in 1920, lived until after WWII.

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1/19/2013

Leave WWII out of it, OK?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:54 pm Print

There are good reasons to bring Japan into the gun control debate in the United States: the relative success of firearms regulation in Japan, the recent rise of gun violence connected to organized crime, the history of weapons-carrying elites, etc. But WWII had nothing whatsoever to do with gun rights, gun control, or the 2nd amendment.

Why bring this up? Because of Ed Emery, Republican representative to the Missouri state legislature from Lamar, MO. In a video produced last April, Rep. Emery said:

We know in a historical context that Japan was considering an invasion on the land mass of the United States of America, but they were afraid to, and the reason they were afraid to [is] because they knew that every american is armed. and although they were not afraid of our armies, they were afraid of our citizens.

Randy Turner, who posted the video recently, says that “That ridiculous story has been circulating for decades”, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. As Turner says, “No reputable historian takes it seriously.”1

Pittsburg Sun 1941 December 7 Evening - Detail 4 - Pacific Which is No Longer PacificI’m not a specialist on Japanese military history, but there are a few points that are worth making. Japan did attack American territory directly, both in Hawaii and in the Aleutians, and had substantial plans for occupying Hawaii if a second opportunity for assault presented itself. Japan also attacked the US mainland, or “land mass,” with sea-based and balloon bomb attacks.

More importantly, attacking the US mainland wouldn’t have advanced the primary, or even secondary, strategic aims of the Japanese military in WWII, and wouldn’t have been seriously considered until after more important goals were met. Japan’s primary goal in WWII, remember, was defeating Chinese resistance to Japanese control so as to establish a stable, secure colonial foothold on the Asian continent. In order to maintain military production, Japan needed reliable sources of metals, minerals, oil, and rubber, materials that the United States had stopped selling Japan as part of the attempt to get Japan to back away from China. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the Aleutian island chain was a bit of a feint, to damage US military capacity in the Pacific and to blunt any response to Japanese seizure of the Philipines, Dutch East Indies, and other territories in the South Pacific. Those territories were valuable to Japan for their mineral wealth, oil and rubber: exploiting those resources would allow Japan to continue fighting the war in China.

Needless to say, any greater ambitions Japan had about Pacific domination were cut down by the loss of carrier groups at Midway and Coral Sea, which meant that Japan’s ability to project military might across the ocean was drastically reduced. At no time after that was there any serious discussion of “taking the fight to America.”

As far as fearing the well-armed American populace, instead of the American military, it’s hard to believe that the Japanese military would have treated them differently than the Chinese, who waged both large-force and guerilla-style operations against Japanese forces with great vigor and frequency. I don’t know what the distribution of guns was like in China before and during the Japanese invasion, but remember that China had been through 20 years of warlordism and civil war before the 1937 outbreak of hostilities, so there were certainly plenty of modern weapons and military veterans in the population. I’d also question the idea that guns were as common in the US as Emery describes them, but I’ll leave that bit of fun for my American historian colleagues to discuss.

  1. Emery also said, right before the clip linked, “There are two things that stand between Americans and tyranny: Our constitution and our 2nd amendment rights.” I’m pretty sure that the 2nd amendment is, actually, part of the constitution. He may just mean “the fact that we have a lot of guns” but that raises the question of how other societies in the world with fewer guns have avoided falling into tyrannical oppression. Or maybe he means that American culture is so likely to become politically oppressive that special protections are necessary…. never mind. []

1/12/2013

Japanese Counter-Insurgency: Strategy or Tactic?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:44 pm Print

Robert Farley’s article on Japan’s WWII Counter-Insurgency planning and implementation begs the question of whether COIN, as it’s called now, was a strategy or a tactic. (Though it also illustrates something I’d like to see more of: blogging on journal articles and book chapters. Yes, I should do more of that, too.) Farley says

[retired Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) Lieutenant General Noboru] Yamaguchi suggests that elements of the Japanese Army and a variety of hybrid civil-military organizations took the problem of COIN quite seriously from a strategic point of view, appreciating that the only way to victory in China was the establishment of a self-sustaining, pro-Japanese Chinese government.

Farley goes on to cite some examples, but he also notes some of the atrocities associated with the Japanese military in China (and elsewhere), and also that resources for “hearts and minds” operations were decidedly lacking. Comfort Women are notably missing, which is too bad: it’s a fantastic example of an attempt to solve the “hearts and minds” problem that goes horribly wrong.

But what struck me about the discussion is the use of the term “strategy”, which suggests a substantial goal, guiding tactics and training. I don’t doubt that there were Japanese who saw the necessity of developing real ties with China, building relationships, any more than I doubt that some Japanese authentically believed the pan-Asianism which underlay the rhetoric of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. What I don’t believe is that Japanese military, political or economic leaders were at all serious about the GEACPS, or that pan-Asianism was more than a theoretical and rhetorical fig leaf for aggressive imperialism. And I don’t believe that “hearts and minds” COIN really rose to the level of “strategy”: military training and tactics routinely ignored priorities beyond raw domination and control. Farley’s right that resource issues and circumstances mitigated against long-term relationship-building, and our colleague Konrad Lawson has been doing fascinating work on Chinese who did develop strategic alliances with Japanese occupiers. But just as Manchukuo illustrates the hollowness of Japanese claims to support Chinese autonomy, the realities of the battlefield and occupation make it clear that winning over Chinese support was far from a serious strategic consideration.

That said, I was also struck by a comment on the article from one “John Chan”

Japan is an unapologetic war criminal; Yamaguchi’s quote is the tip of iceberg of how Japanese systematically white wash their war crimes and gloss over their atrocities.

Thru history Japanese are pirates; barbarism, deceitfulness, and brutality are their way of life. Using atrocity to overcome any resistance is their default choice of action; the conformity nature of the Japanese makes them particular wicked, they will compete in cruelty as an honour, it makes Yamaguchi’s quote about Japanese COIN theory an outright shameless lie and evidence of Japanese has no remorse about its war crimes.

This is not, as I understand it, an uncommon view of Japan from a Chinese mainland perspective. The historiographical accusation is a familiar one — Japan has a long history of denying, downplaying, ignoring, and justifying modern atrocities which is rivaled only by a few other countries1 — but the idea of wartime Japan as an authentic representation of Japan’s essential historical character is something I hadn’t seen before.2 Connecting the wako pirates (I assume that’s what he means) to WWII is an historical and cultural stretch that boggles the historical imagination. But if you’re looking at Japan solely through the lens of Chinese victimization, perhaps it’s not as much of a leap as all that.

  1. China’s official amnesia regarding the Great Leap Forward Famine and Cultural Revolution purges; America’s denial that westward expansion was imperialist and effectively genocidal; the rehabilitation of Stalin in Russian historical memory; etc. []
  2. and obviously, not something I think is historically or culturally supportable as a thesis []

12/24/2012

A memory stirs…

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:16 am Print

Reading Emily Whewell’s review of this new book on the Chinese and Japanese treaty port systems and extraterritoriality brought back a long-ago scholarly memory.

My first seminar paper in graduate school — that small snippet of scholarship which is supposed to prepare callow youth (intellectually speaking) for greater things, and scout a path through the existing forests of scholarship — was a comparison of the Chinese and Japanese treaty port systems. I remember very little about the paper, except embarassment.

I titled the paper something like “The Treaty Port Systems of Japan and China: A Fruitful Comparison” — and Cassell’s work, cited above, confirms my sense of topic, if not my other judgements — and in the end I came to the conclusion that the systems were, in fact, too different to be considered quite the same thing. In fact, I concluded, it was like “apples and oranges”….

It’s a wonder that I survived graduate school. I try to remember that when I’m evaluating my own students.

9/20/2012

Senkaku Islands: New Sources, New Clarity?

NYT reporter Nick Kristof brought in a guest blogger, Han-Yi Shaw of Taiwan, to examine some new mid-Meiji documentation about Japan’s relationship with the contested Senkaku/Daiyou islands. The core of Shaw’s findings is

the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.

After several abortive attempts to survey the islands, the Japanese government declared them incorporated Japanese territory during the Sino-Japanese war, despite recognizing that it should have been negotiated with China. As territory seized in 1895, it should have been reverted to China in 1945, but for a variety of reasons, including an administrative shift of the islands from Taiwan to Okinawa prefecture, it remained outside of negotiations until a few years later.

It’s a reasonably persuasive presentation, historically, though I don’t think that these details are going to shift Japanese nationalists, even mild or moderate ones, to support politicians who would abandon Japan’s claim to these useless rocks which sit in such valuable territory. And as long as there’s no particular cost to maintaining the claim — Chinese hostility to Japan is not predicated on this issue sufficiently that abandoning the claim would eliminate anti-Japanese sentiment as a nationalist motivational tool of the mainland regime — it seems unlikely that anything will change, except a few American lectures.

8/10/2012

What do Samurai Have To Do With It?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:24 am Print

FallsofClydeLongViewI saw Margi Preus’s Heart of a Samurai (Amulet, 2010) and the title alone made me cringe: just what the world needs, another kid book touting the putative values of warrior aristocrats! But when I picked it up, I realized immediately that it was something else entirely (or almost entirely): a fictionalized retelling of John Manjiro‘s adventures as a castaway from Japan. Here’s a story that’s worth retelling — though it’s been done a few times already — and which presents a very different light on Japanese history. I borrowed it from my friend1 and discovered that I was right. Both times.

John Manjiro, also known as John Mung and Nakahama Manjiro, spent most of the 1840s on American ships and American soil, finally returning to Japan not long before Perry’s arrival marked the end of Japan’s relative isolation from foreign contact and trade. I haven’t read any of the other books on castaways, though I’ve heard a number of my friend Stephen Kohl’s panels at ASPAC. Manjiro’s tale is more extreme, both in the length of time he was away and the depth of his experiences, not to mention the timing of his return. When he returned he was interrogated thoroughly, then forced to remain in his hometown before being called to service. With his experience, he became a valuable source for policy-makers, starting with his native Tosa domain, passing to Shogunal service, and then as a promoter of Western learning. Manjiro’s journey was well-documented, and highlights some fascinating aspects of mid-19th century global life, including the whaling industry famously chronicled in Moby Dick, early education, and the tensions engendered by Japan’s isolation. Preus’s handling of the chronology and substantive topics is straightforward and sometimes quite good, including the racism Manjiro encountered both at sea and in New England.2

My reservations about this book stem from the samurai lens which is imposed on a commoner’s tale. The title refers to Manjiro, who is described early in the book as having ambitions to become a samurai, fulfilling the romantic and honorable role laid out in the classic tales. (pp. 13-14) Each section of the book has an epigram from Yamamoto’s Hagakure or something called “the Samurai’s Creed”3 and Manjiro’s elevation to sword-wearing Shogunal retainer is treated as the culmination of a long-held dream (as well as being entirely unprecedented). It’s possible that Manjiro really felt this way — I haven’t been able to find any reference to it in the materials I’ve seen — but it certainly seems odd for a tale about a fisherman who became a proponent of egalitarianism and Westernization to have more references to sources on samurai than on village life or Meiji transformations. There was one bit I liked, though: in New England, Manjiro is demonstrating sword fighting to an American friend, but confesses to himself that he has no idea what he’s doing, and that he and his friends in Japan made up their own moves to go along with the styles of fighting they’d heard about but never saw. (p. 133)

There were a few bothersome details — an anachronistic use of bata-kusai and the misuse of the word “sutra” for “prayer” on the same page (p. 31) was particularly troubling and I’d have been happier if Manjiro’s acknowledgement of Japanese whaling came before he expressed shock and horror at Western whaling (p. 45) — but the errors were not fundamentally damaging to the historical context. The fictionalized characters and conflicts (p. 280) seem a bit overdrawn to me, though the issues they raise were real. The length of the book is something of a problem: though it’s almost 300 pages, they are so sparse and there is so much illustration and blank space that the story felt quite rushed. Perhaps the fictionalized material stands out so much because it’s quite detailed, whereas large sections of equally dramatic real life read like paraphrases of the short histories cited above.4

On the whole, not a terrible book, though I think there’s still room for, say, an kid-oriented abridgement of Manjiro’s own testimony, with annotation by actual experts.

  1. who had bought it as a donation to a youth library based on recommendations from other children []
  2. A really excellent summary of Manjiro’s tale can be found here: Nakahama Manjirō’s Hyōsen Kiryaku: A Companion Book : Produced for the Exhibition “Drifting, Nakahama Manjirōs Tale of Discovery” : an Illustrated Manuscript Recounting Ten Years of Adventure at Sea. Aside from the great pictures and introduction, the book claims that Manjiro was used as a kind of spy, eavesdropping on American negotiators (21) []
  3. that’s before part one. In the bibliography, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure is cited twice, both the 1979 and 2008 translations, his name is cited backwards, and once misspelled []
  4. and the helpful material at the end really is fairly clearly paraphrased material. I understand not footnoting the story, but clear references in reference material seems reasonable, no? []

8/8/2012

Atomic Bomb Symposium at Federation of American Scientists

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:50 am Print

Atomic Bombing 50th Anniversary - Ground Zero Dome zoomThere’s almost no new historical content here, aside from some biographical ruminations. Stanley Kutler’s, reprinted at HNN, is the most historically interesting, highlighting the “all or nothing” fallacy in many debates about the use of the bombs versus other tactical options.

Milton Leitenberg’s rejoinder (right after Kutler in the alphabet, by chance) recaps the “saved Japanese lives” argument, but misses something important, as this argument always does.1 Given that the Japanese did surrender after 2 bombs and the Soviet entry into the war, on what grounds does he think that a successful conventional invasion wouldn’t have produced surrender?2

I liked this one, though.

Dr. Richard A. Frankel, government analyst for energy and the environment

My memory of the first use of atomic weapons goes back to my 7th year. At that time, I was a rather precociously educated student of science, so I was able to understand the workings of nuclear weapons and thus recognized the damage done by the Hiroshima bomb.

My political sense wasn’t as advanced, so I wasn’t, at the time, susceptible to the questioning raised then and subsequently by involved scientists and then, later, by writers like Gar Alperovits. But my sense of simple fairness was distressingly violated when, less than one week later, on my 8th birthday, another bomb was loosed on Nagasaki.

Even to a then 8-year-old child, it was clear that once was enough. There was no possible reason to justify doing it again. The arguments about having to show we had more, about convincing the Japanese military, about advancing peace negotiations simply made no sense to me then, any more than now.

There are some odd errors, which you’d think the editors would have caught. One participant says that “The Japanese barely had time to digest what happened at Alamogordo before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.” But the Alamogordo test was secret: nobody outside of the scientists and military involved, and up the chain of command, knew about it.

All in all, not a bad collection of arguments if you want to engage students. But I’m mostly not impressed.

  1. And calling this argument “a neglected consideration” is just absurd, given that I’ve seen variations of this argument going back to about 1947 []
  2. For an interesting take on this kind of argument, see Chris Bertram on drone ethics. []

5/18/2012

Diaspora And Diplomatic Communities Memorialize Conflict

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:49 pm Print

A memorial plaque was dedicated in a park in Palisades Park, New Jersey in 2010 which reads

In Memory
of the more than 200,000
women and girls who were
abducted by the armed forces of
the government of Imperial Japan
1930′s-1945
known as “comfort women,”
they endured human rights
violations that no peoples should
leave unrecognized.
Let us never forget the horrors
of crimes against humanity.

Two things struck me about this article from the NY Times. The first is in the headline: “New Jersey Town’s Korean Monument Irritates Japanese Officials.” There have apparently been two official attempts to convince Palisades Park to remove the monument, presenting two very different approaches. The first emphasized Japan’s past apologies and attempts to stage reparations as justification for de-emphasizing the sexual servitude issue:
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