Japan’s contribution to nihilistic Islamism

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:50 am

The AHA’s flagship journal American Historical Review doesn’t run Japanese articles all that often and, to be honest, interesting ones even more rarely. But the current edition’s foray is quite worth reading, though I’d like to know if other people’s reactions to it were as reserved as mine. The article is Japan’s Global Claim to Asia and the World of Islam: Transnational Nationalism and World Power, 1900–1945 [AHA membership required] by Selçuk Esenbel, whose previous publications are mostly in the field of Tokugawa peasant studies.

She chronicles decades of intellectual, military and cultural contacts between Japanese and Islamic activists in a variety of fields, but most sharing an anti-Western (or anti-colonial or anti-imperial) modernism. Many of the Japanese names involved are familiar to scholars of Japan’s early-20c right wing, but the degree to which they concieved of political Islam as an ally and bulwark against Near/Middle Eastern colonialism is quite striking. It shouldn’t be, I suppose: these thinkers were so ambitious and global in their ideas that they must have had some concept of how a major world religion fit into the scheme of things, and Japan’s affinity for (i.e. sense of leadership of) modernizing societies in this period was still strong.

There were two main directions to the interaction: scholarship of Islam in Japan (including a surprising number of conversions) and spreading Japanese anti-Westernism in Islamic regions. Pan-Islamism, as Esenbel describes it, isn’t that different from Pan-Asianism as the Japanese preached it, and figures like Ōkawa Shūmei made the connection explicit in print and in personal contacts.

The weakness of the article comes when she tries to make a case for the importance of these theories and contacts. Aside from the interesting new depth it gives to Pan-Asianism, and filling in some of the gaps in the “they really thought they could win these wars?” lists, Esenbel tries to draw some connections to late-20c/21c political Islam, particularly violent Islamist groups. This seems like a huge stretch to me, without making much more explicit personal or intellectual connections between modernist anti-westernism and nihilistic traditionalism in Islamic radical circles. Contemporary Islamism isn’t akin to Ōkawa’s pan-Asianism, but something more like Kita Ikki’s agrarian nationalism: positing a perfect (unattainable) protean socio/cultural/economic “moment” against which the present does not measure up and the “re”establishment of which will require revolutionary and violent action. As others have argued, Islamism isn’t anti-Orientalist as much as it is Occidentalist, and I don’t see that emerging clearly in this history.

Am I looking for the wrong things here? Missing something fundamental?


Post-war Japan Photo Exhibit

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:50 pm

In a review of the New York art world’s year, the NYTimes reminded me of this exhibit of post-war Japanese photographs. Some interesting images, to be sure.



Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:45 pm

I’m a big fan of sub-national academic conferences. The nationals are fine, of course: I’ve gone to quite a few, some even when I wasn’t looking for a job (I’ll be in Seattle in a few weeks for the AHA, for example, and anyone who doesn’t hire my job-seeking copanelists is just not thinking). Lots of interesting folks show up at these things, and the book sellers are more fun than anything happening in whatever city it happens to be in (except for the used bookstores).

Anyway, I just wanted to pass along the Call For Papers for the Pacific Rim regional of the Association of Asian Studies, aka ASPAC. I’m on the board, though as a very junior member; still, it’s nice to be asked and to feel like I can contribute to the institutions I’ve been making use of for years. I’ve been to several of their conferences now, and it’s a nice bunch of folks, serious scholars. Very welcoming of graduate students, too (the competition for the Esterline Prize for Best Grad Student Paper last year was pretty stiff), so I highly recommend it as a venue for airing and polishing dissertation material (I use conferences to give myself writing deadlines: got some big chunks of my dissertation done that way).

If anyone wants to talk about panels, leave a comment. Panel submissions are not at all required, but it makes the program committee’s job easier, and results in more coherent panels which dramatically increases the likelihood that relevant people will hear your paper.


List of Intellectuals

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:29 am

I just finished making a little list of the various Japanese intellectuals mentioned in Victor Koschmann’s essay on “Intellectuals and Politics” in Andrew Gordon ed. Postwar Japan as History. The essay is essentially a short narrative of postwar intellectual history and mentions many of the important figures.I added various tidbits about them as found in the essay. I have not added anything else (or the Kanji characters for their names), even in those cases where the intellectuals are well known for things not mentioned in that essay. However, since the list may be of some use to someone, I have posted it in pdf format for download.


Successful Sakoku?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:55 am

Talking about the semi-seclusion policies of the Tokugawa polity in class recently, and a student asked “was it a successful policy?” I had already outlined the various exceptions: foreigners allowed into Japan (Dutch, Chinese, Korean); Japanese allowed out and back in again (And I note that Michael Wood is leading the students, who presented in the summer at ASPAC, to the AAS this spring, bringing their fascinating material to a wider audience); limited trade contacts, and information flows. The question was not about whether it was a full seclusion policy, but about whether it accomplished the goals set for it and generally positive results.

I had to stop and think about that. I know that there is some disagreement over the economic implications of trade limitation, but Tokugawa growth is pretty substantial and its hard to argue that it’s a serious problem, even if growth could, theoretically have been greater without serious social problems resulting. The policy certainly is a success — along with investigations and temple registrations — from the standpoint of the suppression of Christianity in Japan, reducing a growing population to a few “hidden Christian” sects. From a cultural standpoint, including science and technology, Japan isn’t much more isolated or xenophobic than China during the same period (and China doesn’t, in the end, come out as well as Japan, so perhaps China would have been better off more isolated) and manages to catch up with the 18-19c military technology pretty quickly when push comes to shove.

Is it a success? Is it a mistake to talk about historical phenomena in those terms?


Movie: 2009 Lost Memories

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 5:36 pm

I recently watched the 2001 Korean science fiction movie called 2009 Lost Memories (2009 로스트메모리즈, IMDB entry) written and directed by Lee Si-myung (이시명). The movie is set in Seoul and Manchuria, both parts of the Japanese empire in an alternate 21st century and tells the story of a militant Korean resistance movement trying to restore the “true” history of the 20th century that gave Korea its freedom from Japanese oppression as early as 1945. It was definitely not up to the standard of some of the excellent movies I have seen lately coming out of South Korea. In fact, I don’t recommend this movie to anyone. The movie is, however, worth a few comments and a quick summary.

The truth is that I have always had a weak spot for movies, like this one, which make attempts at “alternative history.” Perhaps my favorite alternative history work was the book and movie Fatherland, which I came across just out of high school. I haven’t the slightest idea what real historians have to say about the work (or what I would think going back to watch it now), but at the time, it certainly added to my interest in history. While historically based movies of all kinds do much the same, the less common genre of alternative history can be especially good at generating an excitement about history and historical problems, something that gets forgotten when we plough through the scenes in search of inaccuracies and anachronisms. Alternative history also shares with science fiction (and in this case, the movie is at home in both genres) an often surprisingly transparent look at the contemporary world of the filmmakers.



Sondheim’s Perry?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:21 pm

I had no idea: Stephen Sondheim (yes, I’m one of his many fans) wrote a musical about the arrival of Commodore Perry called Pacific Overtures. There’s a new version of it being staged in New York: anyone know if there’s a soundtrack, or video version of it (current or former versions) available?

I’m almost afraid to find out, really, what he did with it: there’s so much bad historical fiction and drama out there….

Powered by WordPress