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?