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Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:54 am

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Stumbling to Glory

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:55 am

When an antiquated and undemocratic regime falls quickly, those who follow it often do so with little firm idea what they want or how they will achieve it. Slogans — “progress,” “prosperity,” “catching up with the rest of the world,” “freedom” — and a sense that there are places in the world where life is better — though those societies threaten the sovereignty of a nation in flux, while they inspire its inchoate leadership — are all the plan that really exists. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that there are many plans, for there are many individuals, each with a distinct (and sometimes small) constituency, who wish to speak to and for the nation. The old regime collapsed quickly but not entirely cleanly (some loyalists will fight on for months; anti-reform insurgencies and assassinations will continue sporadically for a decade), and there are social and legal and cultural obstacles to development, including clan leaders, hereditary classes, and a complete lack of traditions of democracy , civil discourse or universal rights.

Sound familiar? It should: Japan, 1868. From these unlikely beginnings arose one of the most powerful and important nations of the 20th century.

One of the great challenges of the historian is to remember, and recapture, the lack of inevitability of events. One of my favorite books, because it really was the first one in which I felt that uncertainty reconstructed and revealed, is Michio Umegaki’s After the Restoration: The Beginning of Japan’s Modern State. One of my great regrets about my undergraduate career is that I did not realize my interest in pursuing history seriously until it was too late for me to take any courses with Prof. Umegaki; we’ve never met, though our paths have certainly crossed. Umegaki describes the beginnings of the Meiji (1868-1912) state as a series of shifting coalitions, informal working arrangements, rapidly shifting ideas and priorities, policies promulgated by working groups which surprised half the leadership, and generally uncertain steps towards viable governance.

This contrasts sharply with the more conventional backwards looking view of the early Meiji state, which takes in the immensely successful first decade or so and sees in it all the necessary components of development: comprehensive social, legal, administrative, military and economic reforms, which were only shallowly applied at first but which were nonetheless the template for Japan’s seemingly meteoric rise to regional power status.

That the Meiji reforms were successful is largely incontrovertible (though we argue about long-term side effects and who should get credit). But that success was not always carefully planned, was rarely coordinated or forseeable. In fact, there are quite a few missteps, and shifts in policy along the way, as well as reforms that succeed in spite of, rather than because of, central (and centralizing) reforms.

There were foreigners, even some Japanese, who doubted Japan’s ability to manage its own affairs: Japan was subject to the odious “unequal treaty” system until the 20th century, for example. There were domestic and international observers who found Japan’s new leaders cliquish, unrepresentative, unrealistic, ineffective, disunified, oligarchic, and otherwise objectionable. But in spite of their missteps, and in spite of their uncertainties, they did succeed.

[Crossposted at Cliopatria]

Historiographical Triangulation

This could be good, or it could be awful. Or it might be a good first draft, but the effort certainly seems worth noting (emphasis added):

A middle school history textbook jointly written by scholars, teachers and historians of China, Japan and South Korea will be published in May, according to the Asahi Shimbun on Saturday.

The committee has been engaged in compiling the work since 2002 with the aim of establishing a jointly recognized interpretation of history among the three nations and prepare solutions for conflict over the past rather than engage in criticism.

“It is the first time the three countries have worked together on an account of history. It is not an exclusive description of history from a nationalist point of view, but a description for future coexistence that views history with an open mind and respects the opinion of each nation,” the committee said.

About 200 people, including teachers, scholars and civic group members, from China, South Korea and Japan participated in the work, holding a series of domestic and international conferences on the subject.

The textbook will deal with the 18th-20th century, when the Northeast Asian regions witnessed many ups and downs, including the rise of Japanese imperialism and World War II.

In its modern history of the three nations, the textbook details Japan’s colonial rule and resistance against it. The textbook will also present pieces by several scholars of the three nations, providing students with the chance to look into the opinions of each.

Because this project arose out of “an East Asia peace forum on history in Nanjing, China” I suspect more earnestness than precision. Because this is a journalistic description, I won’t take the apparent emphasis on Japanese colonialism to be the only focus of the book, though the existence of widely variant nationalistic narratives of the late 19th-early 20th century certainly justifies both the attempt to write this history as a committee and the need to provide the one-perspective essays which seem to me to dramatically complicate the reading for middle-schoolers.

Actually, I could imagine all kinds of ways in which collaborative history could result in heavily distorted narratives: an anti-communist narrative, for example (drawing on Taiwanese rather than mainland Chinese scholars), or a Marxist interpretation (perhaps less likely with South Korean participation: I don’t know whether South Korean academia shares Japan’s tendency towards oddly doctrinaire scholarship, but there are certainly leftists who could have been part of the process). It doesn’t sound like that’s what they’ve produced, though I would be very interested to see how they handled non-Asian involvement in Northeast Asian affairs.

I can’t tell if there’s an English-language version planned. Anyone want to sponsor a translation, or join a group translation project?

[Via HNN; Crossposted at Cliopatria]

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