Nostalgia and Representations of Asia in Japan

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:07 am

Last year I wrote an article entitled Losing the Soul of Japan which was posted on the excellent weblog Chanpon. In the article I made some comments on the topic of nostalgia in Japan for an authentic Japanese culture. This has been widely written about (perhaps the most important work on this in English is Marilyn Ivy’s Discourses of the Vanishing) but my own motivation in this earlier article was to explore the use of foreigners in campaigns to create a sense of shame amongst Japanese over the loss of their own “pure” selves. I added more thoughts on this topic in another posting here. As a student of Japanese history, I think this phenomena is an especially useful portal through which to approach the far more complex and powerful images of cultural loss, nostalgia, and authenticity which inform the ideologies of nationalism prominent during Japan’s imperial age.

I just recently read another article related to this topic which also touches on these issues, “Nostalgia for a (Different) Asian Modernity: Media Consumption of ‘Asia’ in Japan” by Iwabuchi Koichi (Positions 10:3, Winter, 2002), that makes a number of interesting arguments about Japan’s nostalgia in representations of Asia and in particular, media consumption amongst Japanese for Hong Kong products.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex argument, let me see if I can describe what he is getting at. Iwabuchi begins by discussing existing work on nostalgia, and especially a feeling of mournful loss which is expressed through descriptions of other cultures. This, “Politics of the transnational evocation of nostalgia is highlighted when it is employed to confirm a frozen temporal lag between two cultures, when ‘our’ past and memory are found in ‘their’ present.” (549) Iwabuchi notes that quite often, what is missing in these portrayals of Asia is any appreciation for the cultural specificity and innovation in these other locations. However, after confirming these trends in Japanese postwar representations of Asia and connecting it to a critique of a (in the words of Renato Rosaldo, who he cites), “a particular kind of nostalgia, often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed,” (quoted 550, forgive me for not confirming the original) Iwabuchi goes on to explore an interesting twist on this theme in the case of Hong Kong media consumption amongst Japanese fans…


Speaking of Japanese Korean relations….

I know as well as anyone that the blogosphere is a self-selected and decidedly non-standard sample of any population (except, of course, bloggers). But, apropos our vigorous discussion of Jared Diamond on Japanese origins, comes an analysis suggesting a rising tide of anti-Korean patriotism among Japanese bloggers. [via Kirk Larsen] At the risk of sounding snippy, apparently several decades of research on the common origins of Koreans and Japanese, popularized in the best English-language venues, has made little difference…


Jared Diamond on “The Japanese Race”

Filed under: — tak @ 3:38 am

At Savage Minds, an anthropology group blog that I contribute to, a heated debate has erupted over Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, a book that explains European imperialism by geography and ecology. This work has been made into a recently aired three-part documentary on PBS. The posts, now three in number (here and here and here) with endless comments, has spilled over to Crooked Timber and picked up by individual bloggers elsewhere. While some of the debates have moved to discussions on the minute details of Diamond’s argument, the impetus that triggered so much blogger enthusiam was the question of whether the assumptions behind his argument are racist despite his public denunciation of racism.

I tend to agree with my fellow anthropologists at Savage Minds. But for the most part I have stayed out of the discussion because I have neither read his book nor seen the television program.

Today, though, I found this article by Jared Diamond titled “The Japanese Roots” originally published in the June 1998 (vol.19) issue of Discover (via cbuddha’s del.icio.us tag for japanese anthropology). Curious, I read it right away. Now I am compelled to comment on this article, not because I study “Japan,” and not because I carry a Japanese passport, but because I now understand why my fellow bloggers felt so impassioned to critique Diamond.

In this article, Diamond explores the origin of the Japanese race. By slowly moving through archaeological, historical, linguistic, and genetic evidence, and punctuating his sub-arguments with discussions dealing with body hair, pottery shards, and the domestication of animals (among others), he arrives at the conclusion that “Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood.” That is to say, the Japanese race, and the knowledge of rice cultivation, came from the Korean peninsula. As a good scientist he admits that he cannot conclusively and exactly reconstruct what happened — that would require more evidence. But he focuses on one particular concept: that rice cultuvation was of a higher stage of development and thus gave whomever was growing this staple crop an advantage over others during military encounters. (Here I don’t follow him: I don’t understand why rice agriculture necessarily gives people more military might.)

I won’t go into detail here all of his arguments — it would be much faster for the reader to plunge into the article herself.

In reading this article I realized why there is such a fierce debate over Jared Diamond. If Guns, Germs, and Steel is anything similar in tone to this short Discover article, I can see why many people would find him appealing. His heart is in the right place and he believes that scientific investigation, such as the ones he conducts, can bring to light historical truths and mend geopolitical conflicts. Here is his concluding paragraph:

History gives the Japanese and the Koreans ample grounds for mutual distrust and contempt, so any conclusion confirming their close relationship is likely to be unpopular among both peoples. Like Arabs and Jews, Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood yet locked in traditional enmity. But enmity is mutually destructive, in East Asia as in the Middle East. As reluctant as Japanese and Koreans are to admit it, they are like twin brothers who shared their formative years. The political future of East Asia depends in large part on their success in rediscovering those ancient bonds between them.

No wonder he is liked. Just like the way Diamond at the end of the PBS special reportedly shed tears in an African hospital filled with dying children (as noted by Ozma here), the ending of this short article also appeals to a sentimental justification of his science. This mention of the “enmity” between Koreans and Japanese (which by the way should not and cannot be compare to the conflict in the Middle East) is an appeal to one of the moral dilemmas facing humanity today: how can we stop people from fighting each other?

Maybe I’m too cynical, but he seems quite naive to think that whatever “truth” he will uncover in his field will solve geopolitical problems. If that is truly what he is seeking to accomplish, I believe he needs to re-examine the political history of his own discipline.

This post is getting way long, so I’ll stick to the article at hand. Take this excerpt, from the secong paragraph of this essay:

UNEARTHING THE ORIGINS OF THE JAPANESE IS A MUCH HARDER TASK THAN YOU MIGHT GUESS. AMONG WORLD POWERS TODAY, THE JAPANESE ARE THE MOST DISTINCTIVE IN THEIR CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT. THE ORIGINS OF THEIR LANGUAGE ARE one of the most disputed questions of linguistics. These questions are central to the self-image of the Japanese and to how they are viewed by other peoples. Japan’s rising dominance and touchy relations with its neighbors make it more important than ever to strip away myths and find answers.

Once again he explicitly frames the stakes of his research in geopolitical terms. But his hopes, I think, are already thwarted by his first two sentence in which he assumes without providing evidence that “the Japanese are the most distinctive in their culture and environment.” Stop right there, mister, because to those who know Japan’s modern history, he has just reproduced the rhetoric of Japanese imperialism!

I mean, why is Japanese culture perceived as the most unique? Where is the evidence? And how do you even measure cultural uniqueness, let alone compare it ?

The myth of racial homogeneity has been dismantled by Japan historians, most recently by Eiji Oguma in his A Genealogy of Japanese Self-Image, a translation of the 1995 discipline-defining work 『単一民族神話の起源―「日本人」の自画像の系譜』. This racism, which snugly fit with the emperor cult of seeing all Japanese subjects as having a common ancestor, is generally understood to have peaked during Japanese imperialism.

There are also frightening parallels in the history of Japanese fascism to the kind of environmental determinism used by Diamond. Take the example of Watsuji Tetsuro, who despite his engagement with Heidegger’s critique of ontology (or perhaps because of it), produced his 1936 work 『風土 人間学的考察』 (translated as Climate and Culture: A Philosophical Study). Some Japanese critics have interpreted this book as using the argument of environmental determinism to claim Japanese racial superiority: he writes that certain climatic factors lend themselves better to philosophical and ethical inquiry. And of course, the monsoon climate, with which the Japanese race nourished itself, allowed for the highest form of cultural development. Sounds pretty racist.

Now Diamond does not argue this. But he shares with Watsuji a basic methodology of relying on environmental factors as a way to typologize groups of people according to “race.” The danger here lies not so much in the conclusions given by Diamond, but in the biologism of his methodological assumption. Why does he rely so much on the concept of race? Why, for example, does he assume that Japanese all speak Japanese and only Japanese? Or if he finds evidence of rice cultivation in Japan it is immediate understood to be that it was left by those who came from Korea? That’s like finding, hundreds of years from now, chopsticks and wasabi tubes in New York City and saying, since so many people ate sushi, there must have been a mass migration of Japanese!

But that’s not even the point here, for what it boils down to is that 1. he perpetuates racism by associating a group of people with specific traits, and 2. he has some theory of civilizational stages in mind whereby rice cultivation gives a military advantage over hunter & gatherer people. This is just too simplistic, however statistically sound it may be. I mean didn’t people actually mix agriculture and hunting, as was often the case in medieval Japan (noted by Japanese historian Amino Yoshihiko) and is often noted in anthropological literature?

Instead of reading these simplistic assumptions about race, technology, and stages of civilization, I’d rather wait for the release of Civilization 4, in which the game designers rely on the same assumptions.

And finally, what does Diamond say about Japan in Guns, Germs and Steel? Japan was never ostensibly “conquered” by the West and proved to be quite superior militarily and economically. If anything this should prove his eurocentrism and blast his racial categories altogether. But I will probably never read the book to find out.


Recent Links

These all deserve separate posts, but here are some links I found in the last few days that I wanted to write about but didn’t have time for (perhaps others can write in response to these links):

  • Alan Christy at Takecrew has posted a generous and sensitive review of great historian Kano Masanao’s latest book, Heishi de aru koto: Doin to jugun no seishinshi (Being a Soldier: A History of Mobilization and Military Service). (And he wrote this while drinking Chilean wine…I gotta grab me that Sam Adams in my fridge)
  • Herbert Bix, the Pulitzer Prize historian who wrote Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, has published an article titled “Hirohito and History: Japanese and American Perspectives on the Emperor and World War II in Asia” for the online journal Japan Focus. In this article he elaborates on the same concluding message of his two most recent Japan Focus articles (here and here): that the onset of the Cold War had frozen over the historical consciousness at work in East Asian countries. In his chracteristically clear prose he reveals how the geopolitics between Japan and the United States had helped create a historical amnesia about the Emperor and the legacy of wartime militarism.
  • Lastly, Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, the group of right-wing historians also known as tsukurukai or 新しい歴史教科書を作る会, has just published translations of their infamous textbook for middle-school students titled New History Textbook: Revised Edition (『改訂版 新しい歴史教科書』) in English, Korean, and Chinese (simplified and traditional). The site has these translations as pdf files, and as far as I can tell the English one covers different chapters than the Chinese and Korean ones. (Hmmm…I wonder what they’re thinking, I should probably download them all before they take them down.) The group has also made some sections of the book available online here in Japanese.

    I was stunned when I skimmed through the first page. Here’s just one paragraph:

    The history you are about to study is the history of Japan. In other words, you will be familiarizing yourselves with the stories of your ancestors — your blood relatives. Your closest ancestors your parents, who were preceded by your four grandparents. As you go back further in time, number of ancestors increases with each generation. Then you realize that the humans populated the Japanese Archipelago are ancestors you share with the other students in classroom. In every era, Japanese history was made by ancestors common to all of us.


One Day On the Way to the Palace…

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:34 am

Yiku CoffinJonathan Dresner just brought up the recent funeral of Yi Ku here in Seoul, where I’m spending the summer. Yi Ku is an interesting individual who, like so many of the last royal family members of the Qing dynasty and Korean royal family became closely connected to the Japanese imperial family and the fate of the Japanese empire. Yi’s mother was the Japanese princess Nashimoto Masako (Yi Pang-ja), a cousin of the current Japanese emperor Akihito’s mother. You can see a little chart to see how this connects with Korea’s famous last king Kojong.

The funeral was apparently attended by the Japanese Ambassador (Urabe Toshinao) and even a representative of the Japanese Imperial family, Nashimoto Takano. His ex-wife Julia Mullock, who Yi may have been pressured into divorcing by family members when she didn’t produce an heir was not invited and was apparently across the street when the funeral took place at Cheongdeok palace. There may be a movie about her life coming out at some point.

It just so happened that, completely oblivious to this whole thing, I stumbled into the crowds in front of Cheongdeok palace as the funeral for Yi Ku was wrapping up and they were carrying the coffin out. I was there to go on a tour of the palace grounds with a friend. It was a kind of strange scene, actually. The crowd seemed very curious but I didn’t see much outpouring of emotion. Even the performance of many of those dressed up in Joseon period costumes was less than inspiring and they seemed to slouch and be less than enthused about participating in this funeral. I suspect that the ambivalent emotions surrounding a royal family so tainted by its connections to the Japanese imperial family and the fact that family members such as Yi Ku were often born, raised, or made Japan their home may have a lot to do with this.

We bought tickets for the tour but the entrance where the tour meets was packed with yellow-clad and pink-feathered women and costumed men with various banners. I asked the lady at the ticket booth if she was sure there was a tour being given in the middle of all this and that I could just walk through this entrance but she assured me everything was fine. Eventually, after much swimming through the crowd, we joined some 30 other foreigners at the main gate, even as the procession was continuing to pour out. Our tour guide gathered us together and again making our way through the crowd we went in through the back door. She mentioned the funeral only twice during the tour, to tell us that a royal family member had died and that “it was all over now.” She seemed to be relieved and our tour was business as usual in all other respects. Our tour passed by the site of the reception on the lawn outside one of the palace buildings, where the crew was still packing up seats and taking down signs guiding foreign dignitaries to their respective sections. Yi Ku’s portrait was leaning up against a palace wall. I posted a few pictures of the funeral scene for viewing here. If you are interested, I have also posted some pictures of the beautiful palace grounds where the funeral was held (and Yi Ku lived for a number of years in the 60s and 70s) here.

Last Prince

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:51 am

The last surviving heir of the Korean Yi dynasty has died. [hat tip to Jerry West] Born in 1931 in Japan to the former Crown Prince of Korea, Yi Ku also died in Japan, the country he apparently considered his home. He had an architecture degree from MIT, an American wife, no children, and his funeral in Seoul was attended by thousands of Koreans and several members of the Japanese royal family.


A Poll on U.S.-Japan Relations

Filed under: — tak @ 3:17 pm

Goyaboy, or “the binary identity fo Gerald Figal,” alerts us to the incredulity of the recent AP-Kyodo News poll meant to take the pulse of the U.S.-Japan relation. (see also this Japan Times article)

In his post he astutely points to the hidden bias in the questions surveyed by the pollsters. Why did this poll end up surveying the public opinion concerning the justification for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Here’s what Goyaboy writes:

According to this AP article, a survey done by the AP-Kyodo News indicates that 60% of Americans polled believe that WWIII is likely within their lifetime while only 33% of Japanese polled believe this. Is this a function of Japan’s atomic-and-fire-bomb-induced pacificism and American warmongering or are Japanese just more optimistic? And what use is such a poll anyway? What’s lame about such polls and the reporting of them is that they imply (or they willingly allow the reader to infer) that rather than a measure of public attitude (at best) such polls are predictions of the future. What’s even lamer about this article is that it devolves into a debate about the justification for the use of atomic bombs on Japan in WWII. Huh? How did that get mixed into the survey? Wanna know? I bet it’s because the pollsters had preconceived pop-psych theories about how being atom-bombed induced pacifism in Japan, and that in turn makes Japanese think that any reasonable person would want to avoid WWIII and therefore it won’t happen. Contrawise, the American public basically knows shit about the experience of war because no meaningful war has happened on American soil since that Between the States and The Oldest Confederate Widow is already dead. Thus, Americans can blithely assume that a WW is bound to happen again.

But all this depends on one more factor: how many percentage of Americans really know which country Japan is?


Summer Reading Note: Ninja

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:22 am

I’ve finished Stephen Turnbull’s Ninja: the True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult, and I have good news for current and prospective graduate students: there is still an immense amount of work to be done on ninja and ninjutsu as historical phenomena.

The early chapters cover “non-traditional” tactics in samurai warfare, defined here as any military or violent action which does not take place between mounted warriors on a declared battlefield. Only a few chapters in — the Muromachi and warring states eras — do we encounter shinobi, experts in castle infiltration and solo armed combat. Aside from the Iga-Koga warrior clans — oddly mercenary, which also becomes part of the ninja mythology — there are no well-defined schools or consistent practitioners. The Tokugawa era section of the book shifts to discussing the increasingly magical, frightening and lurid image of ninja in popular culture, a topic which remains the focus for the rest of the book. Only at the very end, after citing Ian Fleming’s role in bringing ninja to western awareness, does Turnbull come back to the question of actual ninjutsu, citing Fujita Seiko (1899-1966) as “Japan’s last practising ninja” and functionally disparaging all other books, schools and practitioners as profiteers or self-deluded (though he never clarifies the position of foreword author Hatsumi Masaaki, whom he seems to hold in high esteem as a teacher and preserver of the tradition). Turnbull seems surprised by Ninjutsu schools’ claims that their art is a “Way” of self-development, which is odd because pretty much every other school or style of martial arts in Japan makes the same claim. He openly admits that he can’t judge the actual fighting techniques of these schools — though he does spend some time talking about weaponry and the creative additions made in literature and art over the years — and he cites but never evaluates the dramatic claims of several schools to be descended from various historical figures (some of whom used non-traditional tactics but were not shinobi).

The book almost entirely fails to answer any of my questions about ninja and ninjutsu. I am not someone who can be shocked, shocked, I say, to discover that samurai sometimes snuck around instead of limiting themselves to entirely fair fights, or that some warriors actually got pretty good at these tactics. Nor does it surprise me that samurai orthodoxy distanced themselves from these tactics so that, even though they appear as successful tactics in traditional military records, the self-image and modern image of the samurai drives these tactics into the shadows. I’m not terribly interested in popular images of ninja, unless there is some serious discussion of the reality, and the two discussions are substantially separate. I am interested in the history and accomplishments of schools of ninjutsu, because it is from them, not from popular culture, that the most fantastic claims of antiquity and continuity and ability come. Turnbull quotes an interview with the above mentioned Seiko Fujita, for example, in which he “claims he can ‘concentrate his senses’ to see eight times better and hear fourteen times better than normal,” (144) but, aside from deploring the “dilution of quality since ninja became so popular” (146), there’s no validation or testing of these claims.

Even in earlier sections, there’s an odd credulity to the source handling that is hard to take seriously. Turnbull notes, for example, the odd frequency with which ninja were tested before employment with stealing an item, usually a sword, from their employer, but doesn’t bring skepticism he justifiably feels towards these clichés to bear on the rest of the documents containing them. Turnbull notes the disdain in which conventional samurai held these tactics and practitioners, but doesn’t seriously question whether the samurai sources he’s using might be misrepresenting these warriors or underrepresenting the use of these tactics. I’m also surprised at the relative thinness of pre-20c popular culture references (and the early 20c military discussion seems a terrible diversion, either unnecessary or too short), given the consistency and wide acceptance of the images in question.

To be fair, it may be that the sources and citations he found are indeed the only ones to be found on the subject, and he’s doing the best that he can. There seems to be material here that is not found elsewhere in English, and that’s always a service to the profession. And this is certainly more interesting than the vast majority of the nearly-fictional ninja material in the popular and martial arts press. But it certainly didn’t answer my questions, or the questions of my students.


Article Nine on Film

Filed under: — tak @ 4:12 pm

Kei Yamamoto, writing for the citizen newspaper JANJAN, has reviewed the film Japan’s Peace Constitution (邦題 『映画 日本憲法』). The film is directed by John Junkerman, who also gave us Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times.

This documentary flick contains interviews with key intellectual in Japan and elsewhere, including John Dower, Chamlers Johnson, Noam Chomsky, Hidaka Rokuro (a leading Japanese social theorist), and others.

Also included are clips from an interview with Beate Sirota Gordon, who literally gave the postwar constitution the gender equality clause (I wrote about her a while ago on my blog, but this site is much more informative, as is the wikipedia entry).

The film is accompanied by a book in Japanese with the same title.

The review article is in Japanese: 文化・「九条の町」で見た映画 日本国憲法. An earlier JANJAN article about the film is here.

[The image shows the cover for the companion book, taken from amazon.co.jp and also displayed on the film’s official website. The caption on the film site reads: 画 / 奈良美智「Missing in Action -Girl meets Boy-」(広島市現代美術館所蔵). ]


The Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace

Filed under: — tak @ 3:06 pm

Following KML’s post about the new museum on sexual slavery that is reported to open on August 1, found some links that I thought might deserve a separate post.

“The Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace,” as it was reported by Japan Times, is the translation of アクティブ・ミュージアム「女たちの戦争と平和資料館」. The site, which is only in Japanese, can be found here.

For those who are in Tokyo, a museum opening event will be held on July 31.

There is some information in English about this museum, by way of a notice on the passing of Yayori Matsui, a journalist, activist, and a key person behind the museum.

The museum site is part of Violence against Women in War – Network Japan (The Japanese page is here.)

VAWW-NET Japan is an organization dedicated to ending violence against women during war and is currently positioning the museum as a node to connect to other such centers of information and activism in other Asian countries.

Here’s another piece of news that I’m sure some readers here will already know about. In 2000 they organized the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, known as Women’s Tribunal 2000 (in English, Japanese). But earlier this year Asahi Shinbun reported that some government officials clandestinely interfered with the tribunal and attempted to discredit VAWW-NET Japan. This report was based on a disclosure from a producer at NHK.

For more on this, see VAWW-NET Japan’s blog. This post in English (here) has a good summary of the history of this scandal.

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