In an argument about Japanese-American draft-resistor internees during WWII, Eric Muller wrote
in my book I argue that vocal and visible protest of government orders are more distinctive facets of American popular culture than of Japanese popular culture. (I do not suggest that protest is absent from Japanese tradition, or that compliance is absent from American tradition; I simply maintain that as a comparative matter, vocal public protest has a stronger American lineage than Japanese.)
Do you [ed.: Ken Masugi] see this as true?
If you think it false, would you share with us prominent examples of the protest tradition in Japanese culture that match the Boston Tea Party, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” the National Woman’s Party, lunch counter protests and civil rights sit-ins, the Stonewall riots, the Wounded Knee protest, etc. etc. etc.
To be honest, I’m on Eric Muller’s side of this debate, but this passage rankled somewhat. Perhaps it’s my background in social history, my early exposure to Mikiso Hane (even before I found out that my wife knew him) or just my contrarian, blogger-nature, but I can’t just let it stand.
First, there’s the comparative history aspect: I can’t think of any other national history that has such a distinguished tradition of civil political protest: perhaps the English? The French get too revolutionary too easily. Ghandian India, or pre-1990 South Africa perhaps? In the last twenty years or so, the ubiquity of marches and demonstrations has taken some of the edge off, though if you limit the field to “events critiquing one’s own rulers” then you’ve a much smaller data set. Whether it rises to the level of a “tradition” in that exceptionalist American self-congratulatory sense is another question: I’m not sure that Muller’s list couldn’t be dismissed as “prominent examples” in contrast to a fairly conservative and gradualist tradition only recently challenged by strong civil rights movements.
There are, as Muller concedes “prominent examples of dissent in Japanese history.” Some would argue that there’s more than that: from the peasant uprisings of the Tokugawa era to the rice riots of 1919, demo against the Security Treaty, the lawsuits of Minamata, individual acts of self-destruction, literary and cultural satire, and speaker trucks, I think that there is a reasonably strong strain of public self-criticism and scolding, particularly given an environment of repression which (at most times in the last century and a half) goes well beyond that which has existed in the US, even during its colonial era.
What do you think?
Non Sequitur: Sumo Wrestlers in New York [registration required]. Wait, actually, it’s S.U.M.O., and the organizers swear it’s unscripted….