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4/30/2006

China-Japan Historical Struggle Reaches MIT

History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and if faced With courage, need not be lived again. -- Maya Angelou, Inaugural Poem
I had planned to blog on a John Dower web project cited by Alan Baumler, because it's a fantastic collection of historical images, nicely curated. Now, if you follow the the link, you get redirected to an MIT Press Office Statement that explains that the exhibit is offline while Dower and Miyagawa negotiate with members of the MIT Chinese student community who objected to an image of a Chinese being beheaded, a classic piece of Japanese propaganda, one that sets the tone for the next half century. The problem, according to the articles I've seen (thanks to both Manan Ahmed and Ralph Luker) was a lack of "accessible historical context" clearly warning viewers of the violent and racist content of the imagery. Perhaps they need something like my syllabus boilerplate:

Advisory History is about real people, diverse cultures, interesting theories, strongly held belief systems, complex situations, conflicts and often-dramatic actions. In certain contexts, this information may be disturbing. Such is the nature of historical study.

I don't see it myself: unless you happen to read Meiji Japanese and stumble across the image by accident, and are inclined to think that we need more, not less, beheadings in the world, isn't it pretty obvious that this is old, bad, material? (the woodblock prints should be a giveaway, if nothing else) If you know anything about the history, it's pretty obvious that it's racist, that it leads to great tragedy, and that it's important visual evidence. If it wasn't obvious beforehand, then reading the attached commentary would make it pretty clear: my recollection (Alan can throw in his two cents here) is that the accompanying text was pretty clear on all these issues (Update: Alan confirms my recollection, and adds some useful thoughts, including a look at Chinese language discussions. This raises concerns for me. Part of the value of creating an on-line exhibit is to allow the images to be used by students and teachers and researchers as evidence in their own researches. Insisting on immediate warnings and commentary (and how, technically, they're going to make those inseparable from the image, I'm not sure, but I am nervous) will make it harder to use the material, pedagogically. There are those who argue that nothing offensive to anyone should be published anywhere without caveats and controls; I'm not one of those. There are those who argue that "it's only speech" excuses everything, and that we cannot have a truly free society without license to express everything, everywhere, anytime; I'm not one of those, either. There are some who say that the classroom is no place for controversy; I reject that. There are some who say that the classroom belongs to the teacher, without exception; I reject that, as well. I do think that teachers ought to be given a great deal of leeway with regard to how they present and handle sensitive topics, particularly those with track records of balanced and sophisticated scholarship, public writing and teaching, and that attacks (and it's very clear from the MIT President's statement that there have been some very vigorous attacks) without context and from outside the student and scholarly community which has some understanding of the issues and people, are injurious to academic freedom and accomplishment. Even scholars are sometimes prone to put blame before understanding, but that doesn't mean that we should privilege this. On the other hand, I have the greatest respect for John Dower as a scholar, teacher and individual: if he agrees that these images need more context, I will respect that. I think it's very important for scholars of Japanese history to be clear about the impact that Japan had on its neighbors and the world in its modern imperialist phase; I don't understand attacking a scholar who is addressing precisely these issues with evidence, publications, teaching, etc. Update: Alan Baumler found a cached version of the text, which is exceptional, and a Letter from Prof. Peter Perdue, also at MIT, defending Dower and the project. Vigorously, to say the least.

4/28/2006

Japanese diaspora

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 10:10 pm Print
This past weekend I was a discussant at a graduate student conference at UCLA, sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies. The title (a bit wordy for my taste but interesting nonetheless) was "Transculturation and National Signifiers:'Japan' In, After, and Via Diaspora and Return," and included papers on hot topics like the Japanese diaspora in Latin America; literary production among the Issei; and Japanese ethnic identities, agency, and politics in "traditional" cultural practices such as tea, martial arts, and music in global contexts. I also notice that there is a conference at UCLA this weekend on a somewhat similar topic, titled "LA as offshore Japan: Transnational Networks and Cultural Entrepreneurship across the Pacific Rim." This breakdown between the fields of Asian Studies and Asian-American Studies, one area with its roots in the Cold War and one in 1960s student radicalism, seems like a much needed development to me. In my teaching I increasingly try to bring things into the present and the local by including focus on LA resources like LACMA and the Japanese American National Museum. The results in the classroom are encouraging. I hope this means that Japanese studies scholars and students think of themselves less as Japanologists and more in terms of certain methods and theoretical frameworks? And perhaps the tired binary of "east and west" (and this from a person whose college's motto is "East meets West at Occidental"!) is being complicated by the lives that we live, particularly in cities as diverse as LA? I'm not sure. The cynical part of me worries that much of the rhetoric about transnationalism and the Japanese diaspora is just that: trendy rhetoric adopted strategically to get noticed/accepted/hired/published/tenured/promoted. Take your pick. The presentations at the conference, all of which were unique, innovative, and compelling, at least made me excited for more publications in this area.

To Stab a Historian

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:30 am Print
I have been compiling notes and comparing various narratives of modern Japanese history in preparation for my orals. It is easy to lose touch with the bigger picture when reading lots of books that focus on one issue, period, or question. I wrote a little about the dearth of information on North Korea in the Enyclopedia of World History (somewhat clunky online version here) over at Frog in a Well - Korea. The book is something of a massive timeline for reference and I just finished going through the Japanese history entries in the work. In the just over three pages for the postwar period there were a few items that were not included which I saw in most other narratives and timelines of the period. 1) There was no mention of Japan's entry into the United Nations in 1956. 2) There was no mention of end of the Allied occupation in 1952 (Though there is mention of the peace treaty going into effect). 3) There was no mention of the "Nixon Shocks" of July (US abandonment of the gold standard with its resulting impact on the exchange rate with Japan) and August (Nixon announces a visit to China), 1971. Although they are not events which had Japanese actors involved, they had a strong impact on Japan and always gets at least a mention. I suspect that most Japanese also see the shocks, along with the return of Okinawa and the shock of the oil embargos, as defining moments of the early 1970s. These were the only items that you find in most works which were missing. There was, however, one event which I had heard about but I have never seen mentioned in other timelines or in surveys of modern Japan:
1964, March 24. U.S. ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer was stabbed by an allegedly deranged young Japanese.
I wondered why this would have made the cut with such limited space? Don't get me wrong, it is not that I think the stabbing of the US ambassador is a trivial affair. Reischauer is not only an incredibly important historian in our field but was also an important player in US-Japan relations. I am also very grateful for a generous summer fellowship the Reischauer institute awarded me last year. I then looked at the list of editors for earlier editions and noticed that both John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer are listed. It would seem reasonable to assume Reischauer made the call to include mention of his own stabbing. In fact, the 1964 stabbing incident must have left a particularly strong impression on Reischauer as its aftermath would continue to affect his health throughout the remainder of his life. An old biography of Reischauer has this description of the event which adds a little context:
On March 24, 1964, as he was leaving his office, Reischauer was attacked and stabbed by a mentally disturbed Japanese youth. He could have gone to a United States Army hospital, but chose instead to go to a Japanese hospital. Unfortunately, a blood transfusion he received there was tainted with hepatitis virus. He suffered irreversible liver damage and felt the ill-effects for the rest of his life. Reischauer was in Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii until July 1 rehabilitating a partially paralyzed leg and recovering from hepatitis. The incident elicited a flood of visits, mail, and gifts from Japanese well-wishers. Upon release from the hospital, he resumed full duties in the Tokyo embassy.
Not only was he stabbed, but was given a tainted blood transfusion! But there is more. In LaFeber's The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History we find this added detail:
"...[President] Johnson wanted far more [support for U.S. policies on Vietnam and China] from Japan. [Dean] Rusk blamed Reischauer for being too pro-Japanese, for not educating Japan about the great danger, for assuming that the two nations were converging in their interests while, in reality, the Japanese were going off on their own. As Reischauer lay in serious condition after he was stabbed in 1964, neither Johnson nor Rusk sent him a personal note. In mid-1966, Reischauer was finally replaced by the hawkish U. Alexis Johnson.1
1. LaFeber, Walter The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 343.

4/27/2006

Introduction

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 4:02 pm Print
Greetings, and thanks to Konrad for inviting me to join. I'm a historian of Japan. I received my Ph.D. in 2001 and now teach in the Asian Studies department at Occidental College in Los Angeles.. My research focuses on the relationship between material culture and notions of national identity. I originally intended to work on the sixteenth century, but my studies led me into the early modern period, which in turn led me to Meiji, and now I'm also looking at the 1930s. So I suppose I'm a historian of Japan from the 16th-20th centuries. Longue durée cultural history. Information about my publications and current research can be found on my website. I also maintain a blog for one of my seminars, titled "Displaying Premodern Japan," previously mentioned by Jonathan Dresner in the Asian History Carnival #3 on froginawell/china. I look forward to participating!

4/26/2006

Read the Bones

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:24 pm Print
Forensic anthropologists who got a look at the earliest known human remains found in North America think he looks Ainu rather than Native American.
Some Ainu’s facial features appear European. Their eyes may lack the Asian almond-shaped appearance, and their hair may be light and curly in color. However, this does not mean that Kennewick Man necessarily was European in origin. His features more closely resemble those of the natives of the Pacific Rim than those of Native Americans.
The details available through forensic anthropology are amazing, and this interestingly complicates the history of the Americas (and maybe the history of Japan, as well). I remember well the first time I read an archaeology paper comparing Northwestern US neolithic sites to Jomon sites....

4/24/2006

The Return of Uwano Ishinosuke

Filed under: — Nick Kapur @ 12:00 pm Print
 Japanese World War II military stragglers are still showing up on the newswires six decades after the end of the conflict. This past week, Japan has been captivated by the return of Uwano Ishinosuke, 83, a former soldier in the Japanese Army who was stranded on Sakhalin Island when the Russians took over, and has been living for the past 50 years in the Ukraine with his Ukranian wife and family. Speaking only Ukranian and travelling on a Ukranian passport, Uwano visited the graves of his parents and some relatives in Iwate prefecture before returning to the Ukraine.  Having last been sighted in 1958, Uwano's family had had him officially declared as "war dead" and removed from the household register in 2000. Uwano's existence came to light last year after he asked friends in Ukraine to help him contact the Japanese government and was eventually put into contact with the Japanese consulate in Kiev, which arranged his return visit. The Japanese government estimates that there may be as many as 400 Japanese military stragglers still living in the former Soviet Union, although the whereabouts are known for only 40 of them.  In other straggler news, last year reports of former Japanese soldiers living near a remote village in the Philippines caused the Japanese government to sent an official search party, but the soldiers were not found.  For those interested in learning more about Japanese Imperial Army stragglers, there is a pretty decent book on the topic by Beatrice Trefalt: Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-1975. Unfortunately it is published by RoutledgeCurzon and is therefore prohibitively expensive, so a university library may be the best place to get it.

4/23/2006

Kyushu and Okinawa Studies Online Symposium

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:58 pm Print
I just got an email from Steve from Kostudies.com announcing their first online symposium complete with academic contributors. Here is more from the announcement:
Two myths dominate the story of Japan's relationship with the outside world. The first and most common is that Japan was an isolated country, opened by the arrival of Commodore Perry. The second compares Japan to an oyster, because the foreign influence that it accepted was no bigger than a grain of sand. In recent years, those myths have come under attack from researchers studying medieval communication between Kyushu and the Asian continent. We are delighted to announce the participation of two authors whose work details a far richer and more complex environment. Professors Batten and Wang describe a time in which pirates, diplomats, traders, monks and soldiers sailed to and from Japan. Much of this scholarship is new. For example, Professor Batten examines the Kôrokan, the official guest-house for foreign visitors, which was located in Hakata, now located inside the modern-day city of Fukuoka. A thousand years ago, most visitors to Japan would have arrived by ship at Hakata Bay, the one and only authorized gateway to Japan. For years the site was buried underneath the city's baseball stadium and only in recent years, after the demolition of the stadium, has the evidence been unearthed. Professor Wang also utilizes recent archaeological findings and little-known archival material to come to new conclusions about relations between Japan and the outside world. Professor Batten approaches the topic by covering the history of Hakata from 500 C.E. into the medieval period. He has chapters focusing on war, diplomacy, piracy, and trade. Professor Batten has spent his professional career focusing on Kyushu and has had access to the latest archaeological discoveries in the area. Chapter 4 of this book, "Gateway to Japan", available to visitors of this symposium, focuses on a single case study. By focusing on the particularly well-documented case of a Chinese junk that arrived in Hakata in 945, Professor Batten showcases many of his findings, including those on immigration, trade and official attitudes toward the outside world. Professor Wang's focus is on diplomatic relations and a series of important embassies sent from the Japanese islands to Sui and Tang China. Wang explains in detail the rigorous criteria of the Chinese and Japanese courts in the selection of diplomats and how the two prepared for missions abroad. He journeys with a party of Japanese diplomats from their tearful farewell party to hardship on the high seas to their arrival amidst the splendors of Yangzhou and Changan and the Sui-Tang court. One of his central ideas, outlined in the introduction is that the traditional view of China's tributary system is oversimplistic. He argues that it was not a unilateral tool of hegemony but a more complex situation in which multiple partners were able to modify the rules depending on the times and circumstances.

4/3/2006

The Other Apprentice

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:53 am Print

Lewis Libby, The Apprentice, Graywolf Press, St. Paul Minnesota, 1996.

Libby's novel has gotten more attention since his indictment, most of it bad. However, I have yet to see a review of this historical fiction by an historian or Japanese expert of any sort. Quite the contrary, one of the blurbs on the dust jacket -- ironically, the only one that addresses the historical setting -- comes from Francis "The End of History" Fukuyama. But the historical and cultural setting -- rural northern Japan, 1903 -- is integral to the story and to the writing. A novel by an American author set in Meiji Japan including entirely Japanese characters is a rare thing, and so my interest was piqued. Naturally, there's a distinction to be made: this is a work of fiction, a novel intended to excite and entertain, rather than a reference work or scholarly product. But writers of fiction do not stumble onto locales or times: they choose them and they use them to serve their narrative and aesthetic ends. [spoiler alert]

I will point out Libby's errors -- at least some of them -- but it's worth noting that a great deal of time and energy went into making this "authentic" as a representation of something Japanese. 1903 did indeed feature rising tensions between Japan and Russia, smallpox and urban unrest; there were significant continuities with pre-modern traditions and practices, particularly in rural areas. There are a myriad of details that are properly situated and used: material culture, festivals, the social hierarchies and treatment of marginal figures like entertainers. Some of it feels a bit anachronistic for 1903, but that may be more my professional tendency to see change and overlook continuities. Perhaps this level of detail is why the errors and misrepresentations stand out so clearly: there's no vagueness to cloak slips or twists.

In the case of The Apprentice, the location and time allows Libby to write a very specific kind of story in a specific sort of way. The plot is a sort of inverted "Purloined Letter" in which the eponymous protagonist stumbles across and appropriates something which seems merely valuable but turns out to be more important and more contested than he realized, and though the protagonist -- the Apprentice of the title -- is ignorant, grasping and easily fooled, he manages to do just the right thing throughout. The "snow country" setting (not Hokkaido, but deep winter somewhere in the north) -- which reminds me more of Abe Kobo's The Dunes than anything by Kawabata -- provides a field of outdoors action in which the necessities of the plot are easily served, as well as claustrophobic indoor settings. The historical moment contributes both characterizations and deeply disturbing erotic themes: the characters are distinctly and relentlessly Japanese, as are their interactions, and few sexual pathologies or myths are left unexplored.

The narrative is decidedly uneven: roughly the first third is eros and mystery; the second third is claustrophobia and romance; the last third is twist-and-turn action-adventure. The writing lurches along with the plot, but is most successful in the scene-setting sections, perhaps because they are the least bound by physical or psychological realism. Ultimately the hero prevails because a baseless suspicion turns out correct, and because of deus ex machina interventions by larger forces which are responsible for the prize which he appropriated (secretly, but everyone seems to know about it) and which evildoers will stop at nothing (including prophetic pre-planning and vision, or else incredible dumb luck) to obtain.

Perhaps it's not fair to pick on the erotic elements of the novel: sex is so hard to write about well or with any originality. But the attempt to create and exploit sexual tension is so central to the novel as to be unavoidable. The focus of most of the sexual attention in the book is Yukiko, a young entertainer/prostitute. (It's worth noting that many of the main characters are not given names through most of the book, following perhaps the Japanese tradition of vagueness in this regard, but it seems that Libby can't quite sustain it because most get named eventually.) She is -- all before the age of consent -- sexually abused, sold to a house of prostitution, "trained" in sex (including abuse by a bear), sold again to her "first night" initiator, who in turn uses her as both a sexual outlet and entertainer. That's the point at which she enters the narrative, in the company of her "master" and "the dwarf" (whose job it is to sexually menace her onstage). She then proceeds to attract the attention of the Apprentice, Setsuo, who watches her surreptitiously (but insists, with great specificity, that he's not a voyeur [9]) several times (though she may be playing the exhibitionist, as well) before they become intimate. Their intimacy becomes then leverage used against the apprentice in the dramatic adventure section, and she turns out to be (probably) a turncoat against him, but he ends the novel wandering Japan looking for her or someone who looks enough like her to reignite the embers of his love (or lust). I apologize for some of the vagueness in that last section, but Libby's novel follows the all-too-common writers-workshop style of endings heavy with implication, symbolism and suggestion rather than actual conclusion. There are times when ambiguity is a powerful tool for a writer, but this is particularly out of place in a plot-driven action story like this one.

Yukiko is the prototypical Oriental female: elite yet fallen, hypersexual and innocent, treacherous and submissive. Setsuo is a prototypical Oriental male: amoral but timid, a lustful virgin, easily dominated but cunning. I use the term "Oriental" deliberately: they are not specifically Japanese stereotypes, though they take on particular Japanese forms, and they are old tropes, however they survive to the present. That pair are surrounded by other stock figures: the tragic self-sacrificing spy, the mysterious old warrior who reveals his true colors when he comes to the aid of the hero (with convenient frequency), the abstruse government functionary, the anti-foreign rumor-monger, credulous and very raunchy common-folk, "baddies" who are overconfident, ruthlessly vicious, yet incompetent and easy to kill. There's nothing particularly Japanese about these people except their clothes and weapons.

Aside from the plot and characterization issues, there are some specific details which I think Libby got wrong. The figure of the Apprentice is the first issue: Japan doesn't have a tradition of apprenticeship in service or hospitality trades, at least not one that is separate from concepts of kinship. For Setsuo, who clearly does seem to be in training to take over the inn, or at least run it independently, to be an apprentice in the Japanese sense, he'd be the natural or adoptive heir of the innkeeper, but there's no hint of that in his interactions with his fellow workers, the female relatives of the absent innkeeper. Libby refers twice (5, 23) to "backward" hats (one "top hat" and one "European") which make no sense. He uses a sort of country shorthand (e.g. "tappers of lac" for lacquer-sap workers, [8 passim]) for the rough-country folk just often enough to be annoying but not often enough to be consistent. There is far too much gold coinage around, at a time when paper money was widely used for anything silver yen couldn't handle (I'd like to think that the scenes involving the hunter's wallet were intended as an homage to Chushingura but there's no other evidence of references to premodern literature). I've never heard of Japanese sprinkling peppers in their boots to ward off cold (31) but it apparently works. The ruminations of the village assistant headman (160-162) are typical: he correctly mentions the circular petitions of premodern protests, but asserts that collective punishment has become the norm in the modern age; he attributes a rape to "fox spirits" (which is anachronistic, at best) and the arrival of mysterious people around the village to trouble with China and Russia.

As a work of literary fiction, I'd say that this book is a barely tolerable action story but not something to read twice. Perhaps its greatest virtue is the central character's complete ignorance of the role he's playing in the larger dramas; much more realistic than adventure stories in which a hapless bystander unravels multi-layered mysteries and solves the problems of (or defeats) empires. As a work of Japanalia, I'd say that it was an excellent example of how a little learning can be a dangerous thing: having been inspired to chose this backdrop and make it as real as possible, Libby ignores logic, realism or the humanity of his characters in favor of highly artificial drama and tawdry thrills.

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