Love and Inspiration

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:56 am

My aunt, Alice Schlossberg, passed away on Sunday. She was the first Asianist and history teacher in my family, and I will miss her terribly. Perhaps my first real taste of Asian culture — as opposed to Chinese food — was finding Zen Comics in her book collection as a kid.

She was the kind of teacher I never had in high school: rigorous, energetic, smart, inspiring and effective. (I had some of those, but never in one package). Being part of a medium-sized school, she taught US — she was a proud member of the Millard Fillmore Society, she told me — and European history — she had her students simulate the Versailles conference — as well as Asian.

The last few years, Alice had been spending summers getting familiar with new technologies and new scholarship, building web sites with primary and secondary materials for student research projects. She told me about some of the tricks and techniques she used to draw students in, like having them write their responses and interpretations to five minutes of a documentary about the Ganges with the sound off, so there was no voice-over telling them what to think.

Much of what I remember and loved about her has nothing to do with her work — the chocolate chip corn muffins, the penguin collection (her brother — my father — also began collecting penguins as an adult, independently), the incredibly irreverent humor (puns and all) and strong sense of justice, the holidays. The Schlossbergs live in Beverly, just north of Boston, so I got to know the MBTA commuter trains pretty well. They were always welcoming and supportive, and every graduate student should have an aunt and her family in the vicinity, I think.

We will miss her, and I hope that I can continue to grow as a teacher until I feel like I’ve lived up to her example.


Someone’s class project….

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:29 am

Apparently, some English class at a Japanese university is exploring the Anglophone Blogosphere in search of pen pals and practice. (This is the closest thing to a meme you’re probably ever going to get on this blog.) This was mine:


Empire in Sonny Chiba’s Shōrinji Kempō

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:44 am

I just watched an old 1975 movie with Sonny Chiba in it called Shōrinji Kempō 少林寺拳法 (the English title, inexplicably is “The Killing Machine”) which is a sensationalized action movie version of the life of Sō Dōshin, the founder of the martial art and religious group Shōrinji Kempō.

I think that this obscure movie must have made it onto my Netflix list last year when I was roommates with fellow Frog contributor Craig and shared a Netflix subscription with him. Craig studies Karate and modernity and is the author of one of the most commented postings here at Frog in a Well.

Watching bad movies can actually be quite educational. This movie interested me for two reasons: 1) it is a mid-70s movie portraying Japan in the immediate aftermath of war and 2) there are a number of references to war, empire, and minorities such as Koreans in Japan which I found interesting. Allow me to share some of these points.

You are Japanese!The first two scenes of the movie take place in mainland China, during the war. Sō Dōshin, played by Sonny Chiba, is spying on some Chinese soldiers who are planning a dastardly ambush of Japanese troops. The Chinese commander, who must have been played by a Japanese actor, spoke in such horrible Chinese I doubt any Chinese viewer of the movie could have made out anything he said, except perhaps the completely flat-toned “Neee shooo reeeebenren ma” [Are you Japanese?] he says, discovering the presence of the spy in the audience of his tactical planning meeting. Sō kills everyone with a grabbed machine gun and flees back to the Japanese lines.

No, no, we have surrendered?Sō informs his commanding officer that their troops must take a detour only to be met with his weeping fellow soldiers’ announcement that Japan has surrendered. This so traumatizes Sō that he proceeds to machine gun everything around him, with fellow Japanese soldiers diving for cover. He concludes in the narration, “The Japanese Empire may have been defeated but I am not defeated.” He returns to Japan to run a gang of street urchins and cook porridge in his occupied home country.

Let's all get alongSō’s next battle is on a train in Japan during his return. Korean gangsters, dressed in black leather jackets and sunglasses have kicked some poor train passengers out of their seats. They cry, “Your nation is defeated!” Sō, dressed in Chinese looking garb, soon sends them sprawling. As he helps them to their feet he tells the now humbled Koreans:


“If you want to live in Japan, let’s all get along, eh?”

A few scenes later he rescues a woman who is being beaten up by prostitutes in a slum for working on their turf. In thanks for being saved and being given a free meal she offers herself to Sō on a pile of rubble. He rejects her and chides her for giving up her purity and turning to prostitution. She explains that her body has already been ravaged countless times by Russian soldiers in Manchuria so she has nothing left to lose. He assures her that she is still the person she always was and that,


“You can forget the horrible things, too.”

You can forget the horrible things tooHere something interesting happens. Though the focus of the scene is the tragic story of a Japanese women raped by Russian soldiers and the horrible poverty of the early postwar period, the director makes a move that immediately connects the fortunes of this one Japanese woman, to that of the Japanese nation as a whole. Just as Sō says, “You can forget the horrible things, too,” the camera slowly moves from the image of the face of the crying woman to the image of a tattered Japanese flag laying in a muddy puddle behind her.

Sō soon finds himself fighting the gangs in the black market and beating up and crippling two American occupation soldiers who run over one of his boys in the market (the little brother of the woman above). He is arrested but a kind police officer lets him escape. When talking to the police officer Sō admits he is a trouble maker but adds a line flashing back to his days in China. Now instead of spying on the Chinese we learn that he was their noble defender:


“When I saw the abused people of China I would lose my temper and often got into trouble with the military.”

It is after his escape from prison custody that he goes to Tadotsu in Shikoku where he founds Shōrinji Kempō. There is footage of the complex (as of 1975) in the beginning of the movie and it appears the movie was made with some cooperation from the organization. I think I recognized some of the buildings from a visit I made to their complex when I wandered around Tadotsu for a day on a trip Shikoku a few years ago. Here in Tadotsu the movie switches to a more classic gangster match up with Sō and his boys representing the virtuous “defenders of the people” versus the evil gangsters allied with the corrupt police and occupation authorities. There is also a single anti-Communist comment by one of Sō’s people but I can’t find the scene again as I am writing this.

In a scene reminiscent of the Edo period sword school challenges two Judō fighters come in and disrupt one of the increasingly attended training sessions to challenge Sō to a fight. Among their threats we find these lines:


“Shōrin, that is something like Tōhachiken isn’t it? Just because we lost the war, doesn’t mean we have look up to China’s martial arts. [Kyūshū dialect]“

Sō soon humbles these two representatives of the more traditional Japanese martial art and they flee the premises.

Koreans need to bring a bat and a ball to playThere is one more mention of Koreans in the movie. One of Sō’s friends and former prison companions is looking for his wife, who believes that he died in Burma during the war. He finds her alive and remarried to a Korean in Takamatsu. Before meeting her, he meets his son, who he has never met before and doesn’t know. The character asks the boy why he isn’t playing baseball with the other children, and he says he has no glove. Besides, he says,


“They said Korean children can’t join in unless they have a bat and a ball, too.”

Picture 7Sō’s friend then meets his long lost wife and learns that she has married a Korean after the war. In an interesting statement which at once reveals the stereotype of Koreans as unscrupulous types, but vindicates the husband on a personal level, she describes the difficulty with her new marriage:



“Old Husband: So I understand your husband is Korean?
Wife: …He hates crooked ways so we are living in poverty.”

Picture 8The movie ends after a boring series of battles with local gangsters. The closing scenes presents us with a sweeping shot, found in many of these martial arts movies, of hundreds of Shōrinji Kempō practitioners practicing outdoors. We are told that, “Strength [used] without Justice is [simply] Violence, Justice without Strength is Powerless.”

I have requested the only book by Sō Dōshin I found in our library here from our depository, which is a 1970s Korean translation of one of his philosophical guides to Shōrinji Kempō. I’m curious if the martial art ever caught on in Korea or in its alleged original home of China.

I’m deeply skeptical, as I think we always should be, of most everything you can find online about the real Sō’s childhood life in Manchuria in either Japanese or English. It would be interested to know, however, if he indeed ended up spending some of his childhood, after his grandfather died, with one of the founders of the Amur River society (aka Black Dragon Society) and if, as some sites claim, he was just a military cartographer during the Sino-Japanese war or he was in fact active in military intelligence (the two are by no means contradictory). It would also be interesting know how Henan’s Shaolin temple passed the wartime occupation period (seems as though much of it was burnt to the ground by a warlord in the 20s) and the extent of connections between some of the societies associated with these martial arts and the Japanese occupying troops and officers. Most of what I found on Sō online was found on websites of Shōrinji Kempō practitioners.

There are two interesting discursive levels at work here though. One is the portrayal of China, Chinese, and Koreans in occupation Japan in the 1970s movie. The second is the importance of Empire and the Wartime experience in the origin stories and narratives of some of the most popular martial arts (Kyokushin karate, Aikido, and Shōrinji Kempō being the best examples I think).


Monthly Miscellany

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:27 pm

The carnivals roll on: Nathanael Robinson hosted the last AHC, and did a very nice job. The next edition will be hosted by our very own Owen Miller in a week or so: get your nominations in soon! And we’re looking for more AHC hosts: we’ve got open spots from December on.

After a return engagement by founding host John McKay, the Carnival of Bad History is moving to England, where Natalie Bennett will be collecting historical turkeys for the pre-Thanksgiving edition.

As always, your best source for good history is the History Carnival, hosted this time at longtime contributor (especially to the Bad History carnival) Sergey Romanov. In two weeks, another edition: submit here. And the latest Early Modern edition of Carnivalesque features a tabloid cover and lots of great stuff. I believe they’re still looking for volunteers for hosts.

Almost forgot: The Cliopatria Award Nominations are open through November: Best Blogs (individual, group, new), Best Post (individual and series) and Best Writing. Pick your favorites and add ‘em to the list!

And Now, the News

Charles Burress on Ehren Watada, discusses different Japanese American reactions to the case: the divisions are historical, rooted in the different experiences of Hawai’i-Japanese (high levels of volunteerism; minimal internment) and mainland Japanese-Americans (intense internment disruptions; significant resistance to draft). This could use some more clarification, but it’s a good start.

Fellow Frogger David McNeill tackles Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers from the perspective of the Japanese side of the Iwo Jima experience. He also got interviewed about the recent birth of an Imperial Male, which sounds an awful lot like other Japanese news “interviews” I’ve heard about, at least with regard to the imperial institution.

The online Oliver Statler collection is up at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa library site. All kinds of miscellanous materials, from professional correspondence to research notes.

I knew about the traditional age-counting issue in Japan, but I didn’t know about the preganancy timing issue

Adamu has been working through the Japanese Diet’s web presence…. I’m not sure the US Congress could stand up to such scrutiny any better, but I’d love to see someone else do the work to find out.

Finally, because this is a Frog website, I have to share one of my son’s favorite sites, National Aquarium’s Frog Chorus. It’s like the blogging soundtrack we never had….



Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 9:10 pm

I am starting to work on my courses for next semester and am getting excited to teach one of my favorites: an upper-level seminar called “Japanophilia: Orientalism, Nationalism, Transnationalism.” The course looks at the genealogy of the obsession with the idea of Japan both inside and outside of the archipelago, starting with the Jesuits and other early visitors, then turning to the Nativists, late 19th-century Orientalists, wartime nationalists, and of course postwar Japanophilia around the globe. The class has become easier to teach as more and more scholarship in English has emerged, ranging from Christine Guth’s Longfellow’s Tattoo’s and Koichi Iwabuchi’s Recentering Globalization to Anne Allison’s new Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, though I also rely heavily on translated primary sources and a hodgepodge of readings from cultural studies.

One issue that students are interested in and that comes up frequently in discussion is the disembodied specter of Japan in American advertising and media: Trader Joe’s “Zen” products, for example, or Xeni Jardin‘s various “WebZen” posts at Boing Boing. I have to admit that these bother me more than they probably should. Zen is not just a sign of Japanese cool but a specific form of Mahayana Buddhism with its own distinct institutions. It has ritual, dogma, practices, and beliefs; it is not, or I guess I mean that it shouldn’t be, a substitute for Orientalist stereotypes. When was the last time you saw Jesus shampoo? Or “WebMuslim” being used as a kind of shorthand for some vaguely defined otherness?

In one discussion in the seminar a few years ago, I remember that students tried to classify the various flavors of Japaneseness that frequently appeared in the American media. “Zen” references tended to go hand in hand with inscrutability that overlapped with cool and cold design or perhaps we could say minimalism. A related form was a samurai-esque emphasis on clean lines, shapely, sword-like forms, and some gibberish about “the way” being applied to consumerism. Check out some recent Infiniti commercials to see recent examples. Another variety was the “Those Wacky Japanese!” flavor of reporting on Japaneseness, which always involved implicit ridicule. Think of stories about Japanese fashion trends that focused not on “serious” designers but on wacky shoes, Engrish t-shirts, or hybrid versions of urban American clothes. Another example was the type of television shows that focused on “zany” Japanese game shows. Of course many members of the class loved these and other materials and thus found themselves examining their relationship to Japan not just as students but as consumers of Japanophilia, which was of course one of the objectives of the course.

I am still waiting for some sort of sustained critique of Japanophilia in American media, sales, and marketing, though, something that would situate such representations of Japan in the context of US-Japanese relations, the Cold War, and its collapse. Allison gets at such issues in her consideration of millennial consumerism, but I wish she had aimed her sites lower, even, than “popular culture” and “toys,” to hit the broader spectrum of appropriations of Japaneseness used every day to sell commodities or what passes for news.

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