The Rice Bowl and the Bomb

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:35 pm

Japan Focus and the NYTimes seem to be in sync at the moment, with a spate of pieces on resurgent nationalism and Japanese war memory.1 Say what you like about the NYTimes, but it gets good people to comment on things sometimes. MIT’s Richard J. Samuels is the featured scholar in this discussion of remilitarization and Hiroshima City University’s Yuki Tanaka is the premier talking head in this video documentary about the rearmament debates.2

Far and away my favorite of this crop is Katarzyna Cwiertka’s “War, Empire and the Making of Japanese National Cuisine”: Cwiertka’s work on food history is always worth reading, and the field is growing in sophistication and reach. Here she takes up the role of military mess kitchens and rationing, among other things, and makes an argument which I’ve made myself a few times: that the military served as a critical training ground in modernity, an educational institution, and that, as Japanese nationalism turned militaristic, as a model for life well beyond military affairs. She also argues that wartime rationing helped to cement the concept of white rice as the national food, which is an interesting idea: it’s consistent with a lot of the other problems we see with “eternal” cultural practices, but there’s some pretty strong scholarship in favor of the idea that white rice was considered culturally central well before the 20th century, too.3

Speaking of “‘eternal’ cultural practices,” Japan Focus also has the definitive version of C. Douglas Lummis, “Ruth Benedict’s Obituary for Japanese Culture”, an article which has been published in various incarnations for a quarter-century, now bolstered with new archival materials and published without the interference of hack editors. Lummis starts by arguing for the fundamentally political and self-referential nature of much anthropological writing, citing Geertz’s comment that The Chrysanthemum and the Sword should be read as Swiftian satire on the US rather than as analysis of Japan.4 He goes on to discuss the historiographical position of Benedict’s argument

Benedict’s judgment on Japan can be seen in her answer to the question: why did Japan fight this war? Her answer makes no use of economic or political explanations. Japan did not follow the well-known logic of colonial and imperialist powers, seeking markets, resources, investment outlets and cheap labor. Nor did Japan follow the well-beaten path of tyranny, seeking power, glory, a central place in history. Nor had Japan (in contrast to Germany and Italy) passed over into an extraordinary state of political pathology: nowhere does she use the concepts of fascism, totalitarianism, or any similar notion. To admit the relevance of any of these explanations would be to admit that Japan’s behavior was understandable according to ordinary “Western” reason – that it was yet another rather extreme and badly-timed example of plain, old-fashioned imperialism. Benedict was determined to show that Japan’s behavior was utterly different from anything known in the “West”, and understandable to “Westerners” only by means of her “ethnologist’s magic”, the anthropological method. The explanation for Japan’s conduct of the war could only lie in “a cultural problem”: the war was the inevitable expression of Japanese culture itself.

Militarist Japan was for her simply “Japan” – Japan as it had always been, and as it would continue to be unless changed from the outside.

That her historical understanding is flawed should be obvious to our readers. That her expression of cultural uniqueness spawned a new wave of Japanese nationalism is also not news. What’s particularly interesting about Lummis’s article — which goes on from there to discuss Benedict’s life and career in some detail, with the usual damning portrayal of mid-century anthropology — is his portrait of Robert Hashima, Benedict’s most important “informant”: Hashima was a kibei — US-born but returned to Japan as a teen to study — who got back to the US just in time to be interned and work for anthropologist John Embree. Lummis argues that Hashima’s lack of depth in Japanese culture — intense militarism was his only experience of it — is key to understanding the other flaws of Benedict’s work.

As bad as Benedict’s work was, it struck a chord, and its longevity owes a great deal to the people who want the unique, ineffable and militaristic Japan to be a reality again. I think there’s no better evidence for this than the Museological debates described in Laura Hein and Akiko Takenaka, “Exhibiting World War II in Japan and the United States since 1995″ (and also analyzed in Megan Jones’s survey of War Memorial Musems). Though they take some well-earned shots at the Enola Gay exhibit controversy on the US side, the article is almost entirely about Japanese war and peace museums, particularly about the concerted campaigns waged by conservative (in this case meaning pro-militaristic nationalists) groups against exhibits which show anything negative — i.e. honest — about Japan’s role in WWII. I was particularly struck by the description of “the Peace Memorial Prayer and Exhibit Hall (Heiwa Kinen Tenji Shiryokan), located on the 31st floor of the Sumitomo Building in Shinjuku, Tokyo” (emphasis added)

The Shinjuku Peace Hall was established in 2000 to “console three groups of people by educating the general public about the difficulties they faced”: soldiers who are not eligible for pensions since they did not fulfill their service requirements (mostly because they were drafted near the end of the war); Japanese detained in Siberia after the war; and civilian repatriates from Manchuria and other parts of East Asia. The Exhibit Hall is meant to teach visitors about the hardships these groups experienced through its display of artifacts and visual aids. While the Fund was established in response to complaints by the three groups, each of whom felt they were not receiving the reparations they deserved, it is oriented more toward publicity than monetary reparation. The exhibit has a rather peculiar format, of three sections, each with precisely the same layout, organization, and numbers of items displayed; a result of the effort the organizers took to be absolutely fair.

Curator Furudate Yutaka has defined the most important goal of the Exhibit Hall as pleasing all visitors, by which he means all Japanese visitors. [9] He believes that the displays must not have a narrative or present a particular viewpoint that might offend anyone. His strategy is to drastically limit contextual explanations of the chosen topics—including such questions as why so many Japanese civilians were living in Manchuria in 1945. Furudate believes that if he strips away all interpretive framing of the exhibit, which is likely to provoke controversy, and reduces it to only the materials directly relating to the daily lives of foot-soldiers, Siberian prisoners, and civilians trapped in China, the enormity of their suffering will convey the anti-war message he hopes to send. While some context is provided in the brief timeline presented at the entrance of the hall, the exhibits themselves focus on artifacts and personal narratives in order to convey the typical experience of each group. The one strong perspective that does emerge—precisely because it is not controversial–is that war causes great suffering.

They cite the shift in modern museology away from strong curatorial views towards a more interactive and dialogic style of exhibit in which museum-goers are seen less as “viewers” and more as “participants” but also note that most Japanese war/peace museums have civil servants rather than professionally trained curatorial staff. And the end up with the observation, hinted at in the quotation above, that museums on both sides of the Pacific are invariably aimed at domestic audiences, and the controversies hinge, really, on the denial of the reality of international perspectives.

  1. If I keep this up, I’m going to have to start putting “War and Memory” on my c.v.: it seems like all anyone writes about nowadays with regard to Japan. []
  2. The video is pretty good, for 20 minutes, but a few things struck me as odd. The first segment seems rather cliched, both musically and visually. In the second segment a group of Waseda students is discussing rearmament, and the one who expresses the clearest pro-nuclear position has a distinctly un-Japanese name (I’m guessing resident Korean Japanese, but it’s impossible to tell for sure). And Mr. Taniguchi from the Foreign Ministry seems to be expressing a pretty clear and partisan opinion, more so than I would have expected from a bureaucrat. []
  3. Hanley’s work comes to mind most immediately. Ohnuki-Tierney, too []
  4. Lummis also notes that Japan was the only real country in Gulliver’s Travels, which I hadn’t realized []

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