Modern Japan in Anglophone Historical Fiction

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:25 pm

ASPAC 2013
Jonathan Dresner
Pittsburg State University

“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.” — Jonathan Dresner

“…flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. … I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and I rarely read it (especially in my own field!).” — Jonathan Dresner

Roughly Chronologically:

  • Gai-jin (James Clavell, 1993): 1862-1863
  • The Apprentice (Lewis Libby, 1996): 1903
  • The Teahouse Fire (Ellis Avery, 2006): Bakumatsu and Meiji.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden, 1997): subject born in 1920, lived until after WWII.



Teachers and National Ideologies

Filed under: — sayaka @ 2:05 am

I have been collecting and reading various materials that could potentially reveal how people lived in rural villages between the 1910s and 1940s. Village teachers were particularly eager to write down their thoughts and experiences. Since most of them did not get enough pay to survive, being a teacher (especially in the late 1920s onwards) required a lot of commitment and self-sacrifice on their part. In their writings, good information is often covered by the thick coat of ideological arguments on nationalism, agrarianism (農本主義), which the Home Ministry encouraged to develop as a part of social moral suasion (社会教化), and/or respect for the military that became more and more ostensible during the 1930s. In fact, it is impossible for me to tell whether they truly embraced these ideologies, but their writings are passionate enough to appear that they meant it.

Now I face a difficult question of how to interpret these teachers. How would I depict them if I was making a movie? Were they ideological machines to create an ideal nation? Were they the first ones to be “brain-washed” before brain-washing other populations? As soon as I put the question this way, I am urged to say “no, things must have been more complex than that.” No matter how blindly nationalistic they sounded,  I also see that this was out of their struggle to find a way to give their students control over their own lives. In most of the cases, they found the methods that the central government advocated the most effective way. One youth school teacher in Oita Prefecture, for example, argued in 1939 that becoming a hardworking and advanced farmer was the only way to survive in the increasing susceptibility of agricultural business to external factors:

農業は外界の事情に支配されることが多い。経済界の動き、自然的事情特に天候の如何によっては半年の労苦を一朝にして水泡に帰せしめることが有り勝ちだ。今日の農業は安全確実な職業とは言えなくなった。…かかる時代においては篤農家、老農、精農の手合いが次第に輝きを増してくるように感じられる。世間が押し並べて風害虫害病害にしてやられる中に一人老農は以前と農作を謳うものだ。物価は下落し農村は不況の裏に沈淪し鋏状価格差の声頻々たる中に平然として余裕ある生活をなし禍を転じて福となす者は篤農の士である。86 (下郡平治『専任教員農村青年学校の経営』東京・第一出版協会 1939、86)

I came across his writing right after reading another book which introduces a teacher in the Meiji/Taisho period who was extremely dedicated to teaching the standard pronunciation of the Japanese language to children in Akita. The skill in the standardized Japanese, or the lack thereof, tremendously affected how young people experienced their national lives like the conscription and higher education, and still means a lot to the people from this region today. It is a typical and blatant nationalizing project from historians’ point of view, yet he was also providing control over life to their students in an important way.

Going over these thoughts, I just realize how similar the problem of interpretations is between these teachers and intellectuals in the colonies. Just like in the cases of colonial intellectuals, however, I also wonder if it is irresponsible for me to leave them outside of my own judgment, pointing out that they were in difficult positions. This must be a ‘being a historian 101′ question, but I still cannot find a comfortable solution to it.


TR’s legacy for FDR: Japanese Aggression?

I really didn’t want to get into the discussion about James Bradley’s op-ed and interview because it’s finals season, and because the argument was so obviously wrong. Other historians have weighed in with a fairly negative review of the argument,1 but there’s a book behind it, so I suppose the discussion has to happen. Eric Rauchway did a reasonably good job of taking the Americanist side against Bradley; I’ve been in the comments over there, arguing, effectively, that there’s a bizarre amount of reality you have to ignore to make the connection between the Portsmouth Treat and Taft-Katsura on the one hand and the Manchurian Incident and Pearl Harbor on the other.

The presumption that Roosevelt doing something more aggressive with regard to Japan’s claims in Korea and elsewhere wouldn’t have produced the Pacific War sooner seems unlikely to me. The combination of US expansion in the Pacific (Hawaii as well as the Philippines) and anti-Japanese/anti-immigrant racism was already leading some Japanese to consider the US a likely competitor and enemy in the near future: an intransigent or pro-Russian Roosevelt would have failed to negotiate the Portsmouth treaty (against which the Japanese people rioted anyway, because there was no indemnity payment) and the US would likely have been unable to integrate Japan into the Wilsonian treaties of the ’20s, and the military would have been even more likely to move aggressively in China and the Pacific sooner than 1931.

From both sides, the US and Japanese, it’s hard to see what Roosevelt could have done differently, even assuming that he had the ahistorical inclination to do so that would have produced a better result.

There’s a satirical theme in Edge of the American West comments which routinely blames people for things that happened many, many years after or before their time. As absurd as it is, I had to point out that some people take it way too seriously. I also noted something which I’m going to have to be sure to emphasize next time I teach this, because I think it’ll clarify things for students:

Nobody intervened on the side of the Chinese, ever. Even the “Open Door policy” was pretty much a dead letter from the beginning. That’s why the Japanese thought they could get away with so much: the 21 Demands make it very clear the direction things are going to go, unless the Chinese can get their acts together quickly (which they didn’t). This is part of what made FDR’s intervention on their behalf so infuriating: it was out of character with the 19th century paradigm, and nobody had ever made a League of Nations decision the foundation of a diplomatic relationship (there was an attempt with the Italy/Ethiopia thing, but it didn’t stick).

I don’t know why people never get tired of “original sin” counterfactual arguments, but they sure don’t.

  1. There’s even a comment from D. Giangreco that I agree with, a rare event. []


Migration, Nationalism, Empire

Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s recent Japan Focus article, “Migrants, Subjects, Citizens: Comparative Perspectives on Nationality in the Prewar Japanese Empire” is an ambitious attempt to integrate identity, legal and strategic issues related to the problem of citizenship in the context of migrations within and between empires.1 The primary comparative material is to British examples, and students of “empire” as a category will find both familiar and new material to work with. Japan itself had such complicated migratory patterns that it really is a whole class of “comparative” study in itself. Morris-Suzuki pretty much covers the whole gamut: Japanese emigration to Hawai’i, N. America, S. America and Asia; Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese migration under Japanese imperium to places within Japan and within the empire.2

What makes the article particularly interesting, aside from the valiant attempt to clarify the various legal contortions of Imperial citizenship3 , is that it parallels some of the arguments I made in January (and June) — that Japanese attitudes towards emigration and immigration are structured by nationalistic and imperialistic narratives which obscure important aspects and which lay the foundation for current problems with immigrant assimilation. Morris-Suzuki is taking a more legal and strategic approach, noting the various places in which the end of Japan’s Empire left former colonial subjects stranded without citizenship, and the political and diplomatic problems, some of which are still unresolved, and seemingly unresolvable.

Some of these problems clearly should have been solved by the US and allies after WWII: full repatriation of Korean subjects in the Japanese home islands, Sakhalin and Manchuria, for example, would have been entirely appropriate. Or would it? Part of me thinks that the diversity represented by Koreans in Japan should have been a good thing for leavening, a bit, Japan’s self-definition as homogenous, but clearly, if it was supposed to accomplish something with regard to multi-cultural understanding, it’s a gloriously failed experiment. The paper almost invites counter-factual speculation: if the lines had been drawn differently, would there have been a significantly different result? Could Japan, in the early 20th century, have developed a version of Imperial Nationalism which wasn’t racialist, or a citizenship system which wasn’t patriarchal and instrumentalist?4

  1. It also contains a citation to one of my own publications, which is always fun, but it’s on a minor point, and her main discussion of material related to my article comes from other sources. Oh, well. []
  2. She does talk about the integration of Okinawans to some extent, but leaves out their anomalous status after WWII. Not a complaint or a criticism, though it does raise fascinating questions. There’s just not enough room in the world to cover everything. []
  3. and in this regard, Japan’s koseki family registration system seems to be arguably simpler and more reasonable than several of the British attempts to both authorize and limit the mobility of colonial subjects []
  4. there was an article in one of my regular journals recently — AHR, JAS, JJS — which argued that Japan’s Imperium forced it to adopt a more flexible definition of multicultural national identity, but I can’t remember which one and the move has obliterated any organization I had in my journals. I wasn’t terribly convinced at the time, and a large part of my reservation had to do specifically with what Morris-Suzuki highlights: the rhetoric of integration was one-sided and the legal status of colonial subjects was never considered a subject for rectification. []


Controversy over the origins of the Japanese schoolgirl sailor uniform

Filed under: — Nick Kapur @ 10:39 pm

fukuoka-jogakuin-1921.jpgFor years private girls academy Fukuoka Jogakuin in Kyushu has been credited with first introducing in 1921 the famous sailor-style uniform worn by so many middle-school Japanese girls. However a recent investigation by a uniform manufacturer preparing an exhibit on the history of Japanese school uniforms has unearthed photographic evidence that Heian Jogakuin in Kyoto introduced a uniform with a sailor-style flap one year earlier, in 1920.

heian-jogakuin-1920.jpg The debate has heated up, with both schools insisting that they were the first and that the other schools claim is invalid. At a time when declining numbers of Japanese children are forcing private schools to become increasingly cuthroat in their competition for students, having an awesome uniform with a storied past is seen as a way to attract students.

While it seems incontrovertable that the Kyoto school had the sailor flap first, their uniform was an unsightly, shapeless one-piece, where as the Fukuoka school’s uniform is clearly a precursor to the style still in use today, so maybe both schools have a reasonable claim.

Source: セーラー服:発祥論争 平安女学院VS福岡女学院 (毎日新聞)


Akutagawa the Pacifist

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:00 pm

Japan Focus has expanded its mission one more time, this time to include new literary translations! They’ve published a Jay Rubin translation of an Akutagawa Ryonosuke story, The Story of a Head That Fell Off (“Kubi ga ochita hanashi”), which they describe as an “anti-war satire” and put in the context of a large body of untranslated Akutagawa anti-war satires

“Shogun” (The General, 1924), a well-known portrait of a victorious general resembling Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912), the “hero” of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, is a bitter satire of a man responsible for the death of thousands. “The Story of a Head That Fell Off,” set against the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, is an intense cry against the absurdity of war that unfortunately remains as relevant in our barbaric twenty-first century as it was in Akutagawa’s day.

In one brief, startling piece on the political misuse of history, “Kin-shogun” (General Kim, 1922), he incorporated Korean legend into a tale concerning Hideyoshi’s 1598 invasion of Korea.

I admit that most of the Japanese literature I’ve read was translated; I only delve into untranslated literary texts very rarely, but I do try to pay attention to what’s said about literature in other contexts. I’m more than a little surprised that Akutagawa’s anti-war stance never came to my attention before, but perhaps the fact that Akutagawa died in 1927 kept him from becoming a victim of the changing political situation post-1931 and therefore kept his politics a bit under the radar. Also, satire, particularly historical satire, can be very tricky to translate, especially for a general readership which is unfamiliar with the issues, context or style. And literary studies often specifically exclude political history, focusing on aesthetic and “cultural” elements, textual things that avoid the questions of audience and less subtle intentions.

It’s also a bit disconcerting, because Akutagawa is one of the few early 20c authors with which our students have the slightest chance of being familiar, through the famous movie version — and linguistic appropriation of the title to mean a situation of varying accounts — of “Rashomon” (and “In a Grove”, which is actually the story with the varying perspectives).1 It would be nice to have been better informed, and I wonder if my ignorance was common among my colleagues and readers, or if I just missed something obvious along the way.

The story’s pretty good, I’d say. It does have some of that familiar Akutagawa grotesquerie, which allows the characters to go a bit beyond normal polite conversation.

  1. Yeah, I took a look at the Wikipedia article on Akutagawa. It focuses quite exclusively on his more literary endeavors and views, and mentions none of the stories discussed in this article. []


Marginalizing Discourses at ASPAC

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:01 am

For the conclusion to my ASPAC blogging, I want to talk about the panel which invited me to serve as moderator. It was a pleasure, and not just because three of the four of us were Harvard Ph.D.s., though catching up with gossip was fun. The papers covered a solid range of early modern and modern topics — outcastes in the early 19th century, historiography of rebel domains in imperial Japan, political violence in the 1950s — and was uniformly excellent research which should soon see publication. My introduction tried to tie things together thusly

Marginalizing discourses are, of course, actually intended to normalize. These are not out-groups for the sake of individuality or obtuseness, but groups trying to function within society, negotiating from positions of weakness, but using available leverage — function, ideology, resistance — which is considered legitimate. But there is a trend away from formal stratification, through uniformity towards equality: modernity shifts from marginalizing people to marginalizing behavior.



Japanese Diaspora at ASPAC

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:33 am

As I mentioned here and here, I had some great discussions about the question of diaspora at ASPAC. The dividing line between Asian studies and Asian American studies is starting to blur, and I think that’s going to be very productive.

That was actually one of the main points of Jane H. Yamashiro’s lively talk on “The Japanese Diaspora?: Rethinking connections between people of Japanese ancestry”: that disciplinary boundary-crossing is productive, but that the very different origins, political and disciplinary stances of Asian Studies and Asian American Studies raise problems. Fundamentally, each views the question from a very different place, with a center of focus that affects the kind of issues which are possible to study and discuss. One example of the problem is in terminology: are people of Japanese ancestry who go to Japan “return migrants” or “foreigners” or “going to the homeland”? This is precisely what Yamashiro studies: the experience of Japanese Americans constructing a new identity as they live long-term in Japan, but the very naming of such an experience prefigures some of the answer: how can a first-time visit be a “return” unless identity is more ancestral than individual? And she explicitly rejects the term “diaspora” because, she argues, it fixes the center of the Japanese American experience in Japan instead of in America.



AHA Blogging Day One: Between Naps

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:20 pm

They call it a “red eye flight” for a reason. I really hope that none of the panelists at “Unstable Bodies, Unsettled Movements: Sport, Performance and Nation in Japan” took my nodding off personally: I really did want to hear what they had to say. (If anyone went to the Historians in Public roundtable and wants to share, I’d be grateful, by the way: that was my second choice.)

Aside from hearing the panelists, I got to meet not one, but two of my fellow Frog-bloggers: Dennis Frost, who was on the panel, and Michael Wert, who was in the audience with me. Tomorrow I get to hang out with Cliopatriots (being emeritoid, myself) and find out who won the Clios for last year! I love it.



皆さん、はじめまして。斉川貴嗣(Saikawa Takashi)と申します。


まずは簡単な自己紹介。現在、早稲田大学大学院政治学研究科の学生(博士課程)です。専門は国際関係論なのですが、理論研究ではなく歴史研究を行なっています。具体的には、両大戦間期に活動を展開した知的協力国際委員会(International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation)を研究対象としています。この委員会は、1922年に国際連盟の一機関として設立され、当時の世界的な知識人が数多く参加しました。教育交流、文化交流など現在で言えば国際交流を実践した機関で、その理念や活動は今のユネスコに継承されています。私としては、この委員会に非西洋諸国の知識人や政府がどのように関わったのかということに興味があり、特に当時の日本と中国の関与を調べています。日本では新渡戸稲造、田中館愛橘、姉崎正治、中国では呉稚暉、林語堂などの知識人が関わっていて、これら人々の思想研究も行なうつもりです。先月から今月にかけて4週間ほど、ジュネーブの国際連盟アーカイブスに研究調査に行ってきました。結構面白い史料が見つかりましたので、早いうちに何らかのかたちで成果を示すことができればと考えています。


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