Modern Japan in Anglophone Historical Fiction

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:25 pm Print

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.



What do Samurai Have To Do With It?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:24 am Print

FallsofClydeLongViewI saw Margi Preus’s Heart of a Samurai (Amulet, 2010) and the title alone made me cringe: just what the world needs, another kid book touting the putative values of warrior aristocrats! But when I picked it up, I realized immediately that it was something else entirely (or almost entirely): a fictionalized retelling of John Manjiro‘s adventures as a castaway from Japan. Here’s a story that’s worth retelling — though it’s been done a few times already — and which presents a very different light on Japanese history. I borrowed it from my friend1 and discovered that I was right. Both times.

John Manjiro, also known as John Mung and Nakahama Manjiro, spent most of the 1840s on American ships and American soil, finally returning to Japan not long before Perry’s arrival marked the end of Japan’s relative isolation from foreign contact and trade. I haven’t read any of the other books on castaways, though I’ve heard a number of my friend Stephen Kohl’s panels at ASPAC. Manjiro’s tale is more extreme, both in the length of time he was away and the depth of his experiences, not to mention the timing of his return. When he returned he was interrogated thoroughly, then forced to remain in his hometown before being called to service. With his experience, he became a valuable source for policy-makers, starting with his native Tosa domain, passing to Shogunal service, and then as a promoter of Western learning. Manjiro’s journey was well-documented, and highlights some fascinating aspects of mid-19th century global life, including the whaling industry famously chronicled in Moby Dick, early education, and the tensions engendered by Japan’s isolation. Preus’s handling of the chronology and substantive topics is straightforward and sometimes quite good, including the racism Manjiro encountered both at sea and in New England.2

My reservations about this book stem from the samurai lens which is imposed on a commoner’s tale. The title refers to Manjiro, who is described early in the book as having ambitions to become a samurai, fulfilling the romantic and honorable role laid out in the classic tales. (pp. 13-14) Each section of the book has an epigram from Yamamoto’s Hagakure or something called “the Samurai’s Creed”3 and Manjiro’s elevation to sword-wearing Shogunal retainer is treated as the culmination of a long-held dream (as well as being entirely unprecedented). It’s possible that Manjiro really felt this way — I haven’t been able to find any reference to it in the materials I’ve seen — but it certainly seems odd for a tale about a fisherman who became a proponent of egalitarianism and Westernization to have more references to sources on samurai than on village life or Meiji transformations. There was one bit I liked, though: in New England, Manjiro is demonstrating sword fighting to an American friend, but confesses to himself that he has no idea what he’s doing, and that he and his friends in Japan made up their own moves to go along with the styles of fighting they’d heard about but never saw. (p. 133)

There were a few bothersome details — an anachronistic use of bata-kusai and the misuse of the word “sutra” for “prayer” on the same page (p. 31) was particularly troubling and I’d have been happier if Manjiro’s acknowledgement of Japanese whaling came before he expressed shock and horror at Western whaling (p. 45) — but the errors were not fundamentally damaging to the historical context. The fictionalized characters and conflicts (p. 280) seem a bit overdrawn to me, though the issues they raise were real. The length of the book is something of a problem: though it’s almost 300 pages, they are so sparse and there is so much illustration and blank space that the story felt quite rushed. Perhaps the fictionalized material stands out so much because it’s quite detailed, whereas large sections of equally dramatic real life read like paraphrases of the short histories cited above.4

On the whole, not a terrible book, though I think there’s still room for, say, an kid-oriented abridgement of Manjiro’s own testimony, with annotation by actual experts.

  1. who had bought it as a donation to a youth library based on recommendations from other children []
  2. A really excellent summary of Manjiro’s tale can be found here: Nakahama Manjirō’s Hyōsen Kiryaku: A Companion Book : Produced for the Exhibition “Drifting, Nakahama Manjirōs Tale of Discovery” : an Illustrated Manuscript Recounting Ten Years of Adventure at Sea. Aside from the great pictures and introduction, the book claims that Manjiro was used as a kind of spy, eavesdropping on American negotiators (21) []
  3. that’s before part one. In the bibliography, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure is cited twice, both the 1979 and 2008 translations, his name is cited backwards, and once misspelled []
  4. and the helpful material at the end really is fairly clearly paraphrased material. I understand not footnoting the story, but clear references in reference material seems reasonable, no? []


Turnbull Book on Ako

Stephen Turnbull, one of the most prolific and controversial writers on Japanese military history, has written a book on the 47 Samurai incident. The Samurai Archives review is quite positive, though Turnbull’s involvement as historical consultant on the upcoming Keanu Reeves version does raise concerns.

It’s nice to see Turnbull stepping up his game a bit, using front-line scholarship and taking a critical approach, rather than the mish-mash of his earlier books. It seems unlikely to me, though, that the debunking scholarship which has advanced over the last decade or so will have a significant impact on popular versions of the incident. It’s possible, I suppose, that Turnbull’s involvement in the new movie means that it will be a thoroughly revisionist statement1 but the entrenched romantic version is going to remain authoritative until the revisionist history starts to get traction in Japan.

Even then, there’s the Shakespeare problem. We know that his portrayals of English kings and other historical moments were partisan and/or heavily fictionalized, but they remain some of the most enduring images and themes in historical fiction and movies, so that historians are still forced to routinely debunk these myths.2 Chushingura and its ilk created a solid mythology by the dawn of the modern age, and the imperialist valorization of the Ako Roshi and other self-destructive samurai tendencies reinforced a vision of the samurai as abstemious, effective, principled, selfless and frequently violent. It would take a dramatic cultural shift to wipe out this tradition, one that seems unlikely given Japan’s rightward tendencies these days.3

I was screening movies for my Samurai course and came across recommendations (on twitter, I think) for The Twilight Samurai. I was very impressed: the portrayal of samurai poverty, bureaucracy, domainal politics, bakumatsu confusion, and the diversity (and, generally speaking, irrelevance) of fighting styles (and illegality of dueling) was very nicely done. The romantic side was a little over-generous, perhaps, but more realistic that an awful lot of other historical pieces. If you’re looking for a solid historical movie, one that will educate more than it will obscure, it’s very good.

  1. assuming that all the pre-release publicity is wrong []
  2. It doesn’t help that “most historically accurate portrayal ever” in movie advertising usually means precisely the opposite, as the most recent Robin Hood versions demonstrate []
  3. more likely you’d see something like the American transformation of cowboy films: more internal focus and diversity, and an obscuring of the historically undeniable negative sides (i.e., Dances with Wolves and the death of the cowboy-and-indian film) with perhaps some culturally acceptable complications. Frankly, a good Brokeback Mountain treatment would go a long way, plus being historically credible. []


Aizawa Yasushi on America

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:49 pm Print

In the Prefatory Remarks to Aizawa Yasushi‘s 1825 New Theses (新論) we find an interesting little gloss on the relationship of the “Divine Realm” of Japan and the Western world:

The earth lies amid the heavenly firmament, is round in shape, and has no edges. All things exist as nature dictates. Thus, our Divine Realm is at the top of the world. Though not a very large country, it reigns over the Four Quarters because its Imperial Line has never known dynastic change. The Western barbarians represent the thighs, legs, and feet of the universe. This is why they sail hither and yon, indifferent to the distances involved. Moreover, the country they call America is located at the rear end of the world, so its inhabitants are stupid and incompetent. All of this is as nature dictates.

The translation is by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi.


The Teahouse Fire: Painstaking

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:46 pm Print

I don’t often get unsolicited books with handwritten notes from the authors, unless I worked with them in some way. What was even more surprising is that the book came to my new office before I was even done unpacking! That’s pretty spiffy service. The book had blurbs from Maxine Hong Kingston and Liza Dalby, which was promising. The book was about The World of Tea, and centered on an orphaned American taken in by a prominent Japanese family; not so promising. The author, Ellis Avery is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia in Creative Writing, and a five year veteran, we’re told in her bio, of tea ceremony training. Well, most of my fun books were in boxes, so I did read The Teahouse Fire, and since it is about the bakumatsu-Meiji era, I feel I should say something about it.

The Teahouse Fire is a historical fiction, which shares most of the 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. Though the story does less damage to the historical narrative than usual for this kind of work, it is still an excellent example of why I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and why I rarely read it (especially in my own field!). [SPOILERS ahead]1


  1. I’m an historian, so knowing how it comes out doesn’t bother me. []


Marginalizing Discourses at ASPAC

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:01 am Print

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.



Pearl Harbor and the longue duree

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:41 am Print

In honor of the 65th anniversary, HNN has a Pearl Harbor extravaganza this week. There’s a little recap, and the obligatory zombie error smackdown, which are fine. The article by George Feifer, though, is considerably more challenging: he argues that Pearl Harbor is a direct result of Perry’s opening of Japan.

Think about that one a minute. The argument, roughly, goes like this: by forcing Japan to recognize its technological and cultural inferiority, by humiliating the nation, the US put Japan on a path of competitive militarization and power expansion directed at mirroring and surpassing specifically US power, which ultimately resulted in the clash of empires which never coincides with anything convenient in the academic calendar. He even argues, echoing Ishiwara Kanji, that the US shouldn’t have been surprised, given how the US-Japan relationship begins, by the result.

I don’t find that argument any more convincing than the ones which argue a straight line between Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are some interesting assertions — not much in the way of evidence, but it’s a short piece — about the military commanders involved, Ishiwara Kanji and Yamamoto Isoroku, but it’s a long way from poetic justice to historical causality. You can’t draw straight lines across broad fields of contingencies. To fixate on the US-Japan relationship, to the exclusion of Japan’s other unsatisfactory international relationships, to fixate on Perry as the cause to the exclusion of basic facts of geography in an age of geo-politics, to distill a complex of policy and principle down to a simplistic vengeance “served cold”, may make for a satisfying narrative, but doesn’t — it seems to me — adhere to any of the principles of good historical logic which we’re supposed to model for our students and leaders.

Feifer is actually doing more than just arguing a long causal chain; he’s also drawing parallels between the opening of Japan and the US intervention in Iraq: misleading public statements about goals (“The shipwrecked-sailors issue was the weapons-of-mass-destruction boondoggle of its day”), cultural supremacism, imperialistic zeal (he compares Commodore Perry with Vice President Cheney, which really puts the “conservative” back in “neo-con”) and the role of coal as the oil of the 19th century. You could find those four elements — really only three: supremacism, imperialism and resource security — in lots of 19th and 20th century interventions. He ends with the portentous lines: “The galled people with the punctured conviction of their own superiority took special pleasure in the sinking of four ships on Battleship Row: the number with which Perry first menaced them. Shouldn’t that prompt thought about the unintended consequences of using force?” The implication here is that even if our adventurism in Iraq turns out well inthe short or medium term, it’s likely to come back to bite us eventually. While I’m sympathetic to this argument in some forms (and I know how hard it is to find a good closing line, too), its overreaching: ultimately there are no uses of force which don’t have possible unintended consequences.

If the Americans hadn’t gotten Japan to sign treaties, others would have — Russians, British — and it would have been no less humiliating. If the Americans hadn’t colonized the Pacific, the Spanish and Dutch and British would still have been there. If the Russians hadn’t been agressive in northeast Asia… well, they wouldn’t have been Russians, and then we’re talking way-out counterfactuals. Japan had a lot of reason to feel threatened, a lot of nations looking down at them, and its success made conflict over resources and territory very likely. Single lines don’t connect all these dots.


Homosexuality in Japan: The Meiji Gap

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:00 am Print

The effects of Meiji reforms on women have been pretty well documented: the continued legality of prostitution, including indenture; the consolidation of male power within family law and politics; the rise of the “Good Wife; Wise Mother” cult of femininity, education; etc. There’s been relatively little research that I’m aware of which really takes the male experience of Meiji all that seriously, separate from the general “Japanese” experience. One of the areas in which that’s really obvious, even to my students, is sexuality.

How quickly can the closet door close? One of the as-yet unstudied oddities of Japanese history is the shift in male sexuality from the Tokugawa to Meiji eras. As an example of the state of the field, here’s a recently published translation of a Japanese article from about two years ago:

Although there are many literary and artistic representations dating from the Edo period (1603-1857) which describe sexual acts which took place between men using terms such as danshoku and wakashu, at that time participating in such acts did not designate a specific type of person and so these records cannot be read as part of the history of ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ men. The so-called ‘birth’ of the homosexual took place in Japan in the Meiji (1858-1912) and Taisho (1912-25) periods when participating in same-sex sexual acts came to be understood as the result of a personal disposition, but almost no first-person narratives survive from this time.

The only records which remain from this period are case studies and analyses from a genre of sexology publications dating from 1900 which treated ‘homosexuality’ as one example of ‘perverse sexuality.’ There are also some articles and reports about cross-dressing male prostitutes who existed before and after World War II, but these reports, are also ‘about’ homosexuals and do not represent their own voices. However, this period of silence in which there were no records created by homosexuals themselves began to change in 1950 with the appearance of magazines such as Amatoria which took sex as their theme.

The near-total silence of Meiji sources is quite remarkable. It’s not like all the samurai just disappeared, and there’s a great deal of continuity in social, family, consumptive and cultural practices between Tokugawa and Meiji. I’m quite sure that the influence of Western sexual taboos is very strong in this regard, but it’s somewhat surprising that the deliberately transgressive and sexual “I-novel” writings of the Meiji and Taisho eras, for example, contain no (as far as I know) considerations of homosexuality.

It’s possible, I suppose, that the “Tokugawa” traditions of male-male sexual practices are really “early-mid” Tokugawa practices, which had mostly died out by the 19th century, but that’s a question for someone who knows the literature better than I. It’s also possible that the silence in the sources is a temporary thing, a result of our research interests, but there are people actively studying sexuality in Japan and it strikes me as odd, but not at all dispositive, that so little has been found.


On-line Japanese history resources

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:02 am Print

While looking for a supplement to the anemic textbook offerings on Tokugawa Japan (none of the stuff is out of copyright, probably, which is why it’s not in the document set), I came across this great collection of links to history resources. (via Early Modern Resources) I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (quick document readings for world history students) but it’s a likely source for something especially visual materials.

Update (1/23/06): I didn’t think I’d find much in the David Rumsey Map collection, because it seemed to be heavily European maps, and I was right: a few interesting maps of Japan produced by Europeans, but not much compared to the wealth of material for Western historians. Then, as I was about to give up, I noticed the link to the Japan collection Yes, the UC Berkeley East Asian Library collection of historical Japanese maps (and a few other images) has been digitized and is available under Creative Commons license. There’s a lot of mid-to-late Tokugawa and Meiji era stuff, in particular: right up my alley.

Here’s a good illustration of the image quality and flexibility of the service: the very center of a 1710 map of the world:


A Welcome Find

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:24 am Print

One of the very interesting things I discovered doing my dissertation was the relatively meager state of scholarship on Meiji era financial institutions, particularly on the ways in which Japanese used (and avoided) new systems of savings, transfers/remittances, loans, etc. I ended up being quite impressed by the financial sophistication of supposedly unsophisticated peasant migrant laborers, and considerably more sympathetic to the assumptions of economic history as a result.

My advisor even tried to steer me in that direction: I had to do some background reading on the Yokohama Specie Bank, which played a role in early Hawai’i-Japan remittances (by establishing one of Japan’s first overseas bank branches!), and he was disappointed that the bank itself did not sufficiently fire my historical curiousity that I might take it up as a topic in itself. It is true, though, that there remain questions which I can’t answer to my own satisfaction because I don’t know enough about Meiji banking.

Well, Sharon Howard forwarded me a link to Michael Schlitz’s Histor¥ which is described both as a “weblog about Meiji financial reforms” and (quite tantalizingly) an “opensource project on Japanese financial history 1850-1917.” I’m thrilled to see this topic getting the attention it deserves and available on-line, to boot! Now, I just need time to read through his archives and make notes….

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