井の中の蛙

6/8/2013

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.

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9/20/2012

Senkaku Islands: New Sources, New Clarity?

NYT reporter Nick Kristof brought in a guest blogger, Han-Yi Shaw of Taiwan, to examine some new mid-Meiji documentation about Japan’s relationship with the contested Senkaku/Daiyou islands. The core of Shaw’s findings is

the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.

After several abortive attempts to survey the islands, the Japanese government declared them incorporated Japanese territory during the Sino-Japanese war, despite recognizing that it should have been negotiated with China. As territory seized in 1895, it should have been reverted to China in 1945, but for a variety of reasons, including an administrative shift of the islands from Taiwan to Okinawa prefecture, it remained outside of negotiations until a few years later.

It’s a reasonably persuasive presentation, historically, though I don’t think that these details are going to shift Japanese nationalists, even mild or moderate ones, to support politicians who would abandon Japan’s claim to these useless rocks which sit in such valuable territory. And as long as there’s no particular cost to maintaining the claim — Chinese hostility to Japan is not predicated on this issue sufficiently that abandoning the claim would eliminate anti-Japanese sentiment as a nationalist motivational tool of the mainland regime — it seems unlikely that anything will change, except a few American lectures.

11/27/2011

Seppuku: A Samurai Suicide Miscellany

For a little entertainment this Thanksgiving, I read Andrew Rankin’s Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide (Kodansha, 2011).1 Since I’m teaching both Samurai and Early Japan this semester, seemed like a good supplemental read, and this is the first thing resembling a lull I’ve had all semester. This is an attractive little book, substantially researched, but not much of a history. It’s more like a miscellany, a collection of materials in search of a thesis.
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  1. It helps to have friends who are journal editors: my colleague at Midwest Quarterly passed it on to see if it was worth a review, shortly before the journal gave up reviewing. []

5/18/2010

Update: Japanese to the Rescue

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:09 pm Print

In April I made a short posting about an interesting work of fiction from 1907, called Death Trap by R. W. Cole1 that depicts a future German invasion of Britain that is repulsed only thanks to the valiant efforts of the Japanese military.

Thanks to the wonderful marvel that is inter-library loan, one of the Hampshire County Libraries in England was kind enough to loan Widener library its copy of the 1907 book long enough for me to take a quick peek at it this afternoon and scan the pages from the end of the book which depicts the Japanese liberation of an occupied Britain. Since the book is no longer protected by copyright, if you are interested, you can download my quick scans from the book as a PDF here.2

Reading the original I find this to be a really wonderful example of a widespread admiration for Japan found throughout the world in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war. At the climax of Cole’s novel, when the Germans had “almost achieved their purpose of crushing England to submission,” and mobs of desperate civilians “paraded the streets of north and east London crying for peace at any price,”3 there are suddenly sounds of artillery coming from the Kent coast. The Germans react with concern, determine that the Japanese have arrived, but are confident of ultimate victory. A massive naval battle ensues between the Germans and Russians on one side, with the British and Japanese on the other. “Several ships were missing from the Russian and German squadrons, for the Japanese torpedo-boats had delivered attacks of unsurpassed audacity and skill the previous night.” Though the fleets were equally matched,

“The Germans and Russians fought like heroes, but the strategy of the Japanese admiral, who stood with folded arms directing the battle from his conning tower, was superior to theirs. Hours passed. The little yellow man still calmly gave his orders and watched the battle. Ships were battered by shells, rammed, sunk and torpedoed. But the yellow men were triumphant everywhere, and soon their enemies’ ships floated as useless hulks upon the waves…”4

Shortly thereafter, “thousands of Japanese army officers landed at Liverpool…All were ready to take over their commands at once, and at the head of all were field-marshals who had fought in Manchuria. Almost every member of this vast array of officers had seen service in the Russo-Japanese War.”

Despite the fact that the Japanese are described as “little yellow men” Cole repeatedly returns to compliment them on their intelligence and skill. It is the German army which is described as, “raw hordes of half-trained men”5 and the British military forces are merely the frontline soldiers who are commanded by their more superior Japanese leaders, as Cole writes, “The presence of innumerable Japanese officers of all ranks in the British amateur army had greatly improved its value.” Even before the final clash of armies in the British countryside, “parties of British infantry and cavalry under Japanese officers were always dropping down from apparently nowhere, and cutting off stragglers, intercepting ammunition and commissariat wagons, sometimes even firing on the artillery trains.”6

This is again shown in the description of the final battle:

“At last the armies met, and the Germans went into action confident of victory. But they were roughly undeceived, for although the rank and file were weak and ineffective, the Japanese officers were far superior in dash and science to the Kaiser’s. After all, the strength of an army lies in its brains, and the British and their Japanese allies had both brains and numbers.”7

When the battle went badly, the Germans attempted to retreat and escape from “this Hell of anguish and defeat. But the doors were already closed by British troops led by skilful Japanese.”8

When the Germans had been surrounded, the British and Japanese victors exacted severe peace terms on a shocked Kaiser. However, “the final victory gave [Britain] little satisfaction, for it was universally known that it was due to the highly-skilled aid of Japan, and not to the martial prowess of the British.”9 As would be happen in reality only a decade after this novel was published, Germany lost its imperial possessions, Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France. This humiliating fate was “all wrought by the despised yellow monkeys from the Far East.”10

A novel like this is only one of many publications in the first few decades of the twentieth century that are filled with admiration for Japan, its martial culture, and its rapid industrialization. Already here though we see a depiction of the Japanese that would endure in future wars: the emphasis on a contrast between their diminutive stature and the supposed fact that they are essentially an usually gifted and intelligent people, or in the words of one German officer in the novel, “Those Japanese are very clever.”11

  1. Brett from airminded.org points out in a comment to that posting that Cole also wrote a book that posits the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon empire into space. Read more about this over at his blog. []
  2. I scanned the title page, the first chapter, and then the last few chapters from around where the first mention I noticed of the Japanese. []
  3. p. 273 []
  4. p. 278 []
  5. p282 []
  6. p. 283 []
  7. p. 284 []
  8. p. 297 []
  9. p. 311 []
  10. p. 311 []
  11. p. 277 []

5/12/2010

AAS 2010: Annexation Centennial

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:39 am Print

Final exams crash onto my desk tomorrow, but I’m as organized as I can be in advance, so I thought I’d do a little belated AAS blogging, especially about the pair of panels on Saturday commemorating the centennial of Japan’s annexation of Korea and the 50th anniversary of Hilary Conroy’s groundbreaking study of same.
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3/19/2010

Some Good Old Treaty Port Humor

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 11:09 pm Print

I found this gem in a June 21, 1900 Washington Post article:

southampton.jpg

It is a cute, and surely manufactured story, but it does get at something I have wondered about: did Asian powers who were granting special rights in their ports to Europeans ever seek any similar special trade access to certain ports in Europe?

12/10/2009

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. []

11/16/2009

The Bow

President Barack Obama shakes hands and bows with Emperor AkihitoVia my old friend Scott Eric Kaufman I learned that President Obama’s visit to Japan was drawing criticism from the American right (I also learned that President Eisenhower bowed in public to a number of heads of state) due to Obama’s bowed greeting to Emperor Akihito.

Most of the commentary (this is an excellent roundup) hinges on whether it’s inappropriate for an American Head of State to bow to another Head of State. This is, of course, why Kaufman was noting Eisenhower’s bows, none of which were, apparently, mutual; other commenters have noted Clinton’s bow fifteen years earlier, and Nixon’s bow/handshake greeting with Emperor Hirohito. Some of the criticism is nuanced enough to note that mutual bows are appropriate greetings in Japan, but suggests that Obama’s bow was inappropriately deep and therefore servile and inappropriate.

Part of the problem in discussing this is the assumption that there is a stable protocol: Japan’s modern Imperial institution is younger than the American Republic, and interactions with other heads of state have always been somewhat improvisational. Before the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor didn’t meet heads of state. For centuries, the Emperor basically met nobody who wasn’t a member of the court aristocracy or high officials of the shogunal state: there was no public protocol except for a vague tradition that required the Emperor be above the gaze of anyone, not to be looked down upon. That tradition was revived in the Imperial era, but it wasn’t much guidance in dealing with modern crowds, photography, diplomatic visits. Even Meiji’s coronation ceremony was an innovation, purged of Chinese elements and enhanced with Shinto rituals. (See Keene, ch. 18) The first head of state to visit was Hawaiian King Kalakaua, but he was actually preceeded by a visit from former President U.S. Grant who greeted the Emperor with handshakes. Every time an aristocrat or diplomat met the Emperor, protocol had to be negotiated in advance, and it shifted over time: when and how much to bow, whether handshakes would be permitted, whether foreign women could enter the Emperor’s presence with their diplomat husbands, etc. But this wasn’t yet the great age of state visits: that doesn’t come until the 20th century, and the rise of air travel.

Before the next America presidential visit with a Japanese emperor, though, WWII intervened: the Japanese Emperor was demoted from sacred and inviolable to the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people. More importantly, perhaps, Japan became a neo-colonial extension of American power for a time (when that time ends is a matter of debate, of course) so that Presidential courtesies like Nixon’s bow were harmless to American power. By the time of Clinton’s gesture, though, Japan’s economic power was a threat to American dominance (well, with the 90s recession, not really, but pundits had spent a good portion of the ’80s talking up the Japanese threat, and the impression stuck), and the Imperial transition of 1989 took away the American sense that the Emperor was someone who had been defeated and disarmed. Even Clinton’s gesture towards a bow was too much for some, apparently: the very concept of monarchy raised spectres of pre-Revolutionary attitudes, though bowing is not necessarily a subservient act when done between equals (or by a superior) in the Japanese tradition.

Obama’s bow is a very formal one — formality and hierarchy are two different things — and in the context of a handshake. It doesn’t change the nature of the US-Japan relationship as much as the election of Japan’s new non-LDP PM, as much as the rising nationalistic culture, as much as the ongoing shifts in the economic relationship between two of the largest — and most obviously struggling — economies in the world.

9/2/2009

World War Wannabee: Russo-Japanese War?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:05 pm Print

Brett Holman notes a new contender in the “really First World War” sweepstakes — the Seven Years War and Napoleonic Wars being leading early contenders — namely The Russo-Japanese War. John Steinberg, editor of the two-volume The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero offers ten points of comparison that he seems to consder hallmarks of a world war:

1. Like World War I, the origins of the Russo-Japanese War were rooted in imperialistic competition between world powers

2. As in August 1914, when the Russo-Japanese conflict began, it was fought in a neutral country(s) (China and Korea)

3. In the midst of the conflict and in the area where combat occurred, governmental structures broke down and the emergency was greeted with a response by non-governmental agencies such as the Red Cross

4. The conflict was marked by the use of sophisticated, complicated, and (above all else) lethal industrial weapons such as machine guns, rapid fire infantry assault weapons, rapid fire artillery, mines, and torpedoes. These were accompanied by the logistical infrastructure needed to keep ammunition and other essential supplies flowing to modern fielded armies

5. The natural product of the War’s deadly battlefields — mass casualties — required levels of aid which no medical corps of the period had the ability to help. The sheer numbers of men in need of aid overwhelmed these units.

6. The duration of battles at the beginning of the War lasted two or three days (The Yalu and Nanshan) and were contained to relatively small areas. By the end of the war the battles of Liaoyang and Mukden lasted weeks and featured battlefields that extended for kilometers. [NB: In terms of duration and brutality, the six to seven-month siege of Port Arthur foreshadowed what later happened at Verdun in 1916.]

7. The cost of fighting such a technologically demanding war required the formation of international syndicates of bankers simply to derive the credit needed for both the Japanese and Russians to keep purchasing and producing weapons and munitions.

8. Like WWI, the Russo-Japanese War was widely reported on and represented in all forms of visual presentations, from photographs to wood block prints.

9. Like Versailles, the Treaty of Portsmouth occurred only after one belligerent (Japan) ran out of men, materials and credit, and the Russians found themselves in the midst of a Revolution. Perhaps more to the point, the treaty itself resolved little beyond ending hostilities and, worse, created circumstances that fueled grievances that culminated in future conflict.

10. When the war concluded and the peace was signed the strengthening of the pan-Asian movement continued to fuel animosities that further destabilized the world.

My immediate reaction, like Brett, is that this is list of similarities, which is interesting, but that they are aspects of modern warfare rather than a description of the kind of global cataclysmic or transformative event that would justify the “world war” moniker. You could say that it was a sort of regional prototype for the war, but you could say that about just about any conflict after the Franco-Prussian war, including the Spanish-American war (which probably ought to go on the “World War Wannabee” list, as a bi-oceanic, imperial conflict); one of Steinberg’s co-bloggers notes that the Russo-Turkish war fits all those criteria, but that still doesn’t qualify it as a “World War,” just a nasty imperialistic conflict.

Most of these points are weak comparisons, I think, but arguable: the idea (point 2) that the natural battleground for a World War is neutral nations’ territories, for example, ignores the difference between truly “neutral” and “in the sphere of influence”/colony which really defines the initial (and for the R-J war, only) battlegrounds of imperialist wars. The last point perplexes me thoroughly: while there certainly is an upsurge in anti-Japanese (and generally anti-Imperial) nationalism in China and Korea after the R-J War, to describe this as “pan-Asian sentiment” seems wrong. If he’s arguing that Japan’s success leads to an upsurge of pan-Asianism in Japan, that’s more reasonable, but to describe it as a “movement” and to place the blame for Asia’s early 20th century destabilization on that rather than continued imperialistic pressures (for which pan-Asianism was a fig leaf of rationalization, nothing more) is overblown.

2/11/2009

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

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

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