井の中の蛙

4/13/2014

ASPAC 2014 Abstract: Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:29 pm

It’s that time of year again, when procrastinators do their taxes, spring cleaning, and summer abstract writing in one weekend!

My proposed paper for ASPAC this year (at Western Washington in Bellingham) is a variation on something I’ve been working on for a while now, no surprise to longtime readers of this blog, or of HNN, or to my students who have heard me rant and rail about the tragedies of historical fiction and historical movies for a decade or more. I’m going to try to focus on a kind of historiographical reading of the movies, and to talk about how we as public experts, teachers and writers, might productively respond to or use these works.

Here’s the abstract itself, which was limited to 100 words:

Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema
History is a rich vein of stories and settings, and popular historical movies can have immense effects on the historical understanding of general publics. This is especially true in Japanese history in English-speaking societies, where knowledge is often limited to one-sided understandings of unique episodes and orientalist mythologies of unchanging culture. This paper will examine a number of English-language movies, recent and older, not to catalog historical errors, but to understand how historical memory and Japanese historical processes are understood and portrayed. Finally, this paper will consider how that might affect the work of Japan specialists addressing these audiences.

I have a preliminary list of movies to address, most of which I’ve seen. I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has ideas about other films to consider?

  • The Last Samurai
  • 47 Ronin (see also)
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • The Barbarian and the Geisha
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Shogun
  • Karate Kid 2
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

Obviously, some of these are more important than others, in terms of audience range and likely effect on people’s ability to think about history in a coherent fashion: KK2 is probably more important than TMNT3, and the John Wayne, whatever its flaws or virtues, isn’t going to be more than a faint echo in the historical consciousness of contemporary audiences. The more recent films, including the wretched mess from Christmas, are going to weigh more heavily.

12/24/2012

A memory stirs…

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:16 am

Reading Emily Whewell’s review of this new book on the Chinese and Japanese treaty port systems and extraterritoriality brought back a long-ago scholarly memory.

My first seminar paper in graduate school — that small snippet of scholarship which is supposed to prepare callow youth (intellectually speaking) for greater things, and scout a path through the existing forests of scholarship — was a comparison of the Chinese and Japanese treaty port systems. I remember very little about the paper, except embarassment.

I titled the paper something like “The Treaty Port Systems of Japan and China: A Fruitful Comparison” — and Cassell’s work, cited above, confirms my sense of topic, if not my other judgements — and in the end I came to the conclusion that the systems were, in fact, too different to be considered quite the same thing. In fact, I concluded, it was like “apples and oranges”….

It’s a wonder that I survived graduate school. I try to remember that when I’m evaluating my own students.

5/5/2012

Moving Migration Into History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:39 pm

Via Aaron Bady, I saw a wonderful article by Imke Sturm-Martin about the challenges of integrating migration history into the mainstream of European historical consciousness.1 Europe is not the only place where migration history has complicated traditional narratives, and where migration history has contemporary political implications, but it is a bit ahead of the curve, thanks to the usual patterns of economic and social change, compounded regional integration. I don’t have time to give this the full treatment it deserves, but Sturm-Martin’s most interesting point is that the full integration of history into master national narratives is very much hindered by those national narratives.

Which migration should become part of a European narrative? The question is not an easy one – the only uncontroversial instances are migrations that lie so far back in time that all can agree on their consequences for European history. It is much harder to agree about migration in recent history and the present, and even individual national historiographies have trouble with such cases. Whenever and wherever the consequences of migration are felt in the present, questions arise of minority rights, group rights, inequality and discrimination, and demand that any “official” history be politically correct.

Like any other public presentation of history, the House of European History in Brussels, due to open in 2014, will be unable to avoid taking a political stance on such questions. … Visitors are to be told about the great migrations of antiquity, about migration from the countryside to the cities during the industrial revolution, and about the refugees and displaced or expelled persons who migrated after both World Wars. This list does not mention the “international” aspects of seasonal migration in Early Modern Europe, a well-researched topic by now; nor does it mention the vast scale of emigration to the Americas from various European countries, or the substantial migration from outside Europe at the end of the colonial era. Even the workforce recruitment campaigns in the southern countries during Europe’s boom years in the 1950s and 1960s is omitted. Such large-scale historical processes have fallen victim to the necessary selection process, but they might perhaps be part of the section “Questions for Europe’s Future”, which aims to throw up questions for visitors to ponder. One of these is, “How can the EU react to the demographic change affecting all its member states? Is encouraging immigration an effective response?”

There is a very powerful trend to turn history into a balance sheet of justice, which migration history often runs right into. But it’s also possible that migration history may make that kind of accounting impossible, done properly.

  1. Sturm-Martin, Imke. Translation by Samuel Willcocks. “Migration: Europe’s absent history,” Eurozine 30 April 2012. http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2012-04-30-sturmmartin-en.html []

2/1/2012

History Carnival CVI (December 2011-January 2012)

Welcome to the 106th Roundup of History Blogging, a double-sized edition. Fortunately, being a blog, we never really run out of space.

First, the two biggest events of the annual calendar happen in January: The American Historical Association Meeting and the Cliopatria Awards. Both, fortunately, have nice, tidy round-up posts I can link to! The Cliopatria awards for 2011 included

There was a LOT of blogging and tweeting at this year’s AHA, much of it centered on the groundbreaking #THATCamp — the first held in conjunction with a national organizational conference — which brought a lot of heavyweight and beginning digital history folks together. There were even some interesting historical papers delivered, I’m told. Check out the collection: it covers just about everything I read on the conference, and then some. Next Year In New Orleans!

A public service announcement: Sharon Howard has updated the Early Modern Commons blog aggregator, http://commons.earlymodernweb.org/, and the general history aggregator, http://thebroadside.org/. If you’re not getting enough history in your media diet, this is the one-stop shop. OK, two stop shop.

For the remainder of the carnival, I’m mostly going to be posting titles and what I hope are intriguing quotations: nothing fancy, but there’s some really neat stuff here.
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11/27/2011

Seppuku: A Samurai Suicide Miscellany

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:20 pm

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. []

9/5/2011

Twitterstorian Anniversary

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:56 pm

Telephones - late 1800s-1930sAs an historian, I consider anniversaries irrelevant. However, as a social function, naturally, they matter a great deal, and the internet itself moves so quickly at times that it’s worth looking back regularly to maintain perspective. Twitter itself, for example, is less than five years old, and I’ve been using it for about two years. About a year two years1 ago, our erstwhile colleague Katrina Gulliver began cataloging historians on twitter under the title Twitterstorians, and now has a list of a few hundred participants, ranging from personal accounts to institutional ones to historical recreation and quotation lists.

Like any social media, a lot of what happens on twitter appears to be fluff and nonsense, even a lot of what comes from the accounts of bona fide historians. I consider twitter to be a kind of semi-professional discussion: not a private, personal space,2 nor a professional project,3 but a space for informal discussions on political, cultural, historical and educational matters (with the ocassional foray into fluff and nonsense, for fun). I do have some local colleagues on twitter, and there are a few other Japanese historians4 as well as a pretty good collection of non-historian Japan-interested folks.
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  1. What a shameful mistake for an historian! []
  2. I use facebook for that, where I limit my contacts to family, close friends and long-time acquaintances. No, I don’t assume it’s secret (which is what most people mean by ‘private’ but that it’s out of easy reach, and personal rather than professional) []
  3. Like this blog, or my course blogs []
  4. not a complete list. Morgan Pitelka has an account, though he doesn’t say much. I’m sure there are more, too. There always are. []

8/27/2011

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. []

8/8/2011

Old Myths, New Myths: Problems of Informed Punditry

The Asia/Pacific Journal, aka Japan Focus, has a fascinating interview with Heinrich Reinfried, Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University St. Gallen, Switzerland, conducted by a Swiss weekly. “Sushi and Samurai: Western Stereotypes and the (Mis)Understanding of Post-Tsunami Japan” begins and ends with a credible historical and thematic deconstruction of some of the less helpful stereotypes of Japan: Japan as samurai state, kamikaze, zen masters. I particularly liked the short bit on Herrigel

Nazi Germany made use of the samurai ideal of one who obeys orders unconditionally, who sacrifices himself on orders from above, who although not a Christian has a noble soul. This is the ideological basis of Zen in the Art of Archery by the Nazi Eugen Herrigel, a book which has exerted a powerful influence over the years. Some Swiss still today regard this book as the open sesame to Japan. It is amusing to hear of Europeans with an anti-authoritarian upbringing who go to Japan to let a Zen master hit them should they doze off during meditation.

He mentions early 20th century ideas about national character, and Saidian othering

we use Japan as a negative role model incorporating the opposite of the positive qualities we attribute to ourselves.

And he talks about the Cold War re-exoticisation of Japan as a land of Geisha and gardens, class-less capitalism. I’m not sure Henry Luce is as much to blame as Reinfried, nor am I terribly convinced by his analysis of Japan’s response/role in the process:
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8/1/2011

Feeling Like an Empire: Colonial Radicalization

What makes Louise Young’s Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism such a fascinating, troubling work is that she details the way in which the Manchurian experience, and the strategic vulnerability of the Manchurian adventure, rebound into the politics and culture of Japan itself. It reverses, in a way, the traditional narratives of colonialism which see influence flowing from the metropole to the periphery rather than the other way around. And as consciousness of Manchuria became increasingly central to Japanese political and cultural identity, Japanese politics became increasingly radical: nationalist, racialist, expansionist, militarist; in a word, imperialist. Not that Japan wasn’t an empire before that — Taiwan, Korea, Liaodong, and a large swath of the South Pacific attest to Japan’s willingness to take control of other peoples — or that the cultural elements weren’t in place. But under the influence of the ongoing crisis in Manchuria, a crisis experienced by many who travelled there, worked there, and seen and heard through music, movies and other outlets, liberal alternatives like internationalism became unpalatable, even unacceptable. If you’re tied to the usual nation-bound histories of culture and politics, and the one-way influence of the standard metropole-periphery model, this is a paradigm-shifting piece of scholarship. As Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, “Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.”

I thought of Young’s work when I read this NYT profile of David Yerushalmi, one of the architects and driving forces behind the anti-Shariah movement in the United States. Yerushalmi’s radically political and hostile view of Islam have become common-place opinions in certain segments of the US political spectrum — primarily Republican, Tea Party, Buchananite Isolationist, Dominionist and similar groups — and have been put into legislative form in Oklahoma, as well as as other states. Especially in the context of US involvement in the Middle East, the specific focus of the xenophobia against the very kinds of people who are the target of US policy, the anxiety about subversion by global networks of muslims based on the statements and actions of a radicalized few, really does remind me of the Japanese turn in the 1920s and 1930s against communism, socialism and anarchism, against the Korean and Chinese activists, and their Japanese allies, who were the strongest proponents of those theories.

What really fascinated me about the profile, though, was Yerushalmi’s background. Or rather, a combination of his background and the way in which the article glided over the interesting bits.

His interest in Islamic law began with the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, when he was living in Ma’ale Adumim, a large Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

At the time, Mr. Yerushalmi, a native of South Florida, divided his energies between a commercial litigation practice in the United States and a conservative research institute based in Jerusalem, where he worked to promote free-market reform in Israel.

After moving to Brooklyn the following year, Mr. Yerushalmi said he began studying Arabic and Shariah under two Islamic scholars, whom he declined to name.

He is an American Hasidic Jew — literally the third thing we learn about him after his name and age — and lawyer, hostile to the secular socialist roots of Israel1 who suddenly became troubled by the nature of Islam after the 9/11 attacks.

Maybe. But I don’t think that it’s coincidental that Yerushalmi was an American living in Israel — a state often described as an agent of American power in the Middle East2 and in particular living in an areas which is easily (and I think fairly) described as an Israeli colonial territory. I think it’s more likely that the experience of living in occupied territory radicalized him, hardened his views on Islam. He was engaged in a struggle at the frontier of civilization, in his own mind, when members of a group he already percieved as the enemy struck at his homeland, to which he returned to share his hard-won perspective on the issues. And because of the shock of that attack, compounded by the ongoing challenge of war overseas and economic troubles, he found people receptive to his message of a subversive force at work in the world, an existential conflict.

Being an empire means having peripheries, and those peripheries are going to have troubles, in no small part because of their relationship with the metropole. But mistaking the tensions of the periphery for an existential crisis is the kind of lack of perspective which signals weak leadership, a distorted public sphere, and a high probability of escalating sunken cost fallacies driving policy.

  1. Note that the “conservative research institute” isn’t named, begging the question of whose definition of “conservative” the reporter is using in this description. []
  2. though I think “stalking horse” or “scapegoat” might be more precise []

4/3/2011

History as it happens

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:13 am

Though I’m usually not shy about speaking historically when big events happen, I’ve been very reticent on the Tohoku disasters. As others have pointed out, this is such a multi-faceted disaster — Any movie pitch that included a massive earthquake, historic tsunami, and a nuclear power plant meltdown would be rejected as implausible (except by the SyFy channel, maybe) — that historical analogies seem to have very little utility. Still, there’s some value in having people who know what they’re talking about contributing to the general discussion.1

There’ve been some of the inevitable discussions comparing these events to the 1995 Kobe/Hanshin disaster, to the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, to the 1755 Lisbon catastrophes. More obvious comparisons, like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the recent flooding in Pakistan, don’t seem to be coming into play. Maybe because Western journalists just don’t know enough about these societies to draw conclusions about them? Maybe because Japan’s status as an industrialized society makes it conceptually different to them? The Katrina/New Orleans levee disaster would also seem like an obvious comparison that I haven’t seen yet.2 Once the problem with the Fukushima nuclear power plants manifested, the discussion has ranged from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since nuclear power accidents have been rare, there is a very rough continuum of events for comparison, and it is still not clear at all what the situation is going to be. The combination of widespread tsunami destruction and nuclear dislocation which could be both widespread and nearly permanent, plus the potential economic effects of long-term power problems in Tokyo and Eastern Japan, really does constitute a nearly unique moment in human history.

In the absence of clarity, there’s been an immense stream of cultural commentary.
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  1. Presumptuous? There’s real social science to prove it! []
  2. There have also been comparisons to Godzilla and Akira, which is something that only an eminence like Bill Tsutsui could get away with. Don’t try this at home! []

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