Syllabus Blogging: Modern Japan and World History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:09 pm

It’s been a while since I did some syllabus blogging, but the most interesting course I was going to teach last semester didn’t come through,1 so it’s been a little while since I taught a heavily revised or new course on Japan.

  1. For reasons passing understanding, “US-East Asia Relations: Migration, Trade and War” failed to garner a single registrant. We have a strong military history component to our program, though, so I’m considering breaking it down further, and just doing a course on 20th century US-East Asian wars. It would be really fun if I could co-teach it with my US military historian colleague, but that’s new administrative territory for me. []


Announcements and Remembrances

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:11 am

While the discussions on the Asia lists have been a bit wooden for a while, other H-Net communities are lively and thriving, and the book reviews are a fantastic resource. Moreover, I know some of the current leadership of H-Net, and I have great confidence that they’ll take it in interesting directions with new technology and new paradigms. That said, though the leadership, editors, reviewers and participants are all volunteers, they still need money for technical support, infrastructure and other expenses, and we can’t rely on state institutions of higher learning for this sort of thing. Donate!

The 2010 Cliopatria Awards for History Blogging nominations are open through November, so there’s still two weeks to riffle through your archives and pick your best work, and your friends’ best work, and the best stuff off your RSS reader. The categories are, as in the past, Best Individual Blog, Best New Blog, Best Group Blog (which we won back in ’05), Best Series of Posts, Best Single Post, and Best Writer (which Alan Baumler won in ’06). I’m judging Best New and Group Blog, so we can’t win that again this year; otherwise, the field for Asianists is wide open! Nominate!

The 2011 ASPAC Conference will be a joint event with the WCAAS Conference, to be held at Pomona College, June 17-19, 2011. In a remarkable feat of organization, the Conference website is already live and accepting paper proposals, though the deadline isn’t until mid-March. The theme is “Asia Rising and the Rise of Asian America” but proposals on all topics in Asian studies are welcome. Submit! (and let me know if you’ll be there; we’ve never had a blogger meet-up at ASPAC before!)

Finally, a sad note: Harold Bolitho, one of my advisors and mentors at Harvard, has passed away. I had heard, through another of my advisors, that he’d retired due to health issues – a bit hard to believe for those of us who sometimes confuse volume with vigor. He was a substantial scholar, who didn’t write a lot by some standards, but who always had something interesting to say, and a depth of understanding that I will always envy.1 One of the graduate papers I was proudest of, in some ways, was one that I wrote for him, on the Nagasaki visits of Rai San’yo and Shiba Kokan; I was a little surprised to discover a year later that he’d published an article on a similar theme.2 I was pleased, because clearly I had picked a topic that really did have merit – a matter of immense anxiety for a first-year grad student – but I was also somewhat taken aback at how much more depth and substance Bolitho brought to a subject I felt, in my absurd youth, that I had covered pretty well. I’m very sorry to hear that he’s passed on, because he was a great teacher for a young, nerdy, not-yet-historian.

  1. I didn’t realize until now that he’d written a survey text on Meiji Japan, something that I’ve always felt was lacking in the English language literature. It’s a short text, though, and now rather old. []
  2. H. Bolitho , Travelers’ Tales: Three Eighteenth-Century Travel Journals. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 50 (1990), pp. 485–504 []


Data Visualization and Data Quality

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:28 pm

The inestimable Rob MacDougall is running a course on Digital History, and even better, he’s running it more or less publicly! I’m getting all kinds of ideas here. On the other hand, it sometimes raises surprising problems. The unit on Data Visualization includes an assigned reading that looked like something I might use for historiography, David Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past (M.E. Sharpe, 2003). But when I started looking through it, the first ‘data visualization’ presented was an illustration of Japanese history from William McNeill’s 1963 The Rise of the West that made my teeth clench. Rob asked me to explain what’s wrong with it, which is fair.

The caption reads

In addition to information about costume, architecture, and other forms of material culture, the figures in the diagram convey meaningful information through gesture and body language, the shading of figures, their relative sizes, and their location in the diagram

That’s all true, as far as it goes. The problem, of course, is whether the diagram is conveying accurate and clear information, and on both accounts it fails. I realize that I’m being a little unfair: the McNeill book was a survey text written almost a half-century ago, and the diagram is being used as an example of potential; it’s not being cited as an up-to-date description of Japanese history that would be acceptable today. Still, it’s worth talking about.


Blogging and Events

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:26 pm

I am in Portland, at ASPAC 2010, and having my usual conference fun. It’s a pretty full schedule, so I’m not going to try to blog during, but I’ll get some blogging in after, and mostly here because I’m mostly doing Japan panels this year. However, I am experimenting with using laptop and iPad as notetaking devices1 — I’ve always used paper before — and PSU has good wireless service, so I’m also posting notes on twitter as time and attention allow. If you’re on twitter and have a question about anything I’ve tweeted, feel free to contact me that way.

Also, I’ll be hosting the July History Carnival at my World History teaching blog (have to give it something to do over the summer!), so send me history-related posts via comment here, via email (jonathan@froginawell.net), through the History Carnival submission page, or via twitter (through @jondresner or using the #hc89 tag).

  1. I haven’t decided which one I like better. I’m more used to the laptop, of course, but the iPad has a huge advantage in portability and battery life. The fact that it’s slightly harder to use, both in terms of typing and multitasking, seems to make the iPad a bit better for concentrating on what’s happening, oddly enough. I’m going to keep switching between them as the conference goes on, to see if I come to any firmer conclusions, and also to get more practice on the iPad, which is a new tool/toy. []


AAS 2010: Annexation Centennial

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:39 am

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.


Japan as apocalyptic fulfillment

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:13 pm

I have to get to my AAS blogging, I know, but I have to share something I ran across reading — of all things — David Walsh’s HNN reports from the Organization of American Historians conference. Jared Roll, Senior Lecturer at Sussex, gave a paper on radical religiousity in the US South during the Great Depression, specifically on the proliferation of uaffiliated Pentacostal churches. Walsh reports:

Roll took pains to not that these unaffiliated Pentecostals were apocalyptic in nature, but were not as otherworldy as some historians insisted. Indeed, messianic prophets incited a kind of nationalism in rural black communities. Indeed, one premillenialist preacher claimed that Japan would lead a crusade to defeat white imperialism. He used the Book of Ezekiel to claim that Japan would drop poisonous bombs on the U.S. that would kill all American whites and apostate blacks, save for 144,000 chosen.

There is video of Roll’s talk, but unfortunately only the first ten minutes, before, apparently, he got to the good stuff!

I’d love to know when this claim was made. Given the focus of the panel, it’s presumably in the 1930s, and probably post-Manchurian Incident. I wonder if this preacher was just using Japan as a foil because of general tensions with the US or if the GEACPS rhetoric was widely enough known (and considered credible) to actually be cited in this context? Either way, it’s the first time I’ve heard Japan used as a means of apocalyptic fulfillment of any prophecy other than Nichren doctrine and a few Japanese New Religions.


History Carnival #84: After the Tweeting is Done

The History CarnivalI’m very pleased to be hosting my 6th History Carnival, and I thought it would be fun to extend the carnival into a new medium this time: I’ve spent the whole day Tweeting the carnival at my twitter feed. Sharon Howard created a dynamic archive of the carnival, which can also be found by using the hashtag #HC84. I still haven’t entirely fallen in love with Twitter — 140 characters is very, very short — but I’m enjoying the flow of information it facilitates, and the way microblogging’s supplemented my regular history blog reading and writing. It exists in a very productive gray space between professional and informal communication.


Dinner first, then dessert

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:53 pm

I was going to post about it here, but Another Damned Medievalist raised the question of how to deal with primary sources in a class where students lack important background concepts, and so I’m going to share the comment I made over there and then expand on it a bit:

I’m not sure if I’d call it a ‘brilliant’ idea, but I faced a similar dilemma in my Early Japan course: rich primary sources, but weak general knowledge. The way I handled it this time was to break the semester up into two units: in the first, we went through the textbook and political/economic source reader, covering the basic narrative, political and economic and religious history in a fairly traditional fashion; in the second half of the course, I went back over the same history through the primary sources — Genji, Heike, etc. — with a big secondary work on mentalite at the end. The goal, obviously, was to give the students the context first, along with some basic skill-building, then to delve deeper into the material that they were now more comfortable with, without all the “you don’t know it yet, but this is important because…” stuff that drove me crazy. The class size wasn’t big enough for a definitive result, but I think it worked pretty well. Our second-half discussions, in particular, were much better informed than I’d gotten in the past.

As a side benefit, by the way, we’d gone through the entire history before students got into their end-of-semester research projects, so they actually could pick topics they were interested in with some level of informed judgement and without a bias towards the early stuff (or pop culture-privileged topics in the later stuff).

This is something which I’ve considered doing for a long time, but not all of my courses break down quite so neatly in terms of the material I use. On the whole, as I said, I think it was quite successful. One of my students suggested a change which makes a great deal of sense: instead of putting Mary Beth Berry’s Japan in Print at the end, after the primary sources — I was using it instead of any particular 17th century reading — she pointed out that it would be a good transition reading. That made a great deal of sense: it introduces a great deal of theory about reading and audiences, and the argument creates a tension between classical/medieval and early modern culture which would be give more focus to the primary source discussions. I would have to add another 17th century reading: Given the rumors of a Chushingura movie in the works, maybe it’s time to bring that back into my syllabi!


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. []


Ueda Akinari translation

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:09 am

PMJS has published William Clarke and Wendy Cobcroft’s annotated translation of Ueda Akinari’s Tandai Shoshinroku, available as a free PDF and also as a book-on-demand from Lulu (and eventually Amazon). I leave the commentary on the value of scholarly networks, non-profit online publishing, and the finally-growing body Early Modern translations as an exercise for our readers, who don’t need me to tell them what they already know.

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