井の中の蛙

8/24/2010

Young Samurai II: A Bad Start

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:16 pm

I picked up the second installment of the Young Samurai at the library today. I was thinking about starting it, and looked at the back inside dust cover, where I read the following:

Chris Bradford is the author of Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior. Aside from having a black belt, he is trained in judo, karate, kickboxing, and samurai swordsmanship. Before writing the Young Samurai series, he was a professional musician and songwriter. He lives in England.

I’ve read that a dozen times, and I read it to my wife, and the question remains: “Aside from having a black belt….” in what? Is there some default martial art whose black belts speak for themselves and which need not be named? Or is he just making a fashion statement?

No, a quick visit to his website reveals that the black belt is in “Kyo Shin Tai-jutsu, the secret fighting art of the ninja.”1

If only Disney/Hyperion had some black-belt copyeditors….

  1. Secret? Never mind. []

7/13/2010

Judge Ooka’s Sidekick, part two: The Ghost In the Tokaido Inn and In Darkness, Death

After reading the last two installments in the Hooblers’ samurai detective series, I got hold of the first two. There are still two I have not read, obviously, but based on these four, I can’t seriously recommend the series: the misinformation and errors just outweigh any value that they have as presentations of Edo life or culture.1 The authors’ notes can’t save these books, because even good information is twisted into such blazingly implausible scenarios that no real understanding could survive, and there’s no end to the errors. [Spoilers, of course, because I don't really want anyone to read these books!]
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  1. I still maintain that the last book, A Samurai Never Fears Death is decent, but it’s clearly the exception. []

7/3/2010

Judge Ooka’s Sidekick: A Samurai Never Fears Death and The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:36 am

Wandering through the children’s section of our local public library with my son, I encountered a new-to-me children’s mystery series based in Tokugawa Japan. The books are by Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler, and are piggybacking on the Judge Ooka character. Unlike certain other Japan-based anglophone fictions, these feature a cast of entirely Japanese characters, though the protagonist is still young and enough of a fish-out-of-water to justify significant exposition. The “Authors Note” in the back of each book briefly lays out the historical and cultural foundations of the story, and clearly notes which elements are “completely from the imagination of the authors.” (Sword, 210) Though I noted some anachronisms and some larger issues, on the whole these were surprisingly good in both detail and theme.

The books are the adventures of Seikei, an Osaka-born merchant class boy who is adopted as the son and heir of Judge Ooka in the 1730s. That kind of adoption was relatively rare, but well within contemporary norms, and the unusual nature of class-jumping adoption is fairly well integrated into the stories. The characters are a bit flat and the issues broadly drawn, but that’s not unusual for children’s fiction; more importantly, they are some of the most genuinely and humanely Japanese characters I’ve encountered in my sojourns into this literature. [Spoilers follow, of course]
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5/18/2010

Update: Japanese to the Rescue

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:09 pm

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 []

3/22/2010

AAS Love – Self Promotion Edition

It’s a good week for me and the Association for Asian Studies. I just got my Journal of Asian Studies in the mail. Not only did I get the journal, but the cover image is my photograph of firefighters at the 1985 Atsuta Festival. There’s an article that goes with it, Mary Alice Haddad on the democratization of volunteer fire departments, which is quite interesting1, including the fact that there are almost 900 thousand volunteer firefighters in Japan, which makes it one of the larger civic traditions.

In addition, the very first review in the Japan section is Jeffrey Lesser’s review of Japanese Diasporas: Unsung Pasts, Conflicting Presents and Uncertain Futures, Edited by Nobuko Adachi, in which I have a chapter. He doesn’t mention my chapter in the review2, but he does praise the book generally, and the review includes discussion of another work — Toake Endoh, Exporting Japan — which apparently addresses a familiar argument about the relationship between colonial and migration policy in useful detail.

To make it a perfect week, I’d have to be going to the AAS Meeting in Philadelphia. Well, I am! I’ll be presenting a paper on Friday afternoon joined by some very interesting folks:

Session 106: National Borders and Memory Borders: The Prewar Japanese Diaspora and Postwar Memories of the “Homeland”
Hometown pride and “safe” international history in rural western Japan, Martin Dusinberre
Diaspora Memory: Selective Histories of Japanese Emigration, Jonathan Dresner
Lost Homeland: Colonial Memories of Manchuria in Okinawa after World War II, Shinzo Araragi
Beyond Conflicted Memories of the “Second Hometown”: a homecoming tour of Japanese repatriates to the Philippines , Mariko Iijima

Many thanks to Martin, in particular, for organizing the panel.

Naturally, I’ll be blogging and tweeting the conference, as much as I can.

Now, who else will be there, and when can we have a blogger meetup?

  1. I didn’t know that when I gave permission to use the picture, of course, but I figured Wasserstrom, et al., knew what they were doing []
  2. none of the reviews I’ve seen have, actually. It’s not entirely surprising, since my chapter is a little odd-man-out, looking at diaspora from the perspective of the Japanese government’s anxieties about the cultural illiteracy of emigrants, instead of from a particular diaspora community. []

9/2/2009

World War Wannabee: Russo-Japanese War?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:05 pm

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.

5/27/2009

Association for Asian Studies Publications

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 1:51 pm

I just received Tools of Culture: Japan’s Cultural, Intellectual, Medical, and Technological Contacts in East Asia, 1000s-1500s, part of the Asia Past and Present book series. I hadn’t ordered a book from the AAS previously and didn’t know what to expect. A pamphlet? Something printed on a desktop? I was pleasantly surprised to see that this inexpensive paperback book (just $22.40 with the AAS member discount!) is a high quality product equal to anything you would see from a university press. I haven’t read the book, but the form is reassuring, and the blurbs by prominent premodern Japanese historians on the back also convince. This looks like an excellent publishing option. As it gets harder to publish with the usual suspects, alternatives such as the various East Asia Center presses (Harvard, Michigan, Cornell), the new PMJS Papers, and other options that I probably don’t know about yet become attactive and important ways of maintaining scholarly standards while still getting our work into print.

5/25/2009

Young Samurai Book One (of at least three): Harry Potter Bushido

I almost didn’t check Chris Bradford‘s Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior out of the library when I saw it, but some instinct told me that it was something I should read. Perhaps it was the realization that Young Samurai was the first book in a series — oddly, though, there was no information on the other books1 — and therefore likely to have some serious publicity support from the publisher. Perhaps it was the realization that the publisher was Disney/Hyperion, which more or less guarantees a pretty substantial distribution and readership. Perhaps it was the hope that I might find, finally, some historical fiction worth recommending…..

The book is about a young English boy who’s shipwrecked in Japan in 1611, and gets adopted by a samurai family, while being stalked by the ninja pirates who killed his father and crewmates. So it was a bit Karate Kid and a bit of the story of Will Adams (more Samurai William than Shogun); nothing surprising, really, but all a bit familiar. Aside from fairly predictable ahistorical elements,2 commonplaces of martial arts fiction, and the implausible interpersonal relationships, nothing out of the ordinary.

I was about halfway through the book, though, when I realized what I was reading: it was the scene where Jack, the young Englishman, shows up at the school of his adopted father/patron — a formidable warrior — and all the students are introduced to the instructors at a big banquet. I put down the book, walked into the other room and said to my wife, “It’s Harry Potter in Japan!”

[spoilers, of course, under the fold]

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  1. As near as I can tell from the websites, the second book is coming out in the UK shortly, with the third book scheduled for next year and a TV deal in the works, but nothing on the US side about when the sequels might be available here. []
  2. ninja, yes, and wakou pirates (who are also ninja) off the coast of eastern Japan in 1611, and the post-Enlightenment attitudes of the protagonist []

5/11/2009

Productive Procrastination

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:59 pm

The Journal of the Historical Society has put five recent articles up for free, including a four-year old essay by Herman Ooms on the state of Tokugawa intellectual history. Aside from the gallop through the history of state-of-the-field essays, it includes a quick, very positive, look at European scholarship in French and German. I’m not sure how long these articles (the rest of them look interesting, too, but not Asian studies) will be up, but I’ll be going back there for fun in between stacks of grading this week and weekend.

And, as a bonus, some 1920s British Jiujitsu demonstration films which really need someone who knows more about martial arts history to put into proper context.

4/14/2009

Say hello to your new robot overlords!

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 1:34 pm

A recent article in the Japan Times, pointed out to me by a resourceful student (thanks Lindsay!), shows that the future imagined in Ghost in the Shell and other works of Japanese popular culture is just over the horizon. It resonated for me because I’m currently rereading Anne Allison’s wonderful Millenial Monsters with my seminar students. The book grows increasingly familiar and spooky as my own kids start to develop interests in Pokemon and the other globalized Japanese toys that still dominate American (and many other countries’) consumer toy market. Ah well. At least they’ll know how to communicate with our robot overlords later in the century: “Pikachu, I choose you!”

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