井の中の蛙

1/19/2013

Leave WWII out of it, OK?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:54 pm

There are good reasons to bring Japan into the gun control debate in the United States: the relative success of firearms regulation in Japan, the recent rise of gun violence connected to organized crime, the history of weapons-carrying elites, etc. But WWII had nothing whatsoever to do with gun rights, gun control, or the 2nd amendment.

Why bring this up? Because of Ed Emery, Republican representative to the Missouri state legislature from Lamar, MO. In a video produced last April, Rep. Emery said:

We know in a historical context that Japan was considering an invasion on the land mass of the United States of America, but they were afraid to, and the reason they were afraid to [is] because they knew that every american is armed. and although they were not afraid of our armies, they were afraid of our citizens.

Randy Turner, who posted the video recently, says that “That ridiculous story has been circulating for decades”, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. As Turner says, “No reputable historian takes it seriously.”1

Pittsburg Sun 1941 December 7 Evening - Detail 4 - Pacific Which is No Longer PacificI’m not a specialist on Japanese military history, but there are a few points that are worth making. Japan did attack American territory directly, both in Hawaii and in the Aleutians, and had substantial plans for occupying Hawaii if a second opportunity for assault presented itself. Japan also attacked the US mainland, or “land mass,” with sea-based and balloon bomb attacks.

More importantly, attacking the US mainland wouldn’t have advanced the primary, or even secondary, strategic aims of the Japanese military in WWII, and wouldn’t have been seriously considered until after more important goals were met. Japan’s primary goal in WWII, remember, was defeating Chinese resistance to Japanese control so as to establish a stable, secure colonial foothold on the Asian continent. In order to maintain military production, Japan needed reliable sources of metals, minerals, oil, and rubber, materials that the United States had stopped selling Japan as part of the attempt to get Japan to back away from China. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the Aleutian island chain was a bit of a feint, to damage US military capacity in the Pacific and to blunt any response to Japanese seizure of the Philipines, Dutch East Indies, and other territories in the South Pacific. Those territories were valuable to Japan for their mineral wealth, oil and rubber: exploiting those resources would allow Japan to continue fighting the war in China.

Needless to say, any greater ambitions Japan had about Pacific domination were cut down by the loss of carrier groups at Midway and Coral Sea, which meant that Japan’s ability to project military might across the ocean was drastically reduced. At no time after that was there any serious discussion of “taking the fight to America.”

As far as fearing the well-armed American populace, instead of the American military, it’s hard to believe that the Japanese military would have treated them differently than the Chinese, who waged both large-force and guerilla-style operations against Japanese forces with great vigor and frequency. I don’t know what the distribution of guns was like in China before and during the Japanese invasion, but remember that China had been through 20 years of warlordism and civil war before the 1937 outbreak of hostilities, so there were certainly plenty of modern weapons and military veterans in the population. I’d also question the idea that guns were as common in the US as Emery describes them, but I’ll leave that bit of fun for my American historian colleagues to discuss.

  1. Emery also said, right before the clip linked, “There are two things that stand between Americans and tyranny: Our constitution and our 2nd amendment rights.” I’m pretty sure that the 2nd amendment is, actually, part of the constitution. He may just mean “the fact that we have a lot of guns” but that raises the question of how other societies in the world with fewer guns have avoided falling into tyrannical oppression. Or maybe he means that American culture is so likely to become politically oppressive that special protections are necessary…. never mind. []

5/18/2012

Diaspora And Diplomatic Communities Memorialize Conflict

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:49 pm

A memorial plaque was dedicated in a park in Palisades Park, New Jersey in 2010 which reads

In Memory
of the more than 200,000
women and girls who were
abducted by the armed forces of
the government of Imperial Japan
1930′s-1945
known as “comfort women,”
they endured human rights
violations that no peoples should
leave unrecognized.
Let us never forget the horrors
of crimes against humanity.

Two things struck me about this article from the NY Times. The first is in the headline: “New Jersey Town’s Korean Monument Irritates Japanese Officials.” There have apparently been two official attempts to convince Palisades Park to remove the monument, presenting two very different approaches. The first emphasized Japan’s past apologies and attempts to stage reparations as justification for de-emphasizing the sexual servitude issue:
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3/23/2012

Credentialism and Other Modern Traditions

The Japan Times article on Japan’s application to UNESCO to have 和食 [washoku, Japanese cuisine] declared an internationally recognized “intangible cultural asset” is a fantastic display of modern cultural discourses. The combination of bad food history, the distortions of modernism, and abject credentialism is really quite disturbing.
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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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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! []

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. []

2/1/2010

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.
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12/29/2009

America’s “Lost Decade”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:41 am

Paul Krugman wrote a column in which he argued that the last decade in the US has been a waste of time, economically speaking:

But from an economic point of view, I’d suggest that we call the decade past the Big Zero. It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.

It was a decade with basically zero job creation. …
It was a decade with zero economic gains for the typical family. …
It was a decade of zero gains for homeowners, even if they bought early …
… it was a decade of zero gains for stocks, even without taking inflation into account. …
So here’s what Mr. Summers — and, to be fair, just about everyone in a policy-making position at the time — believed in 1999: America has honest corporate accounting; this lets investors make good decisions, and also forces management to behave responsibly; and the result is a stable, well-functioning financial system.

What percentage of all this turned out to be true? Zero.

What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy New Year.

My mother sent me the column, and I wrote back the following comparison:

It’s almost like we had the same Lost Decade that the Japanese had in the 90s, but in a much more dramatic fashion. They had the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks; we had 9/11. They had the Hanshin Earthquake, we had Katrina; both triggered a discussion about emergency preparedness and civil society. They had a bubble burst and zero growth; we had several bubbles burst and, ultimately, zero growth.

Unfortunately, it’s very clear that Japanese leaders and citizens didn’t learn very much from the experience: it took almost another decade before a major change in leadership, and their economy remains extremely weak. Not a happy comparison.

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