井の中の蛙

6/2/2011

Ninjas at Night, Dragons at Dawn: Magic Tree House does Japanese History

Lego Ninja 2011 B1Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series is intended to educate and entertain by taking its protagonists to different times and places, real and mythical. These Scholastic books are mainstays of schools, libraries, and primary curricula, and some of the books have companion “Research Guide” publications for kids who want to know more about the historical, cultural or scientific background. Some of these books are aimed at early readers: the first 28 in the series are short, with short, simple sentences appropriate to 1st or 2nd graders; after that the series shifts into the slightly more fantastical “Merlin Mission” mode, longer stories with more complex writing suitable for 2nd or 3rd grade students; the research guides seem to be aimed at 2nd through 4th graders.1 In these stories, Jack and Annie are given a book which, combined with the magic of the tree house, takes them to a time and place where they can carry out a mission of some kind, while learning about the site of their adventure. The whole thing is supposed to be an encouragement to learning, so to speak, showing the value of book reading. Twice in the series, Jack and Annie have visited Japanese history: in the earlier, shorter work, we get nature-loving ninja and threatening samurai; in the later adventure, we get the nature-loving poet Basho, a magical dragon, and threatening samurai.2

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  1. Check the Scholastic web site for official suitability levels. Also if you have any doubt about the fact that these are aimed at an education audience…. []
  2. I could put a spoiler alert here, but how many 2nd-4th graders are reading this blog, who haven’t already moved beyond Jack and Annie adventures? Well, my son wants to read this post when I’m finished with it, but other than him? []

5/29/2011

Young Samurai: Way of the Dragon and the Battle of Osaka

The third installment of Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series shifts modes mid-book, when the action moves from the original Harry Potter-esque bildungsroman mode to the tragic — Young Jack is on the side of the Toyotomi, as it turns out — Battle of Osaka.

[More Spoilers Ahead]1

The book is considerably longer than the first two installments, a common feature of end-of-series climaxes, and continues with the cultural and historical bad habits noted in the first two works.2 At least, being a climactic moment, many of the historical alterations are clarified — if not well justified. There are two substantial changes to the historical record, which explain most of the other distortions: postponing the Tokugawa dominion of Japan until after the Battle of Osaka, and transforming the banning of Christianity into xenophobic nationalism and a popular movement, rather than a geo-political calculation.3 And ninja. Lots of ninja. I’m going to focus on the historiographical oddities this time, though I reserve the right to note new contextual and literary failings.

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  1. I don’t really consider that a spoiler; it’s an actual event. Knowing how things turn out is fundamental to historical work. Though I must concede that Bradford’s willingness to mess with the timeline does raise some doubt. []
  2. The Way of the Warrior and The Way of the Sword. Also, the book jacket copy is unchanged. []
  3. Needless to say, the historical changes require substantial alterations to the characters of many historical figures. One can only hope that the bad pseudonyms shield young readers from connecting these caricatures with real people. At one point, the Miyamoto Musashi stand-in orders Jack to commit seppuku, then retracts it and calls it a “little joke.” (72) []

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! []

12/28/2010

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.
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  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. []

12/7/2010

December 7, 1941, Pittsburg, Kansas

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:50 am

One of our graduate assistants came in recently with an old newspaper that her husband had found on a deconstruction job. Considering that it was, apparently, stored in a wall for decades, the December 7, 1941 Pittsburg Sun was in fairly good condition: brittle, but almost entirely intact and clear. I didn’t want to force the folds into a flatbed scanner – the paper clearly isn’t going to survive too much handling, and the next step is to show it to our archivist – so I took some pictures with my camera to share.

Interestingly, we got an email today indicating that the Governor has declared today a half-staff day, in honor of the anniversary, so consider this our contribution to the remembrance.
Pittsburg Sun 1941 December 7 Evening - Detail 1 - Front Page Headlines Army Arrives Pittsburg
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10/17/2010

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.
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8/30/2010

Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword: Ancient Culture, Modern Politics

Reading The Way of the Sword while listening to the “Restoring Honor” event, I began to wonder if our current shift to discourses of honor and warriors is a side effect of the ubiquity of martial arts in the US over the last 35 years. The values of martial arts, even the most modern ones, include personal and collective honor in ways that were, for a long time, rather absent in most American rhetoric. Sarah Palin said “If you look for the virtues that have sustained our country, you will find them in those who wear the uniform, who take the oath, who pay the price for our freedom.” That’s as good a paraphrase of the Imperial Rescript for Soldiers and Sailors as I’ve ever heard from an American politician.

The cultural and historical problems which made Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior such a weak hash of Harry Potter plotting and dojo delusions persist in the second book of the trilogy. Like the first volume, it’s a quick read, probably most suitable for middle school/junior high readers, though older readers with an interest in the martial arts won’t find it childish. Historians of Japan, however, will find this gaijin-boy-in-early-Edo tale a test of character not unlike the one the protagonist faces: to get through it, you must ignore exhaustion, overcome moments of sharp pain, focus on the goal, and achieve a state of no-mind…. [spoilers ahead, of course, though the fact that it's the middle part of a trilogy probably tells you most of what you need to know.]
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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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