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.


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. []


Japan’s Imperial Universities Today

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:03 pm

The last time I looked at Japanese universities in a global ranking, I commented that

most of the universities on this list were the product of the US Occupation education reforms, particularly the insistence on public universities in every prefecture.

In a sense, that was true, but it was a list of the top 500 global institutions, and there were 37 Japanese representatives. The top seven were the former Imperial universities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Tohoku, Nagoya, Hokkaido, Kyushu. Somehow I didn’t actually make that connection until looking at the Times Higher Education Top 200 global institutions [via], which included more or less the same list:

  • 22. Tokyo
  • 25. Kyoto
  • 43. Osaka
  • 55. Tokyo Institute of Technology (which was just below the Imperials on the old list)
  • 92. Nagoya
  • 97. Tohoku
  • 142. Keio (Keio and Waseda did better in the THE lists than the old ones)
  • 148. Waseda
  • 155. Kyushu
  • 171. Hokkaido
  • 174. Tsukuba

Without a detailed look at methodology, it’s not easy to tell if the differences are substantial, but the strength of the technical schools (TIT, Tsukuba) and the private academies (KO, Waseda) was interesting.


HNN, NYT Post Competing Japan Election Analysis

HNN has posted an extended version of the Soft and Fuzzy history I posted a few days ago. What I’ve added, for the general readership, is more background on the LDP:

The survival of the LDP as the dominant party in Japan for so many post-war decades was a combination of historical luck, savvy leadership, and the cooptation of successful minor party issues. The collapse of the LDP was a combination of historical misfortune, a leadership vacuum, and the realignment of minor parties to create a viable alternative.

The rise and fall of the Yoshida Doctrine and the factional nature of the ’55 System LDP are at the center of the argument.

Meanwhile, the NYT has a Philip Underwood piece explaining how “In Japan, by contrast, failure traditionally carries a deeper stigma, an enduring shame that limits the appetite for risk, in the view of many of the nation’s cultural observers. This makes the Japanese far less comfortable with choices that increase the prospect of failure, even if they promise greater potential gains.” Ugh.


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.


Before the miniseries, there was….

Shogun Game cover I’m not sure when my family got this game, but I remember playing with it in the late 70s. Though Shogun is described as a “digital” game, there’s no electronics involved: magnets in the board turn the dial in each piece until a number shows in the window; that number is how far the piece can move next time. The pseudo-random element takes some of the strategy out of the game1 and so it moves pretty quickly. Below you can see a rare early checkmate — most games involve a lot of piece exchanges before checkmate is on the table — that my 7 year-old managed to pull of in his third game. The numbers swinging around in the pieces is quite enchanting, especially for kids.

Shogun Game Max MateThe game seems to have been invented by a Japanese, but I’m not sure it was ever marketed in Japan. Clavell’s Shogun came out a year or so before this game did, so it’s likely that the title would have been attached to anything with a hint of Japaneseness about it.

The association of ‘Japan’ with ‘digital’ is interesting; the use of ‘digital’ itself is an interesting cultural moment, the transition from ‘transistor’ to ‘digital.’ It’s got to be early in the analog v. digital wars, and the term is clearly being misused, as this is a patently analog game. Like “Shogun,” “digital” is a marketing device intended to invoke emotional responses rather than being descriptive.

  1. especially if you play a cutthroat version which doesn’t allow players to test moves before making them []


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]


  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 []


Sumo and tradition

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:59 pm

The NYTimes Lede blog [thanks, Mom!] linked Michael Phelps’ marijuana scandal to a scandal in Japanese sumo1 which has resulted in four retirements.

They almost got it right: they note that Sumo wrestlers are supposed to maintain “monkish” discipline, and there’s some real truth to that.2 They also made a classic error: I actually left a comment, which I almost never do at the Times:

“Shinichi Suzukawa” is not his “real name” but his birth name. Sumo wrestlers take on a new name when they enter the sport, and many will take on another when they reach high rank. After they retire, they give up their fighting name and take on a new name, often one based on their stable or coach’s name.

The Japanese tradition is much more flexible than the Western tradition in regard to names.

The name thing and the “monkish discipline” are clear reminders that Sumo, though it’s been a part of the entertainment world for a long time, has its origins in Shinto ritual. The accoutrement of the referrees are drawn directly from priestly garb; the throwing of salt and stamping rituals for purification, etc.

There was a pretty substantial period — most of the Tokugawa era, really — where Sumo seems to have been somewhat divorced of these practices (though ukiyoe of bouts show the presiding referees clearly in traditional garb), and sumo wrestlers were more like free agents and daimyo retainers, but when the modern sport is formulated in the Meiji and Taisho eras, it is clearly resacralized, almost certainly as a result of the state-sponsored resurgence of Shinto and the desire to connect it to a reimagined family-state tradition.

The name changes, then, are also part of this religious tradition: the tradition of taking a new name when taking religious orders is well-known in Buddhism; the tradition of taking on a new name for a new stage in life, and the pseudo-kinship relationship between a stablemaster and his wrestlers also play a role.

  1. yeah, MutantFrog got there first! []
  2. Though also some exoticism, clearly. All athletes are supposed to forego some pleasures in order to maintain high levels of physical training. []


Dutch Futurists

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:10 pm

Alan Baumler pointed me to peacay’s recent post of Dutch images of 17th century Japan. Some of them are quite accurate — the images of samurai, in particular, are quite nice — and based on the observations of Dutch traders and scholars at the Deshima trading station in Nagasaki harbor. Some of the images are based on Indian or Chinese models (though the tradition of religious statuary shared between these cultures means that they’re not as terrible as you might think). Some are pretty bizarre, but that’s par for the course before the 19th century.

Then there’s the one that stopped me in my tracks:

17c Dutch Engraving of reverse rickshaw

You can find the original here, in the full context of the book. Someone who reads 17th century Dutch might be able to help me, because I’m quite curious about the text at this point. Without it, though, I can only speculate.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, mainly the fact that the jinrikisha wasn’t invented for another two hundred years. Also, Japanese did not use wheeled carts for transporting goods.1. Before that, Japanese traveled mostly by foot and by boat. Samurai travelled by horse, sometimes. Other elites — including samurai, nobles, village headmen, the wealthy — traveled by palanquin (aka litter). Even the transport of commercial goods was mostly by boat and by hand.

While there seems to be some dispute about the origins of the rickshaw, nobody has ever suggested that it developed in the 1600s! I suspect what we see here is a failure of imagination. Having seen images of palanquins and bearers, but unable to concieve of transport without wheels, the illustrator added the — to him entirely obvious and necessary — elements. In the process, he created a shocking anachronism, and if anyone had taken these images seriously, could have radically altered the history of transportation.

  1. Hal Bolitho called Japan’s abandonment of the wheel one of the great mysteries of Japanese history, along with the failure to adopt the chair and the survival of the Imperial institution []

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