History as it happens

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:13 am Print

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.

  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! []


Conference: 日中ジャーナリズム研究サミット

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:51 pm Print

The 20世紀メディア研究所, which produces the wonderful journal Intelligence and helps manage the amazing online database index of the Prange archive of early postwar Japanese media that is an absolute must for anyone studying Japan during the occupation period, is helping organizing a conference at Waseda University in Tokyo on topics related to Sino-Japanese media issues.

The first day of the conference, December 21st, will be of interest to many historians, as it will focus on media in the foreign concessions (of China). Here is the schedule:

講演会 13:00~17:30

歓迎の辞 佐藤正志(早稲田大学政治学研究科長・教授)

講演① 山本武利(早稲田大学教授)

講演② 黄 瑚(復旦大学教授)

講演③ 黄 旦(復旦大学教授)

特別講演 黄 昇民(中国伝媒大学広告学院長・教授)

Location: 早稲田大学早稲田キャンパス3号館二階第一会議室

Other sessions of the conference look at a number of issues related to media and sports, especially the Olympics. You can find the full schedule for the conference here.


New Media and Japanese Studies

WARNING: those of you interested in Japanese studies but not in internet technologies, new media, and the whole question of how digital learning does or doesn’t effect academia should go no further. Here there be dragons.

I had the chance to attend a very unusual conference this past week. Well, “attend” is perhaps not the best word. This particular conference was held in Second Life, an unusual and large online community–technically a virtual world–in which you manipulate an “avatar” (kind of like a personalized character) to navigate an incredibly diverse landscape of “sims” (simulations, which translate into islands). People build buildings, art, natural environments, they buy and design and rent out sims, they sell virtual products and services, they collaborate or compete in games or educational endeavors, they socialize at dances and raves, and they do everything else that you can (or possibly can’t) imagine. I had never entered Second Life until the head of academic technology at my college informed me that we had some complementary tickets to a virtual conference on new media in the academy. I was skeptical about the whole Second Life thing but thought it might be interesting.

The conference schedule is now available online at the website of the New Media Consortium, the host organization and owner of the sim in which the conference took place. The program now includes links to “videos” of the presentations in Second Life, which look a bit like small movies of someone playing a really boring video game. If you listen to the presentations, though, the presenters turn out to be real teachers and academic technologists talking about a range of new media tools, including familiar ones like blogs and Facebook but also a slew of new technologies, and how they can be applied in the classroom. I was most impressed by the ways in which the conference was interactive. It is hard to get a sense of this from the video, but when your avatar was actually sitting there in the amphitheater listening to the presentations (which were made by people wearing headsets and presumably sitting at their own computers in various offices around the world), you could participate in an open, text-only chat (some of the sessions listed on the program include chat transcripts) that ran concurrently with the presentation. I didn’t have a mic and headset, like many other participants, so if I wanted to ask a question I just typed it into the chat window and someone not in the middle of presenting might answer it immediately, or, alternatively, one of the presenters would eventually get around to answering it. This was a form of multitasking that I had not previously experienced but that, surprisingly, really worked. I’m sure those of you who play linked online video games have experienced this mixture of virtual action and global conversation. You’re watching the screen (which frequently included multimedia presentations in the strange box above the presenters’ heads), listening to the spoken presentation, and also participating in a text-only chat discussion all at the same time. And at certain moments it was very informative and interesting.

So, what are the applications for Japanese studies? Well, first of all, Second Life itself could in theory be a very interesting teaching tool if used judiciously. I did a bit of searching in between sessions and discovered that there are a number of Japan-related sites that are open to visitors, most of them designed by Japanese users. “Bakumatsu Kyoto,” for example, is an educational sim (meaning it does not allow violence or, ahem, mature content) that aims to recreate the imperial capital at the end of the Tokugawa period. It is sort of amazing to walk around the city, or fly above its buildings (did I mention avatars can fly?) and see the odd but compelling attempt to create a digital version of that historical place and moment. I also dropped in (actually I “teleported” but that’s a whole different story) to the city of Edo, but when I saw people sword-fighting I thought, no, maybe not, and returned to the conference. Another day perhaps. Quite a few educational institutions have sims in Second Life. The virtual campus of Princeton University, for example, is particularly impressive.

Other tools that I learned about for the first time through the conference included Voicethread and Cosketch, two websites that I could easily imagine using in a Japanese history class or, if I taught one, a language class. Voicethread allows you to create a slideshow into which viewers can embed written or spoken comments or add their own threads of information, allowing unusual and visually compelling forms of interactive information. Cosketch is like an online whiteboard that allows simultaneous discussion and visual collaboration which would be great for talking to someone in another country, planning an event, preparing for a conference, or learning about a set of images when people are not together in the same room.

The presentations ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, particularly the concluding session which compared  proprietary course management software such as Blackboard to the zombies that increasingly infect popular culture such as movies and video games. The presenters actually arranged for a small army of virtual zombies to attack the conference, which was pretty silly. They argued for the effectiveness of open-content new media tools like Word Press (which powers this blog) and open syndication services as a way of creating “revolutionary” (their word, not mine) ways of learning.

I’m not sure what to make of all this, and when I returned to the classroom on Wednesday and Friday after experiencing these sessions I still had to figure out how to explain 18th-century Japanese intellectual developments, walk students through preparations for a presentation, and help my advisees to register for classes. Connecting the tools and idealistic visions of the presentations with the daily realities of the academy will take an investment of time and energy which will probably be worth it in the long run . . . But I also worry that because these technologies change so quickly these particular tools may be outdated as soon as I manage to figure out how to use them.


2007: Japan Top Ten Year in Review

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 7:44 pm Print

OK, fellow bloggers and Japan-watchers, I’d like to propose that we participate in the mass hysteria that is the year-end-review list. What media stories from or about Japan deserve our attention this year?Here are my top 10, organized roughly in chronological order (for lack of a more meaningful schema):

1. Ando Momofuku (1910-2007, also Go Pek-hok), inventor of Instant Ramen, died January 7, 2007. His origins in occupied Taiwan, entrepreneurial rise in Taibei and later Osaka, and of course the growth of his business from a local salt producer to national noodle maker to international tycoon is a perfect metaphor for the history of Japan in the 20th century.

2. Matsuzaka Daisuke started training with the Boston Red Sox in February, 2007. His six-year, fifty-two million dollar contract with the team that would go on to easily win the World Series (with significant participation from Matsuzaka) is a sign of the huge growth in value of top-flight Japanese players who choose to switch to U.S. baseball.

3. The Institute of Cetacean Research, Japan’s pseudo-scientific cover program for ongoing commercial whaling, called off whaling for the 2007 season in late March because of a fire on the Nisshin Maru. This issue seems to never go away.

4. Matsuoka Toshikatsu, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in the Abe cabinet, committed suicide on May 28, 2007 amidst a financial scandal. Looking back, this was perhaps a small sign of the imminent collapse of the Abe administration.

5. On the same day, Mori Riyo was crowned Miss Universe, inspiring new scrutiny of the beauty pageant industry in Japan and a new representative abroad. Particularly fascinating was Mori’s claim that she has “a samurai soul.”

6. On July 16, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake off the coast of Niigata prompted worry about and international attention to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. The plant, which can contribute up to 6% of Japan’s electrical energy, was shut down to allow safety inspections, which are ongoing.

7. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo resigned on September 12, 2007. The son of Abe Shintaro and the youngest postwar Prime Minister, Abe had come under increasing pressure from a divided Diet as well as strong criticism after poor election results, and himself seemed to suffer from worsening health. His administration lasted for less than a year.

8. Multiple members of Kigenkai, a religious cult, were arrested for murder after the beating death of a female member in September. Kigenkai, which was founded in 1970 and claims to be a traditional Shinto organization, produces Kigensui, a purified water that the sect claims can cure illness and disease.

9. English conversation school Nova filed for bankruptcy on October 26, letting go of more than 4,000 teachers and leaving hundreds of thousands of paid students without lessons. Some commentators cited Nova’s huge spending on marketing and advertising as the root cause; others pointed to the government’s cuts to vocational education funding in 2003.

10. As of November 20, all foreigners entering or living in Japan were required to undergo fingerprinting. This will, logically, prevent terrorism.


AHA Blogging Day One: Between Naps

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:20 pm Print

They call it a “red eye flight” for a reason. I really hope that none of the panelists at “Unstable Bodies, Unsettled Movements: Sport, Performance and Nation in Japan” took my nodding off personally: I really did want to hear what they had to say. (If anyone went to the Historians in Public roundtable and wants to share, I’d be grateful, by the way: that was my second choice.)

Aside from hearing the panelists, I got to meet not one, but two of my fellow Frog-bloggers: Dennis Frost, who was on the panel, and Michael Wert, who was in the audience with me. Tomorrow I get to hang out with Cliopatriots (being emeritoid, myself) and find out who won the Clios for last year! I love it.


China-Japan Historical Struggle Reaches MIT

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
– Maya Angelou, Inaugural Poem

I had planned to blog on a John Dower web project cited by Alan Baumler, because it’s a fantastic collection of historical images, nicely curated. Now, if you follow the the link, you get redirected to an MIT Press Office Statement that explains that the exhibit is offline while Dower and Miyagawa negotiate with members of the MIT Chinese student community who objected to an image of a Chinese being beheaded, a classic piece of Japanese propaganda, one that sets the tone for the next half century. The problem, according to the articles I’ve seen (thanks to both Manan Ahmed and Ralph Luker) was a lack of “accessible historical context” clearly warning viewers of the violent and racist content of the imagery.

Perhaps they need something like my syllabus boilerplate:

History is about real people, diverse cultures, interesting theories, strongly held belief systems, complex situations, conflicts and often-dramatic actions. In certain contexts, this information may be disturbing. Such is the nature of historical study.

I don’t see it myself: unless you happen to read Meiji Japanese and stumble across the image by accident, and are inclined to think that we need more, not less, beheadings in the world, isn’t it pretty obvious that this is old, bad, material? (the woodblock prints should be a giveaway, if nothing else) If you know anything about the history, it’s pretty obvious that it’s racist, that it leads to great tragedy, and that it’s important visual evidence. If it wasn’t obvious beforehand, then reading the attached commentary would make it pretty clear: my recollection (Alan can throw in his two cents here) is that the accompanying text was pretty clear on all these issues (Update: Alan confirms my recollection, and adds some useful thoughts, including a look at Chinese language discussions.

This raises concerns for me. Part of the value of creating an on-line exhibit is to allow the images to be used by students and teachers and researchers as evidence in their own researches. Insisting on immediate warnings and commentary (and how, technically, they’re going to make those inseparable from the image, I’m not sure, but I am nervous) will make it harder to use the material, pedagogically.

There are those who argue that nothing offensive to anyone should be published anywhere without caveats and controls; I’m not one of those. There are those who argue that “it’s only speech” excuses everything, and that we cannot have a truly free society without license to express everything, everywhere, anytime; I’m not one of those, either. There are some who say that the classroom is no place for controversy; I reject that. There are some who say that the classroom belongs to the teacher, without exception; I reject that, as well. I do think that teachers ought to be given a great deal of leeway with regard to how they present and handle sensitive topics, particularly those with track records of balanced and sophisticated scholarship, public writing and teaching, and that attacks (and it’s very clear from the MIT President’s statement that there have been some very vigorous attacks) without context and from outside the student and scholarly community which has some understanding of the issues and people, are injurious to academic freedom and accomplishment.

Even scholars are sometimes prone to put blame before understanding, but that doesn’t mean that we should privilege this. On the other hand, I have the greatest respect for John Dower as a scholar, teacher and individual: if he agrees that these images need more context, I will respect that.

I think it’s very important for scholars of Japanese history to be clear about the impact that Japan had on its neighbors and the world in its modern imperialist phase; I don’t understand attacking a scholar who is addressing precisely these issues with evidence, publications, teaching, etc.

Update: Alan Baumler found a cached version of the text, which is exceptional, and a Letter from Prof. Peter Perdue, also at MIT, defending Dower and the project. Vigorously, to say the least.


The Other Apprentice

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:53 am Print

Lewis Libby, The Apprentice, Graywolf Press, St. Paul Minnesota, 1996.

Libby’s novel has gotten more attention since his indictment, most of it bad. However, I have yet to see a review of this historical fiction by an historian or Japanese expert of any sort. Quite the contrary, one of the blurbs on the dust jacket — ironically, the only one that addresses the historical setting — comes from Francis “The End of History” Fukuyama. But the historical and cultural setting — rural northern Japan, 1903 — is integral to the story and to the writing. A novel by an American author set in Meiji Japan including entirely Japanese characters is a rare thing, and so my interest was piqued. Naturally, there’s a distinction to be made: this is a work of fiction, a novel intended to excite and entertain, rather than a reference work or scholarly product. But writers of fiction do not stumble onto locales or times: they choose them and they use them to serve their narrative and aesthetic ends. [spoiler alert]



Symposium Commemorating the Completion of the Occupation Period Magazine Article Database

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 11:40 am Print

The Prange Archive online magazine article database for the occupation period was an absolutely essential tool for me in my most recent research project. If you are in Tokyo in April, you might want to attend some of these great looking talks, which includes a speech discussing the database by the project’s founder, 山本武利, and one panel with 鶴見俊輔 as commentator:

■占領期雑誌記事情報データベース完成記念 講演会・シンポジウム■





 コメンテーター 鶴見俊輔




The Case of Taiwa Shinron

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:00 am Print

In addition to preparing for my oral exams, the most significant project I have been working on recently involves research on the early US occupation period in Japan and especially the postwar fate of Japan’s pan-Asianism. The sources I have looked at so far are almost exclusively early occupation period magazines and journals, all of which were under censorship by SCAP authorities. Despite the obstacles that a system of censorship poses for a research project like this, I found what I believe to be some interesting discoveries.

1) Wartime language, symbols, and stock phrases almost completely disappear in the early postwar publications of Japan, including those calling for political, economic, and spiritual union with Asia.

2) A significant number of intellectuals who supported Japanese imperialism and pushed for pan-Asian unity during the war, both from the “left” and the “right” join together with many old-fashioned “liberal” internationalists whose voices largely drop out during wartime to support a brief but significant movement supporting world federalism. In other words, a broader transnational idealism persists into the early postwar period and is at its strongest up until the outbreak of the Korean war.

The second of these two is where I think I have something important and original to say and I will try to make time to post more about my research in this area here at some future point. The first of these, however, you might call my, “Duh!” thesis. It seems fairly obvious that in the aftermath of war, with the wartime regime fallen into almost universal disrepute, with US propaganda and occupation censorship in full swing, and with the left at its most powerful in decades, wartime language and symbols are not going to be in vogue. By making use of the wonderful Prange collection of occupation period magazines, complete with US censorship documents and the actual censors comments and markings on the original submissions, I can confirm that whether due to self-censorship or some other reason – there are few articles which even try to submit something using any of the familiar wartime expressions.

However, there is at least one very interesting exception to this that I came across which, after much feedback, I have decided to drop completely from my writing on this topic. This is the case of an obscure Ibaraki prefecture publication that goes by the name of Taiwa Shinron (大和新論)and it is interesting to me because, while it is quite representative of the kind of early postwar global-oriented “transnational idealism” I have found to be so strong at the time, it continued to use the now discredited idiom of Japan’s wartime empire.

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