井の中の蛙

4/13/2014

ASPAC 2014 Abstract: Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:29 pm Print

It’s that time of year again, when procrastinators do their taxes, spring cleaning, and summer abstract writing in one weekend!

My proposed paper for ASPAC this year (at Western Washington in Bellingham) is a variation on something I’ve been working on for a while now, no surprise to longtime readers of this blog, or of HNN, or to my students who have heard me rant and rail about the tragedies of historical fiction and historical movies for a decade or more. I’m going to try to focus on a kind of historiographical reading of the movies, and to talk about how we as public experts, teachers and writers, might productively respond to or use these works.

Here’s the abstract itself, which was limited to 100 words:

Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema
History is a rich vein of stories and settings, and popular historical movies can have immense effects on the historical understanding of general publics. This is especially true in Japanese history in English-speaking societies, where knowledge is often limited to one-sided understandings of unique episodes and orientalist mythologies of unchanging culture. This paper will examine a number of English-language movies, recent and older, not to catalog historical errors, but to understand how historical memory and Japanese historical processes are understood and portrayed. Finally, this paper will consider how that might affect the work of Japan specialists addressing these audiences.

I have a preliminary list of movies to address, most of which I’ve seen. I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has ideas about other films to consider?

  • The Last Samurai
  • 47 Ronin (see also)
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • The Barbarian and the Geisha
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Shogun
  • Karate Kid 2
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

Obviously, some of these are more important than others, in terms of audience range and likely effect on people’s ability to think about history in a coherent fashion: KK2 is probably more important than TMNT3, and the John Wayne, whatever its flaws or virtues, isn’t going to be more than a faint echo in the historical consciousness of contemporary audiences. The more recent films, including the wretched mess from Christmas, are going to weigh more heavily.

6/8/2013

Modern Japan in Anglophone Historical Fiction

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:25 pm Print

ASPAC 2013
Jonathan Dresner
Pittsburg State University

“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.” — Jonathan Dresner

“…flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. … I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and I rarely read it (especially in my own field!).” — Jonathan Dresner

Roughly Chronologically:

  • Gai-jin (James Clavell, 1993): 1862-1863
  • The Apprentice (Lewis Libby, 1996): 1903
  • The Teahouse Fire (Ellis Avery, 2006): Bakumatsu and Meiji.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden, 1997): subject born in 1920, lived until after WWII.

(more…)

1/19/2013

Leave WWII out of it, OK?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:54 pm Print

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. []

1/12/2013

Japanese Counter-Insurgency: Strategy or Tactic?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:44 pm Print

Robert Farley’s article on Japan’s WWII Counter-Insurgency planning and implementation begs the question of whether COIN, as it’s called now, was a strategy or a tactic. (Though it also illustrates something I’d like to see more of: blogging on journal articles and book chapters. Yes, I should do more of that, too.) Farley says

[retired Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) Lieutenant General Noboru] Yamaguchi suggests that elements of the Japanese Army and a variety of hybrid civil-military organizations took the problem of COIN quite seriously from a strategic point of view, appreciating that the only way to victory in China was the establishment of a self-sustaining, pro-Japanese Chinese government.

Farley goes on to cite some examples, but he also notes some of the atrocities associated with the Japanese military in China (and elsewhere), and also that resources for “hearts and minds” operations were decidedly lacking. Comfort Women are notably missing, which is too bad: it’s a fantastic example of an attempt to solve the “hearts and minds” problem that goes horribly wrong.

But what struck me about the discussion is the use of the term “strategy”, which suggests a substantial goal, guiding tactics and training. I don’t doubt that there were Japanese who saw the necessity of developing real ties with China, building relationships, any more than I doubt that some Japanese authentically believed the pan-Asianism which underlay the rhetoric of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. What I don’t believe is that Japanese military, political or economic leaders were at all serious about the GEACPS, or that pan-Asianism was more than a theoretical and rhetorical fig leaf for aggressive imperialism. And I don’t believe that “hearts and minds” COIN really rose to the level of “strategy”: military training and tactics routinely ignored priorities beyond raw domination and control. Farley’s right that resource issues and circumstances mitigated against long-term relationship-building, and our colleague Konrad Lawson has been doing fascinating work on Chinese who did develop strategic alliances with Japanese occupiers. But just as Manchukuo illustrates the hollowness of Japanese claims to support Chinese autonomy, the realities of the battlefield and occupation make it clear that winning over Chinese support was far from a serious strategic consideration.

That said, I was also struck by a comment on the article from one “John Chan”

Japan is an unapologetic war criminal; Yamaguchi’s quote is the tip of iceberg of how Japanese systematically white wash their war crimes and gloss over their atrocities.

Thru history Japanese are pirates; barbarism, deceitfulness, and brutality are their way of life. Using atrocity to overcome any resistance is their default choice of action; the conformity nature of the Japanese makes them particular wicked, they will compete in cruelty as an honour, it makes Yamaguchi’s quote about Japanese COIN theory an outright shameless lie and evidence of Japanese has no remorse about its war crimes.

This is not, as I understand it, an uncommon view of Japan from a Chinese mainland perspective. The historiographical accusation is a familiar one — Japan has a long history of denying, downplaying, ignoring, and justifying modern atrocities which is rivaled only by a few other countries1 — but the idea of wartime Japan as an authentic representation of Japan’s essential historical character is something I hadn’t seen before.2 Connecting the wako pirates (I assume that’s what he means) to WWII is an historical and cultural stretch that boggles the historical imagination. But if you’re looking at Japan solely through the lens of Chinese victimization, perhaps it’s not as much of a leap as all that.

  1. China’s official amnesia regarding the Great Leap Forward Famine and Cultural Revolution purges; America’s denial that westward expansion was imperialist and effectively genocidal; the rehabilitation of Stalin in Russian historical memory; etc. []
  2. and obviously, not something I think is historically or culturally supportable as a thesis []

8/8/2012

Atomic Bomb Symposium at Federation of American Scientists

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:50 am Print

Atomic Bombing 50th Anniversary - Ground Zero Dome zoomThere’s almost no new historical content here, aside from some biographical ruminations. Stanley Kutler’s, reprinted at HNN, is the most historically interesting, highlighting the “all or nothing” fallacy in many debates about the use of the bombs versus other tactical options.

Milton Leitenberg’s rejoinder (right after Kutler in the alphabet, by chance) recaps the “saved Japanese lives” argument, but misses something important, as this argument always does.1 Given that the Japanese did surrender after 2 bombs and the Soviet entry into the war, on what grounds does he think that a successful conventional invasion wouldn’t have produced surrender?2

I liked this one, though.

Dr. Richard A. Frankel, government analyst for energy and the environment

My memory of the first use of atomic weapons goes back to my 7th year. At that time, I was a rather precociously educated student of science, so I was able to understand the workings of nuclear weapons and thus recognized the damage done by the Hiroshima bomb.

My political sense wasn’t as advanced, so I wasn’t, at the time, susceptible to the questioning raised then and subsequently by involved scientists and then, later, by writers like Gar Alperovits. But my sense of simple fairness was distressingly violated when, less than one week later, on my 8th birthday, another bomb was loosed on Nagasaki.

Even to a then 8-year-old child, it was clear that once was enough. There was no possible reason to justify doing it again. The arguments about having to show we had more, about convincing the Japanese military, about advancing peace negotiations simply made no sense to me then, any more than now.

There are some odd errors, which you’d think the editors would have caught. One participant says that “The Japanese barely had time to digest what happened at Alamogordo before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.” But the Alamogordo test was secret: nobody outside of the scientists and military involved, and up the chain of command, knew about it.

All in all, not a bad collection of arguments if you want to engage students. But I’m mostly not impressed.

  1. And calling this argument “a neglected consideration” is just absurd, given that I’ve seen variations of this argument going back to about 1947 []
  2. For an interesting take on this kind of argument, see Chris Bertram on drone ethics. []

5/18/2012

Diaspora And Diplomatic Communities Memorialize Conflict

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:49 pm Print

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:
(more…)

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.
(more…)

12/6/2011

SHAFR Roundtable on Pearl Harbor (Plus HNN Bonus Article)

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:44 pm Print

In honor of the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US at Pearl Harbor, the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations has published a series of essays on the event and historical memory issues; HNN has reprinted it (with a useful index post). John Gripentrog’s “The Road to War” is a solid discussion of the political and ideological differences which put the US and Japan on a collision course. HNN’s supplemental piece, by Rupert Colley, tracks how the attack brought the US into the European conflict. And Emily Rosenberg discusses how iconic attacks like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and their rhetorical and cultural resonances.

Those are fine, but the articles I find most interesting are the other two. Greg Robinson writes about the effect of the Pearl Harbor attack on Japanese Americans at that time and the way in which it becomes part of the rhetoric of race and bias in the decades to come.1 Finally, Yujin Yaguchi describes an intercultural teachers’ seminar which brought together Japanese and American teachers with time to explore their biases, perspectives, and to encounter new ones. The historiographical issues aren’t terribly new to academic historians, but for teachers working in a national curriculum context, it was quite enlightening.

Update: This article by Jonathan Parshall and J. Michael Wenger is the first interesting new scholarship I’ve seen on Pearl Harbor in years. Mostly it’s about the development of the Japanese aircraft carrier group as an operational unit, an unforseen shift in naval tactics.

  1. The twitter chatter as the disaster this spring unfolded frequently, shockingly, referenced Pearl Harbor with a vicious karmic glee []

8/27/2011

Turnbull Book on Ako

Stephen Turnbull, one of the most prolific and controversial writers on Japanese military history, has written a book on the 47 Samurai incident. The Samurai Archives review is quite positive, though Turnbull’s involvement as historical consultant on the upcoming Keanu Reeves version does raise concerns.

It’s nice to see Turnbull stepping up his game a bit, using front-line scholarship and taking a critical approach, rather than the mish-mash of his earlier books. It seems unlikely to me, though, that the debunking scholarship which has advanced over the last decade or so will have a significant impact on popular versions of the incident. It’s possible, I suppose, that Turnbull’s involvement in the new movie means that it will be a thoroughly revisionist statement1 but the entrenched romantic version is going to remain authoritative until the revisionist history starts to get traction in Japan.

Even then, there’s the Shakespeare problem. We know that his portrayals of English kings and other historical moments were partisan and/or heavily fictionalized, but they remain some of the most enduring images and themes in historical fiction and movies, so that historians are still forced to routinely debunk these myths.2 Chushingura and its ilk created a solid mythology by the dawn of the modern age, and the imperialist valorization of the Ako Roshi and other self-destructive samurai tendencies reinforced a vision of the samurai as abstemious, effective, principled, selfless and frequently violent. It would take a dramatic cultural shift to wipe out this tradition, one that seems unlikely given Japan’s rightward tendencies these days.3

I was screening movies for my Samurai course and came across recommendations (on twitter, I think) for The Twilight Samurai. I was very impressed: the portrayal of samurai poverty, bureaucracy, domainal politics, bakumatsu confusion, and the diversity (and, generally speaking, irrelevance) of fighting styles (and illegality of dueling) was very nicely done. The romantic side was a little over-generous, perhaps, but more realistic that an awful lot of other historical pieces. If you’re looking for a solid historical movie, one that will educate more than it will obscure, it’s very good.

  1. assuming that all the pre-release publicity is wrong []
  2. It doesn’t help that “most historically accurate portrayal ever” in movie advertising usually means precisely the opposite, as the most recent Robin Hood versions demonstrate []
  3. more likely you’d see something like the American transformation of cowboy films: more internal focus and diversity, and an obscuring of the historically undeniable negative sides (i.e., Dances with Wolves and the death of the cowboy-and-indian film) with perhaps some culturally acceptable complications. Frankly, a good Brokeback Mountain treatment would go a long way, plus being historically credible. []

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:
(more…)

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress