Science, Social Science, and Pseudoscience of Diet/Culture Thesis

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:50 pm

Eminent food historian Rachel Laudan alerted me recently to the existence of new scholarship, cultural psychology, giving support to the idea that different basic grains gave rise to different cultures which have measurable effects at the individual level: “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture.” The research is intriguing for its attempted rigor: From a quantitative social science perspective, they did everything right.

Cross-cultural psychologists have mostly contrasted East Asia with the West. However, this study shows that there are major psychological differences within China. We propose that a history of farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, whereas farming wheat makes cultures more independent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. We tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that rice-growing southern China is more interdependent and holistic-thinking than the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, we tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. We also find that modernization and pathogen prevalence theories do not fit the data.

There’s a problem here, though, that scientists and statisticians refer to as “prior plausibility”: it’s not enough that you can create an experiment to test for a difference, but there has to be a good reason to create the experiment in the first place. If there isn’t, then the concept of “statistically significant correlation” becomes meaningless. This is Bayesian statistics, as I understand it.

As Rachel Laudan and her commenters point out, there are good historical reasons to believe that many wheat-cultivating cultures were at least as collective-minded as rice-growing cultures are presumed to be; similarly, there’s plenty of research pointing out the individualistic and profit-oriented elements of early modern Japanese and Chinese peasant societies.

The upside of this is that it finally spurred me to pick up Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time which is often cited in these discussions. As I said on twitter, I’ve been reluctant largely because citations to it seemed mostly to be used to bolster arguments like those above: that something fundamental about rice cultivation — usually the collectivist village, as imagined in modernity — is the heart or essence of Japanese Civilization since forever, etc. What I found, as most of you know, is a fairly satisfying and subtle discussion of the way in which symbols work in cultures, with a “side dish” of historical skepticism about the actual role of rice and of agriculture. The way in which the discourse of Japan as made up of rice cultivating rural communities has obscured many elements of change over time, including the diversity of rural production, hunter-gatherer traditions, non-agricultural commoners, and the value of mobility and urbanization in modernity.1

In fact, it seems like most of the citations to Rice as Self that I’ve seen over the last ten years have been very weak ones: Ohnuki-Tierney doesn’t support the “rice creates culture” argument (at least not here; this is 20-year old scholarship, and she’s been busy since then) and I strongly suspect that the evidence doesn’t, either.

  1. I’ll admit, anthropological semiotics still feels very circular to me: the chicken-egg problem of cultural re/production, activity/agency never feels quite resolved or quite grounded. []


Senkaku Islands: New Sources, New Clarity?

NYT reporter Nick Kristof brought in a guest blogger, Han-Yi Shaw of Taiwan, to examine some new mid-Meiji documentation about Japan’s relationship with the contested Senkaku/Daiyou islands. The core of Shaw’s findings is

the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.

After several abortive attempts to survey the islands, the Japanese government declared them incorporated Japanese territory during the Sino-Japanese war, despite recognizing that it should have been negotiated with China. As territory seized in 1895, it should have been reverted to China in 1945, but for a variety of reasons, including an administrative shift of the islands from Taiwan to Okinawa prefecture, it remained outside of negotiations until a few years later.

It’s a reasonably persuasive presentation, historically, though I don’t think that these details are going to shift Japanese nationalists, even mild or moderate ones, to support politicians who would abandon Japan’s claim to these useless rocks which sit in such valuable territory. And as long as there’s no particular cost to maintaining the claim — Chinese hostility to Japan is not predicated on this issue sufficiently that abandoning the claim would eliminate anti-Japanese sentiment as a nationalist motivational tool of the mainland regime — it seems unlikely that anything will change, except a few American lectures.


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
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:


Moving Migration Into History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:39 pm

Via Aaron Bady, I saw a wonderful article by Imke Sturm-Martin about the challenges of integrating migration history into the mainstream of European historical consciousness.1 Europe is not the only place where migration history has complicated traditional narratives, and where migration history has contemporary political implications, but it is a bit ahead of the curve, thanks to the usual patterns of economic and social change, compounded regional integration. I don’t have time to give this the full treatment it deserves, but Sturm-Martin’s most interesting point is that the full integration of history into master national narratives is very much hindered by those national narratives.

Which migration should become part of a European narrative? The question is not an easy one – the only uncontroversial instances are migrations that lie so far back in time that all can agree on their consequences for European history. It is much harder to agree about migration in recent history and the present, and even individual national historiographies have trouble with such cases. Whenever and wherever the consequences of migration are felt in the present, questions arise of minority rights, group rights, inequality and discrimination, and demand that any “official” history be politically correct.

Like any other public presentation of history, the House of European History in Brussels, due to open in 2014, will be unable to avoid taking a political stance on such questions. … Visitors are to be told about the great migrations of antiquity, about migration from the countryside to the cities during the industrial revolution, and about the refugees and displaced or expelled persons who migrated after both World Wars. This list does not mention the “international” aspects of seasonal migration in Early Modern Europe, a well-researched topic by now; nor does it mention the vast scale of emigration to the Americas from various European countries, or the substantial migration from outside Europe at the end of the colonial era. Even the workforce recruitment campaigns in the southern countries during Europe’s boom years in the 1950s and 1960s is omitted. Such large-scale historical processes have fallen victim to the necessary selection process, but they might perhaps be part of the section “Questions for Europe’s Future”, which aims to throw up questions for visitors to ponder. One of these is, “How can the EU react to the demographic change affecting all its member states? Is encouraging immigration an effective response?”

There is a very powerful trend to turn history into a balance sheet of justice, which migration history often runs right into. But it’s also possible that migration history may make that kind of accounting impossible, done properly.

  1. Sturm-Martin, Imke. Translation by Samuel Willcocks. “Migration: Europe’s absent history,” Eurozine 30 April 2012. http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2012-04-30-sturmmartin-en.html []


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.


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:


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 []


Teachers and National Ideologies

Filed under: — sayaka @ 2:05 am

I have been collecting and reading various materials that could potentially reveal how people lived in rural villages between the 1910s and 1940s. Village teachers were particularly eager to write down their thoughts and experiences. Since most of them did not get enough pay to survive, being a teacher (especially in the late 1920s onwards) required a lot of commitment and self-sacrifice on their part. In their writings, good information is often covered by the thick coat of ideological arguments on nationalism, agrarianism (農本主義), which the Home Ministry encouraged to develop as a part of social moral suasion (社会教化), and/or respect for the military that became more and more ostensible during the 1930s. In fact, it is impossible for me to tell whether they truly embraced these ideologies, but their writings are passionate enough to appear that they meant it.

Now I face a difficult question of how to interpret these teachers. How would I depict them if I was making a movie? Were they ideological machines to create an ideal nation? Were they the first ones to be “brain-washed” before brain-washing other populations? As soon as I put the question this way, I am urged to say “no, things must have been more complex than that.” No matter how blindly nationalistic they sounded,  I also see that this was out of their struggle to find a way to give their students control over their own lives. In most of the cases, they found the methods that the central government advocated the most effective way. One youth school teacher in Oita Prefecture, for example, argued in 1939 that becoming a hardworking and advanced farmer was the only way to survive in the increasing susceptibility of agricultural business to external factors:

農業は外界の事情に支配されることが多い。経済界の動き、自然的事情特に天候の如何によっては半年の労苦を一朝にして水泡に帰せしめることが有り勝ちだ。今日の農業は安全確実な職業とは言えなくなった。…かかる時代においては篤農家、老農、精農の手合いが次第に輝きを増してくるように感じられる。世間が押し並べて風害虫害病害にしてやられる中に一人老農は以前と農作を謳うものだ。物価は下落し農村は不況の裏に沈淪し鋏状価格差の声頻々たる中に平然として余裕ある生活をなし禍を転じて福となす者は篤農の士である。86 (下郡平治『専任教員農村青年学校の経営』東京・第一出版協会 1939、86)

I came across his writing right after reading another book which introduces a teacher in the Meiji/Taisho period who was extremely dedicated to teaching the standard pronunciation of the Japanese language to children in Akita. The skill in the standardized Japanese, or the lack thereof, tremendously affected how young people experienced their national lives like the conscription and higher education, and still means a lot to the people from this region today. It is a typical and blatant nationalizing project from historians’ point of view, yet he was also providing control over life to their students in an important way.

Going over these thoughts, I just realize how similar the problem of interpretations is between these teachers and intellectuals in the colonies. Just like in the cases of colonial intellectuals, however, I also wonder if it is irresponsible for me to leave them outside of my own judgment, pointing out that they were in difficult positions. This must be a ‘being a historian 101′ question, but I still cannot find a comfortable solution to it.


Hirohito’s last birthday

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:14 pm

Tenno 1988 - Emperor Wave enhancedI’m almost done, I suppose, with the first phase of my image digitization and pedagogy project, namely scanning a significant chunk of my Japan slides and prints. I’ve completely gone through the slides I had pulled for classroom use when I started teaching, supplemented with some from my complete collection; I still have dozens of boxes of slides to go through from my first year in Japan (1984-85), and I’m sure there are some surprises.1 I’ve gone through most of my prints as well — pictures from my junior year at Keio International Center (1987-88) and my graduate research year in Yamaguchi (1994-1995) — and extracted most of the interesting stuff, and I’m mostly done scanning them. I’m taking a bit of a break from my collection once that’s done, and focusing on scanning the book images which I’ve been using in class — I had a huge collection of slides made by the photography department in my first year or two of teaching — but I probably can’t upload those en masse, for copyright reasons.2

Most of my pictures, to be honest, are pretty typical tourist pictures — with the caveat that we very, very rarely posed for “we are here” shots — but my father taught me that it’s a lot cheaper to take lots of pictures than to go back, so I did get quite a few decent architectural shots, and some good cultural ones. Fairly static stuff, but much of it will be useful in my Japanese history courses; I’ve set a fairly broad Creative Commons license on the pictures, so that they can be used by other teachers.3 There are a few times, though, when I captured something which legitimately might be considered a unique historical moment.

During Golden Week of my year at Keio, a few friends and I decided to go to the Emperor’s Birthday Audience, when crowds can enter the Imperial Palace grounds and get to see an appearance of the monarch, plus family:

  1. For example, when I looked through my Atsuta Matsuri pictures, I discovered that I’d taken a bunch of pictures of the Aichi Prefecture Police Band and Bugle Corps. I’m not surprised that the police have a band — many military and paramilitary organizations need marching music — but the cheerleader-like Bugle Corps women seem, well, cheerleader-like. []
  2. Unless someone wants to argue that the enhancements I’m doing in Photoshop — contrast, lightness, etc — transform the image sufficiently that it’s a new creation to which I am the rightful copyright holder….. No? I didn’t think so. That said, once I’ve amassed a solid collection, I’d be happy to share them via CD-ROM with anyone who’s got a legitimate teaching need. That’s legal. []
  3. I’ve already shared my Atsuta Shrine pictures, and some cultural illustrations. And my Early Japan class is about to hit Kamakura. []


Adjusting to the new narrative

My China-side colleague, Alan Baumler, noted that China seems to have supplanted Japan as the go-to model for economic development. This has, he says, required him to alter his own attitude towards Chinese history, which never really had much of a triumphal arc before. He says, though

Well, the Japan people seem to have adjusted to going from an Asian Anomaly to a model for humanity and back, so I guess we can.

My response was

Actually, Japan’s gone 180 degrees and has become a negative example for demographic, financial and rights development. Between the “aging Japan”, “Lost Decade” and rising tide of neo-nationalism….. we need a new narrative, too.

The last few times I’ve taught my Japan course that comes up to the present, I’ve used Bumiller’s book, but that one comes just at the beginning of the economic stagnation, and is now approaching 20 years old. I haven’t seen much that I’d like to use to replace it, either literature or ethnography. There’s Japan After Japan, but it seems like the kind of stuff I’d have to spend more time explaining and excusing than making good use of. I’m tempted to shift in the direction of global diaspora or something on the globalization of Japanese culture, but both of those seem a bit like avoiding the question.

What’s the new narrative? Have the economic slowdown, normalization, and globalization affected the way you present the post-war arc, or are the last two decades a distinct period?

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