ASPAC 2014 Abstract: Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:29 pm

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.


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. []


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


  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? []


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.

  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. []


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.


Dinner first, then dessert

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:53 pm

I was going to post about it here, but Another Damned Medievalist raised the question of how to deal with primary sources in a class where students lack important background concepts, and so I’m going to share the comment I made over there and then expand on it a bit:

I’m not sure if I’d call it a ‘brilliant’ idea, but I faced a similar dilemma in my Early Japan course: rich primary sources, but weak general knowledge. The way I handled it this time was to break the semester up into two units: in the first, we went through the textbook and political/economic source reader, covering the basic narrative, political and economic and religious history in a fairly traditional fashion; in the second half of the course, I went back over the same history through the primary sources — Genji, Heike, etc. — with a big secondary work on mentalite at the end. The goal, obviously, was to give the students the context first, along with some basic skill-building, then to delve deeper into the material that they were now more comfortable with, without all the “you don’t know it yet, but this is important because…” stuff that drove me crazy. The class size wasn’t big enough for a definitive result, but I think it worked pretty well. Our second-half discussions, in particular, were much better informed than I’d gotten in the past.

As a side benefit, by the way, we’d gone through the entire history before students got into their end-of-semester research projects, so they actually could pick topics they were interested in with some level of informed judgement and without a bias towards the early stuff (or pop culture-privileged topics in the later stuff).

This is something which I’ve considered doing for a long time, but not all of my courses break down quite so neatly in terms of the material I use. On the whole, as I said, I think it was quite successful. One of my students suggested a change which makes a great deal of sense: instead of putting Mary Beth Berry’s Japan in Print at the end, after the primary sources — I was using it instead of any particular 17th century reading — she pointed out that it would be a good transition reading. That made a great deal of sense: it introduces a great deal of theory about reading and audiences, and the argument creates a tension between classical/medieval and early modern culture which would be give more focus to the primary source discussions. I would have to add another 17th century reading: Given the rumors of a Chushingura movie in the works, maybe it’s time to bring that back into my syllabi!


Lines which make me less likely to adopt a world history textbook

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:53 am

So, I got a new one in the mail, and I start scanning through, with the usual particular attention to the Japan material, and right there in the “Cultural Identity and Tokugawa Japan” section is this:

Samurai (former warriors turned bureaucrats) and daimyo (the regional lords) favored a masked theater, called Nō, and an elegant ritual for making tea and engaging in contemplation. In their gardens, the lords built teahouses with stages for Nō drama.

I’ve seen teahouses, and I’ve seen Nō stages. Have any of you ever seen the two combined? Have you ever seen the 15th through 17th centuries collapsed so cavalierly? Then they jump to the “new, roughter urban culture, one that was patronized by artisans and especially merchants.”1 The Japanese sources cited in the “Further Readings” list include only Keene’s The Japanese Discovery of Europe and the Collcutt, Jansen, Kumakura A Cultural Atlas of Japan. Though the work is a collaboration of historians from a high-quality history department, the principal authors include nobody with Japan expertise, nor did any of the names of their “consultants” and “reviewers” jump out at me as familiar in the Japan field.

Now, I’m never going to pretend that Japanese history is central to world history, outside of a few moments, but there’s a great deal of excellent scholarship on Japanese history and culture, and a great deal of interest, still. How hard is it to get this stuff right?

  1. both quotations are from page 614. I’m not identifying the text because I’m not trying to target them specifically — the text looks interesting, and I’ll look at it again when the memory fades — but anyone who’s getting review textbooks can figure out what I mean. []


Mystery Circles on Early Armor

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:10 pm

Mongol Invasion Scroll Screen Capture

What is that circular disk which early medieval samurai wear over their swords? Is it a weight, to keep it from flopping around while horseriding?

That’s my best guess at this point. I’ve done a little research on this, but haven’t come up with answers, but my collection’s a bit thin on armor parts.

I’ve seen it in the Heiji Scroll, and a few other pre-Warring States images, but I don’t recall seeing it after about the Onin War.

I get this question every time I show my students the War Scrolls, but I’ve never had a good answer. Help?


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?


Fields and Periodization (yes, again)

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:17 pm

Jeff Vanke, now blogging at The Historical Society’s THS Blog, was looking for some guidance on how to properly divide up the history of the world into fields of study. He laid out a very ambitious world-wide agenda, including Japan and China fields, and asked for feedback. His original Japan fields were:

  • Ancient and Medieval
  • Tokugawa
  • Meiji and 20c

I said (and this is just the Japan stuff; you can read the whole thing at THS Blog, or just the China stuff at Frog:C).

In Japanese historiography, the roots of the “Tokugawa settlement” and early modern society have been pushed back into the Sengoku (Warring States), sometimes as far back as 15th century, and very little Meiji scholarship — outside of political science — doesn’t acknowledge the fundamental continuities across the 19th century. If I had to put dates on a three-field split for Japan, I’d probably use 1550 (high Sengoku, before the unification begins) and 1890 (the Meiji Constitution). (if you want to do a modern/premodern thing, a lot of “Modern” textbooks start in 1800, so you could use that, but I prefer 1700.)

Jeff’s reply was

I actually considered 1853, and was ignorant of 1890′s significance. For the transition to Japanese modernity, I favor 1853 over 1890. Is that reasonable? If I make only one break between 1550 and the present, how would you rank 1800 vs. 1853 vs. 1890? (1700 is only 33% of the way from 1550 to the present. And the fields should correspondent in part to plausible sequenced undergrad courses.)

Good questions, I said, and

A lot of Japanese histories and courses do break at 1853 still, though the old Toynbeesque stimulus-response model which informed it is pretty much defunct. There’s a lot to be said for that, though, since the period of relative isolation is certainly qualitatively different from the globally engaged era. My main complaint about that is the teleology: it makes modernity seem too inevitable, natural. I think the early Meiji — which is a period of experimentation, struggle and drama — makes more sense if you observe the Tokugawa-Meiji transition from the Tokugawa side rather than as the whiggish prelude to Imperialism, etc. (To be completely clear, I’m not accusing you of whiggishness, teleological thinking, etc.; it’s the historiography shaped by these break-points, much of which is still, unfortunately, embedded into the master narratives of Japanese history.)

Constitutionalism changes things. Not right away, always, but there are also good economic and social/cultural reasons to see the late Meiji as much more a part of the 20th century than the 19th. It makes international comparison more interesting, tends to reduce the Japanese exceptionalism in the narrative.

1800 (or 1700) is a good transition point really only if you’re doing a 2-part sequence; if you have the freedom to do three parts, either of the later breaks make more sense. My three-part sequence is heavily influenced by the UC-Berkeley department’s division, which I replicated for a time (I’ve given it up because I don’t have a large enough student population to fill my Japan/China courses if I subdivide them too much) and by my own training which took the 19th century as a unit more often than not.

Jeff has taken my advice on the 1550 break point, but decided that he didn’t want to span the Restoration divide, so he’s going to use 1853, which I think is fine. Perhaps the periodization question just isn’t as fluid in other areas, but I’m hoping that some more people join the discussion soon! It’s nice to see a Europeanist taking World History as seriously as this, especially someone at THS — as much as I love Historically Speaking, it’s got a pretty strong Western center and not much World (outside of some of the more theoretical stuff).

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