Soft and Fuzzy Historic Events

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:42 am

Ton-Chan DollLast time I lived in Japan, the LDP lost control of the Diet, and for a year and a half there was a Socialist Prime Minister in charge of an implausible coalition between the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The Democratic Party of Japan, which just took control of the lower house of the Diet, was formed in the aftermath of that coalition: the more liberal elements of the LDP combined with the more moderate elements of the JSP.1 This left a more conservative LDP and a more Socialist SDP, and also, as a side effect, left the LDP again in charge of the government, in coalition with the Komeito and other conservative groups. Another side effect: the bushy eyebrows and grandfatherly face of Murayama Tomiichi were immortalized in the “Ton-chan” dolls sold by the JSP; I bought one, thinking that this might be “historic.”2

You could hardly tell from the news reports coming out of Japan at the moment.3 I suppose that I’m not surprised by the lack of respect given to the mid-90s political turmoil: it was inconclusive and sloppy, not the kind of clear-cut “historic” event that makes for banner headlines. But what came out of it was an LDP that was, honestly, destined to fail: instead of representing the middle two-thirds of the Japanese political spectrum, it represented a heavily right-oriented one-third, while the DPJ took a big chunk of what was left. Essentially, the LDP split, probably the natural end to a party that was a coalition to begin with, formed out of a Cold War fear that Japan’s leftist parties might put aside their differences long enough to win control of the Diet. While it took a few elections, and another decade of disappointing economic stagnation, the left wing of the former LDP has overtaken the right wing of the former LDP, and a former member of the LDP is going to be Prime Minister.4

Is this “historic“? Well, it depends, of course. If the DP turns out to be more or less just like the LDP, then it’s no more historic than Pepsi™ overtaking Coca-Cola™. If the DP turns out to be a genuinely center-left party which reduces international entanglements while successfully fostering economic development, it could actually be a revival of the Yoshida Doctrine. That might actually be interesting, especially since it could mean a shift away from the normalization discourses we’ve been hearing so much of. I guess it’s a bit too soon to write the new narrative.

  1. This is a rough approximation. The faction politics of the LDP did not neatly divide along ideological lines, but some sense of policy alignment was starting to become clearer when the split happened []
  2. Actually, I bought two: one for me and one for my parents. []
  3. I want to thank Adam Richards for his tireless political blogging during this election, possibly the best reportage in English this time around. []
  4. I don’t think anyone’s going to make plush toys out of Hatoyama Yukio, though he’d make a credible daruma. []


ASPAC Blogging: Japan’s Political Present and Future

Fauna of Soka - Squirrel standingMy copanelists on Saturday were political scientists, and it was a good update for me on what what’s going on with Japan in the last ten years or so. “Normalization” is the name of the game: Japan’s political spectrum and international relations are starting to look a lot less like Yoshida’s vision and a lot more like a pretty normal regional power.


George O. Totten III (1922-2009)

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:07 am

George O Totten III as Deity George O. Totten III passed away at the beginning of this month; I just saw the obituary on H-Japan. Though I knew Totten mostly through his scholarship on the pre-WWII Japanese left, he published widely on Korea, Korean Americans, and China as well. I did meet him two years ago in Honolulu at ASPAC: He was quite talkative, sharing stories from his career and childhood, catching up with old friends but more than happy to involve younger scholars in the conversation as well. I didn’t realize at the time the extent of his work outside of Japanese political science — that he nominated former Korean president Kim Dae Jung for his Nobel Peace Prize gives you some idea of the extent of his interests and his judgement. He was really one of the few scholars I’ve ever heard of who covered all of East Asia as well as diaspora communities. Quite a record, and an extraordinary life.


Marginalizing Discourses at ASPAC

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:01 am

For the conclusion to my ASPAC blogging, I want to talk about the panel which invited me to serve as moderator. It was a pleasure, and not just because three of the four of us were Harvard Ph.D.s., though catching up with gossip was fun. The papers covered a solid range of early modern and modern topics — outcastes in the early 19th century, historiography of rebel domains in imperial Japan, political violence in the 1950s — and was uniformly excellent research which should soon see publication. My introduction tried to tie things together thusly

Marginalizing discourses are, of course, actually intended to normalize. These are not out-groups for the sake of individuality or obtuseness, but groups trying to function within society, negotiating from positions of weakness, but using available leverage — function, ideology, resistance — which is considered legitimate. But there is a trend away from formal stratification, through uniformity towards equality: modernity shifts from marginalizing people to marginalizing behavior.



My Tradition’s Bigger Than Your Tradition

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:30 pm

In an argument about Japanese-American draft-resistor internees during WWII, Eric Muller wrote

in my book I argue that vocal and visible protest of government orders are more distinctive facets of American popular culture than of Japanese popular culture. (I do not suggest that protest is absent from Japanese tradition, or that compliance is absent from American tradition; I simply maintain that as a comparative matter, vocal public protest has a stronger American lineage than Japanese.)

Do you [ed.: Ken Masugi] see this as true?

If you think it false, would you share with us prominent examples of the protest tradition in Japanese culture that match the Boston Tea Party, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” the National Woman’s Party, lunch counter protests and civil rights sit-ins, the Stonewall riots, the Wounded Knee protest, etc. etc. etc.

To be honest, I’m on Eric Muller’s side of this debate, but this passage rankled somewhat. Perhaps it’s my background in social history, my early exposure to Mikiso Hane (even before I found out that my wife knew him) or just my contrarian, blogger-nature, but I can’t just let it stand.

First, there’s the comparative history aspect: I can’t think of any other national history that has such a distinguished tradition of civil political protest: perhaps the English? The French get too revolutionary too easily. Ghandian India, or pre-1990 South Africa perhaps? In the last twenty years or so, the ubiquity of marches and demonstrations has taken some of the edge off, though if you limit the field to “events critiquing one’s own rulers” then you’ve a much smaller data set. Whether it rises to the level of a “tradition” in that exceptionalist American self-congratulatory sense is another question: I’m not sure that Muller’s list couldn’t be dismissed as “prominent examples” in contrast to a fairly conservative and gradualist tradition only recently challenged by strong civil rights movements.

There are, as Muller concedes “prominent examples of dissent in Japanese history.” Some would argue that there’s more than that: from the peasant uprisings of the Tokugawa era to the rice riots of 1919, demo against the Security Treaty, the lawsuits of Minamata, individual acts of self-destruction, literary and cultural satire, and speaker trucks, I think that there is a reasonably strong strain of public self-criticism and scolding, particularly given an environment of repression which (at most times in the last century and a half) goes well beyond that which has existed in the US, even during its colonial era.

What do you think?

Non Sequitur: Sumo Wrestlers in New York [registration required]. Wait, actually, it’s S.U.M.O., and the organizers swear it’s unscripted….


Who’s On Top?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:44 am

This came across the H-Japan wires, and I was intrigued by both the project itself and the immense time-wasting potential of listmaking, so I wrote to Ms. Kim and got some clarifications, and now I’m ready to putter furiously….

From: “Linda J. Kim” [l_jkim at yahoo dot com]
Dear Japanese History Professors,

As some of you may know, I am a graduate student researching Japanese elites during the 19th century (and eventually the 20th century). I am requesting nominations of who you think belong in this top ten list of influential political leaders [from her e-mail: "We are using C. Wright Mill's concept of the power elite, which comprises corporate, miitary, and political leaders"; I may go ahead and throw in a cultural figure or two, if they had substantial influence] during the periods of:

  • 1840-1860
  • 1860-1880
  • 1880-1900
  • 1900-1920

I recognize these are crude time periods and some of you may be experts in Tokugawa versus Meiji Japan, or there may be overlapping leaders across time periods. That’s okay. I would be grateful if you can fill in any of the periods that you are familiar with. Of course, I’d be happy to share the results with all interested parties.


Linda Kim
University of California, Riverside
Department of Sociology
Institute for Research on World-Systems

Here’s my nominations, mostly off the top of my head. If I was a really good blogger, I’d include links with all these names to something like their wikipedia entries, but I’ve blown enough of a Friday on this already, and none of these folks is obscure.

  • 1840-1860: Well, part of the problem in this era is the lack of coherent leadership. There’s the short-lived Shogunal leadership (Ii Naosuke, Abe Masahiro), and the rising mid-level elites (Okubo, Saigo). Aside from that, I’m not sure who I’d really pick as outstanding. Yoshida Shoin?
  • 1860-1880: Although this violates the normal 1868 boundary, the rising stars of the Bakumatsu cover this ground pretty well. Okubo Toshimichi, Saigo Takamori and Kido Takayoshi, of course are all leading figures and all die just before the end of this period. I’d probably include Fukuzawa Yukichi due to the influence of his writing and cultural leadership. A conventional list would probably include Shibusawa Eiichi as an economic leader, too, though perhaps his heyday is later? Iwakura Tomomi. Other names would come from the second-tier Bakumatsu/Meiji leadership: Okuma Shigenobu, Ito Hirobumi, Itagaki Taisuke, Mutsu Munemitsu. The eternal debate: to include the Emperor or not?
  • 1880-1900: This is, perhaps, the most stable of these eras, even though it crosses the Constitutional divide. Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata Aritomo and the Meiji Emperor have to top the list. Okuma Shigenobu gets high marks as an opposition rabble-rouser. Mori Arinori, Matsukata Masayoshi, Inoue Kaoru, Saigo Tsugumichi. There ought to be a business leader or two in here, but those names never stuck with me very well.
  • 1900-1920: Yamagata Aritomo and Matsukata Masayoshi; Saionji Kinmochi, Hara Takashi and Katsura Taro. I think Ito Hirobumi should make the top ten, even though he dies half-way through, but it depends on who else is near the top. Culturally speaking, Natsume Soseki. Nogi Maresuke is popular and makes an impact when he dies, but is he a top-ten leader? What am I missing here?

Obviously, the floor is open for discussion. (and later I will allow myself the luxury of looking at a textbook to see what I missed) This is part of a World History project including “US, Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and China” so almost everyone gets to play!


Open Thread: Election Results

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:25 pm

Lots of folks are pretty sure that the success of Koizumi’s rejuvenated LDP in yesterday’s elections [here’s a good summary] means something. What? It seems to me impossible to know what it means in a policy sense, but it clearly marks a step in the evolution of party politics and campaigning… a step away from past verities, but not necessarily towards anything easily recognizable or categorizable.

For myself, the privatization of the Postal Savings and Insurance system would mark the end of something historically interesting. The Postal Savings system was a fundamental institution in the Meiji modernization, enabling reliable low-cost long-distance transactions (including remittances from overseas, which is where my research comes in) and accumulating small deposits into a pool of capital that was agressively used for investment in railroads and other heavy industrial development. The great success of what is now the largest financial institution in the world is part of what forced me to recognize that the “rational actor” theory of economics which I had disdained for so long did in fact have its moments: the speed with which Japanese peasants adopted newer and more reliable banking institutions (and avoided less reliable ones) was a remarkable demonstration of fiscal sophistication and self-interest at work.


Article Nine on Film

Filed under: — tak @ 4:12 pm

Kei Yamamoto, writing for the citizen newspaper JANJAN, has reviewed the film Japan’s Peace Constitution (邦題 『映画 日本憲法』). The film is directed by John Junkerman, who also gave us Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times.

This documentary flick contains interviews with key intellectual in Japan and elsewhere, including John Dower, Chamlers Johnson, Noam Chomsky, Hidaka Rokuro (a leading Japanese social theorist), and others.

Also included are clips from an interview with Beate Sirota Gordon, who literally gave the postwar constitution the gender equality clause (I wrote about her a while ago on my blog, but this site is much more informative, as is the wikipedia entry).

The film is accompanied by a book in Japanese with the same title.

The review article is in Japanese: 文化・「九条の町」で見た映画 日本国憲法. An earlier JANJAN article about the film is here.

[The image shows the cover for the companion book, taken from amazon.co.jp and also displayed on the film’s official website. The caption on the film site reads: 画 / 奈良美智「Missing in Action -Girl meets Boy-」(広島市現代美術館所蔵). ]


Akihito as the Sovereign of Japan?

Filed under: — tak @ 10:19 pm

Asahi Shinbun reports that the LDP has accepted plans to push for changing the name “Self-Defense Force”(「自衛隊」) to “Self-Defense Military” (「自衛軍」). This is a bit alarming and I am sure that, if not already, there will be harsh criticism from Japan’s neighbors in the coming days.

But what made me shiver in reading this news was not so much Japan inching toward militarization, which had already been happening for a while now, but rather an effort by the LDP to (re)instate the emperor as the “sovereign” of the Japanese state. According to this Asahi article in Japanese, the commision almost approved a proposal to transform him into a mere symbolic figure to someone who would actually represent Japan in diplomatic settings.


When I read this, I could not believe my eyes. Is this really happening? What year is this?????


The word that I translated as “sovereign” here is genshu (元首). (Wikipedia translates it as either “head of state” or “sovereign”). It is a word that comes from the pre-war constitution, The Great Japanese Imperial Constitution, which was promulgated in 1889 and revised during the Allied occupation (1945-51). [The image shows the first page of the original constitution, taken from here.]

In the old pre-war constitution, the fourth article stipulates that the emperor is the genshu of Japan. This comes right after an article that declares the emperor to be divine.

So it has really come to this? Can someone wake me up from this nightmare? Are they soon going to start hailing Akihito as, indeed, a god?


Information v. Imperium

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:01 am

This week’s Japan Focus brings discussion of the past, present and future of the Japanese imperial institution. I’m particularly intrigued by the story of the researcher who used Japan’s Freedom of Information laws to pry documents out of the Imperial Household Agency, and how those documents may shed enough light on the arbitrary nature of “Imperial” tomb designations to jump-start the stalled process of studying the mounded tombs great and small.

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