井の中の蛙

4/13/2014

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.

6/8/2013

Modern Japan in Anglophone Historical Fiction

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:25 pm

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

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. []

8/10/2012

What do Samurai Have To Do With It?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:24 am

FallsofClydeLongViewI saw Margi Preus’s Heart of a Samurai (Amulet, 2010) and the title alone made me cringe: just what the world needs, another kid book touting the putative values of warrior aristocrats! But when I picked it up, I realized immediately that it was something else entirely (or almost entirely): a fictionalized retelling of John Manjiro‘s adventures as a castaway from Japan. Here’s a story that’s worth retelling — though it’s been done a few times already — and which presents a very different light on Japanese history. I borrowed it from my friend1 and discovered that I was right. Both times.

John Manjiro, also known as John Mung and Nakahama Manjiro, spent most of the 1840s on American ships and American soil, finally returning to Japan not long before Perry’s arrival marked the end of Japan’s relative isolation from foreign contact and trade. I haven’t read any of the other books on castaways, though I’ve heard a number of my friend Stephen Kohl’s panels at ASPAC. Manjiro’s tale is more extreme, both in the length of time he was away and the depth of his experiences, not to mention the timing of his return. When he returned he was interrogated thoroughly, then forced to remain in his hometown before being called to service. With his experience, he became a valuable source for policy-makers, starting with his native Tosa domain, passing to Shogunal service, and then as a promoter of Western learning. Manjiro’s journey was well-documented, and highlights some fascinating aspects of mid-19th century global life, including the whaling industry famously chronicled in Moby Dick, early education, and the tensions engendered by Japan’s isolation. Preus’s handling of the chronology and substantive topics is straightforward and sometimes quite good, including the racism Manjiro encountered both at sea and in New England.2

My reservations about this book stem from the samurai lens which is imposed on a commoner’s tale. The title refers to Manjiro, who is described early in the book as having ambitions to become a samurai, fulfilling the romantic and honorable role laid out in the classic tales. (pp. 13-14) Each section of the book has an epigram from Yamamoto’s Hagakure or something called “the Samurai’s Creed”3 and Manjiro’s elevation to sword-wearing Shogunal retainer is treated as the culmination of a long-held dream (as well as being entirely unprecedented). It’s possible that Manjiro really felt this way — I haven’t been able to find any reference to it in the materials I’ve seen — but it certainly seems odd for a tale about a fisherman who became a proponent of egalitarianism and Westernization to have more references to sources on samurai than on village life or Meiji transformations. There was one bit I liked, though: in New England, Manjiro is demonstrating sword fighting to an American friend, but confesses to himself that he has no idea what he’s doing, and that he and his friends in Japan made up their own moves to go along with the styles of fighting they’d heard about but never saw. (p. 133)

There were a few bothersome details — an anachronistic use of bata-kusai and the misuse of the word “sutra” for “prayer” on the same page (p. 31) was particularly troubling and I’d have been happier if Manjiro’s acknowledgement of Japanese whaling came before he expressed shock and horror at Western whaling (p. 45) — but the errors were not fundamentally damaging to the historical context. The fictionalized characters and conflicts (p. 280) seem a bit overdrawn to me, though the issues they raise were real. The length of the book is something of a problem: though it’s almost 300 pages, they are so sparse and there is so much illustration and blank space that the story felt quite rushed. Perhaps the fictionalized material stands out so much because it’s quite detailed, whereas large sections of equally dramatic real life read like paraphrases of the short histories cited above.4

On the whole, not a terrible book, though I think there’s still room for, say, an kid-oriented abridgement of Manjiro’s own testimony, with annotation by actual experts.

  1. who had bought it as a donation to a youth library based on recommendations from other children []
  2. A really excellent summary of Manjiro’s tale can be found here: Nakahama Manjirō’s Hyōsen Kiryaku: A Companion Book : Produced for the Exhibition “Drifting, Nakahama Manjirōs Tale of Discovery” : an Illustrated Manuscript Recounting Ten Years of Adventure at Sea. Aside from the great pictures and introduction, the book claims that Manjiro was used as a kind of spy, eavesdropping on American negotiators (21) []
  3. that’s before part one. In the bibliography, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure is cited twice, both the 1979 and 2008 translations, his name is cited backwards, and once misspelled []
  4. and the helpful material at the end really is fairly clearly paraphrased material. I understand not footnoting the story, but clear references in reference material seems reasonable, no? []

8/8/2012

Atomic Bomb Symposium at Federation of American Scientists

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:50 am

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

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…)

4/26/2012

Real History, alternate possibilities: Nuclear Weapons Edition

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:38 am

Not much of a post, given the nature of my frenetic academic life these days, but Alex Wellerstein’s post at Nuclear Secrecy raises fascinating question about the WWII-ending atomic bombings: what if the Japanese hadn’t surrendered after Nagasaki?

According to the documentation he offers, a third bomb would have been ready to go in a few weeks, with the likely prospect of about three more per month after that for the remainder of 1945. Given how narrowly the decision to surrender won the day after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Soviet entry into the war, and how elements of the military tried to forestall the surrender after the decision, it’s a much more plausible (and frightening) discussion than the “what if we hadn’t dropped the bomb” question.

(Thanks to Brett Holman for the tip. Brett’s liveblogging WWII, mostly the Blitz, but some interesting Japan material popped up today)

12/6/2011

SHAFR Roundtable on Pearl Harbor (Plus HNN Bonus Article)

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:44 pm

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 []

8/8/2011

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…)

6/2/2011

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

(more…)

  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? []

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress