China’s use of Japanese history

Young Chinese aren’t well educated in history, and there’s little evidence of much interest. They know what the state wants them to know (“post-Communist” China still retains tight educational and publishing controls and retains a strongly Marxist-Nationalist narrative of history), and apparently the state mostly wants them to know and care about Japan’s WWII atrocities. In fact, it’s a major topic on the Chinese internet, with thousands of Chinese participating in detailed and fervent discussions of wrongs done to their grandparents/great-grandparents’ generation. [via Claire George]

Strategic? Most likely. Illegitimate? Well, yes, in the context of China’s overall historical revisionism; no, in the context of Japan’s leadership’s failure (and much of general society) to come to terms with that history in a meaningful fashion.

Japan’s contribution to nihilistic Islamism

The AHA’s flagship journal American Historical Review doesn’t run Japanese articles all that often and, to be honest, interesting ones even more rarely. But the current edition’s foray is quite worth reading, though I’d like to know if other people’s reactions to it were as reserved as mine. The article is Japan’s Global Claim to Asia and the World of Islam: Transnational Nationalism and World Power, 1900–1945 [AHA membership required] by Selçuk Esenbel, whose previous publications are mostly in the field of Tokugawa peasant studies.

She chronicles decades of intellectual, military and cultural contacts between Japanese and Islamic activists in a variety of fields, but most sharing an anti-Western (or anti-colonial or anti-imperial) modernism. Many of the Japanese names involved are familiar to scholars of Japan’s early-20c right wing, but the degree to which they concieved of political Islam as an ally and bulwark against Near/Middle Eastern colonialism is quite striking. It shouldn’t be, I suppose: these thinkers were so ambitious and global in their ideas that they must have had some concept of how a major world religion fit into the scheme of things, and Japan’s affinity for (i.e. sense of leadership of) modernizing societies in this period was still strong.

There were two main directions to the interaction: scholarship of Islam in Japan (including a surprising number of conversions) and spreading Japanese anti-Westernism in Islamic regions. Pan-Islamism, as Esenbel describes it, isn’t that different from Pan-Asianism as the Japanese preached it, and figures like Ōkawa Shūmei made the connection explicit in print and in personal contacts.

The weakness of the article comes when she tries to make a case for the importance of these theories and contacts. Aside from the interesting new depth it gives to Pan-Asianism, and filling in some of the gaps in the “they really thought they could win these wars?” lists, Esenbel tries to draw some connections to late-20c/21c political Islam, particularly violent Islamist groups. This seems like a huge stretch to me, without making much more explicit personal or intellectual connections between modernist anti-westernism and nihilistic traditionalism in Islamic radical circles. Contemporary Islamism isn’t akin to Ōkawa’s pan-Asianism, but something more like Kita Ikki’s agrarian nationalism: positing a perfect (unattainable) protean socio/cultural/economic “moment” against which the present does not measure up and the “re”establishment of which will require revolutionary and violent action. As others have argued, Islamism isn’t anti-Orientalist as much as it is Occidentalist, and I don’t see that emerging clearly in this history.

Am I looking for the wrong things here? Missing something fundamental?


I’m a big fan of sub-national academic conferences. The nationals are fine, of course: I’ve gone to quite a few, some even when I wasn’t looking for a job (I’ll be in Seattle in a few weeks for the AHA, for example, and anyone who doesn’t hire my job-seeking copanelists is just not thinking). Lots of interesting folks show up at these things, and the book sellers are more fun than anything happening in whatever city it happens to be in (except for the used bookstores).

Anyway, I just wanted to pass along the Call For Papers for the Pacific Rim regional of the Association of Asian Studies, aka ASPAC. I’m on the board, though as a very junior member; still, it’s nice to be asked and to feel like I can contribute to the institutions I’ve been making use of for years. I’ve been to several of their conferences now, and it’s a nice bunch of folks, serious scholars. Very welcoming of graduate students, too (the competition for the Esterline Prize for Best Grad Student Paper last year was pretty stiff), so I highly recommend it as a venue for airing and polishing dissertation material (I use conferences to give myself writing deadlines: got some big chunks of my dissertation done that way).

If anyone wants to talk about panels, leave a comment. Panel submissions are not at all required, but it makes the program committee’s job easier, and results in more coherent panels which dramatically increases the likelihood that relevant people will hear your paper.

List of Intellectuals

I just finished making a little list of the various Japanese intellectuals mentioned in Victor Koschmann’s essay on “Intellectuals and Politics” in Andrew Gordon ed. Postwar Japan as History. The essay is essentially a short narrative of postwar intellectual history and mentions many of the important figures.I added various tidbits about them as found in the essay. I have not added anything else (or the Kanji characters for their names), even in those cases where the intellectuals are well known for things not mentioned in that essay. However, since the list may be of some use to someone, I have posted it in pdf format for download.

Successful Sakoku?

Talking about the semi-seclusion policies of the Tokugawa polity in class recently, and a student asked “was it a successful policy?” I had already outlined the various exceptions: foreigners allowed into Japan (Dutch, Chinese, Korean); Japanese allowed out and back in again (And I note that Michael Wood is leading the students, who presented in the summer at ASPAC, to the AAS this spring, bringing their fascinating material to a wider audience); limited trade contacts, and information flows. The question was not about whether it was a full seclusion policy, but about whether it accomplished the goals set for it and generally positive results.

I had to stop and think about that. I know that there is some disagreement over the economic implications of trade limitation, but Tokugawa growth is pretty substantial and its hard to argue that it’s a serious problem, even if growth could, theoretically have been greater without serious social problems resulting. The policy certainly is a success — along with investigations and temple registrations — from the standpoint of the suppression of Christianity in Japan, reducing a growing population to a few “hidden Christian” sects. From a cultural standpoint, including science and technology, Japan isn’t much more isolated or xenophobic than China during the same period (and China doesn’t, in the end, come out as well as Japan, so perhaps China would have been better off more isolated) and manages to catch up with the 18-19c military technology pretty quickly when push comes to shove.

Is it a success? Is it a mistake to talk about historical phenomena in those terms?

Movie: 2009 Lost Memories

I recently watched the 2001 Korean science fiction movie called 2009 Lost Memories (2009 로스트메모리즈, IMDB entry) written and directed by Lee Si-myung (이시명). The movie is set in Seoul and Manchuria, both parts of the Japanese empire in an alternate 21st century and tells the story of a militant Korean resistance movement trying to restore the “true” history of the 20th century that gave Korea its freedom from Japanese oppression as early as 1945. It was definitely not up to the standard of some of the excellent movies I have seen lately coming out of South Korea. In fact, I don’t recommend this movie to anyone. The movie is, however, worth a few comments and a quick summary.

The truth is that I have always had a weak spot for movies, like this one, which make attempts at “alternative history.” Perhaps my favorite alternative history work was the book and movie Fatherland, which I came across just out of high school. I haven’t the slightest idea what real historians have to say about the work (or what I would think going back to watch it now), but at the time, it certainly added to my interest in history. While historically based movies of all kinds do much the same, the less common genre of alternative history can be especially good at generating an excitement about history and historical problems, something that gets forgotten when we plough through the scenes in search of inaccuracies and anachronisms. Alternative history also shares with science fiction (and in this case, the movie is at home in both genres) an often surprisingly transparent look at the contemporary world of the filmmakers.

Continue reading →

Sondheim’s Perry?

I had no idea: Stephen Sondheim (yes, I’m one of his many fans) wrote a musical about the arrival of Commodore Perry called Pacific Overtures. There’s a new version of it being staged in New York: anyone know if there’s a soundtrack, or video version of it (current or former versions) available?

I’m almost afraid to find out, really, what he did with it: there’s so much bad historical fiction and drama out there….

Breaking News: WWII won’t go away

OK, that’s not all that surprising at this point. But I was a bit taken aback when three articles all about separate aspects of WWII in Japan showed up in the History News Network Breaking News file in one day:

  • A French politician (le Pen’s National Front) and professor of Japanese studies at Lyon whose degrees are from Kyoto University is under investigation in France for Holocaust denial.
  • The Japanese Minister of Education Nakayama Nariaki is “really glad that recently there are fewer words such as ‘comfort women’ and ‘forced relocation’ used in textbooks.” He thinks that earlier editions propogated a “self-tormenting” view of history whereas “It is very important to teach the future children of Japan so that they can live with pride in their race and their history.”
  • Japan’s Supreme Court has ruled that there is no constitutional grounds for the Japanese government to compensate victims of Japan’s colonial and wartime policies in Korea.

Frankly, this is all business as usual. That’s quite disappointing, of course. I tell my students that history is as much about stability as it is about change, and the roots of stability need to be examined as closely as the causes of change. But it’s still disappointing.

What If

Jonathan Dresner, our most active member here at Frog in a Well has an interesting posting at Cliopatria on the 1000 top OCLC library books by purchase. Dresner looks at the placing of history books in general, and has this to say about Japan related (or at least sounding like they are) books:

Only one Japanese author made the list, “Murasaki Shikibu” for Tale of Genji (#668); but Japan was also the subject of Sullivan and Gilbert’s Mikado (#878), Hersey’s Hiroshima (#333) and Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (#883) (no, it isn’t, I know that).

I haven’t gone through the whole list myself so I can’t say whether there are other entries, but if so, what do we think about this?

For those of us who study Japanese history or the region in general, what 4 books which are set in Japan, are on Japan or about the region might we wish had made the list? Almost all the candidates that immediately come to mind which had a big impact on my own interest in Japan I have since come to feel might be problematic or are too academic to be interesting to the average library patron. I will say, however, that Hersey’s Hiroshima left a profound imprint on me and I’m fairly comfortable with its inclusion.

Faith and Foreign Policy

There is lots of talk about the importance of faith and the use of religious or crusader vocabulary in the US president’s justification of his foreign policy. While reading Louise Young’s Japan’s Total Empire I came across a rather unexpected parallel to this in 1932, when the Japanese delegate to the League of Nations, Matsuoka Yôsuke responded to the Lytton Commission’s report on the Manchurian Incident.

…Humanity crucified Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago. And today? Can any of you assure me that the so-called world opinion can make no mistake? We Japanese feel that we are now put on trial. Some of the people in Europe and America may wish even to crucify Japan in the twentieth century. Gentlemen, Japan stands ready to be crucified! But we do believe, and firmly believe, that in a very few years, world opinion will be changed and that we also shall be understood by the world as Jesus of Nazareth was.1

1. Found in Young p. 154. Original apparently from Japanese Delegation to the League of Nations. The Manchurian Question: Japan’s Case in the Sino-Japanese Dispute as Presented before the League of Nations. Geneva: League of Nations, 1933. p. 166.

A New Constitution for Japan?

I love constitutions. They’re great texts for teaching, they are fantastic touchstones for discussion and, of course, they are crucial to the definition of sovereignty, rights and government function. The first thing I did with the first scanner we ever bought was to scan and OCR the text of the Meiji and 1947 constitutions, (and submit them to Project Gutenberg, here and here) and the only upper-level undergraduate seminar I’ve ever had the chance to teach was about the 1947 constitution.

So I take it pretty seriously when Japanese politicians begin talking about altering the Japanese constitution. Not Article 9, the renunciation of war now honored almost entirely in the breach, but about the fundamental document itself. Yakushiji Katsuyuki, in Sekai [via the Saaler translation in Japan Focus] suggests that the LDP is moving towards a dramatic and fundamental revision of the Japanese constitution.

I think he overstates the role of the Koizumi government specifically; these changes have been in the air since Nakasone, who made fundamental shifts towards international engagement and power-flexing, and cultural conservativism, as part of the Reagan Coalition of the 1980s. I don’t think the LDP has been as adrift as the economy, in other words. But the “Planning Document” he describes is quite dramatic, an open rejection of the US-authored 1947 constitution.

In particular, Yakushiji points at the statism of the revision, and quotes from the document:

Until now, discussions about the Constitution have conspicuously and exclusively emphasized the desire of citizens to limit state power. In the future, when we turn to revising the Constitution, any revisions should not focus solely on limiting the power of the state, but should rather set out the respective responsibilities of the public and private [spheres], in order to protect and enhance both the interests of the people and the national interest (kokueki). It is important to appreciate the significance [of the Constitution] as a set of rules defining the roles of both the state and the people in creating a common society (kyosei shakai).

This strikes me as a remarkable shift, from minshushugi [democracy; popular sovereignty] even beyond a Yoshino Sakuzō-style minponshugi [government based on the views and good of the people], towards or beyond Minobe Tatsukichi-esque “organ theory” [people are one “organ” of the nation, essential but not sovereign]. Both of these represent liberal views within the context of pre-WWII Japan, rejected by the Imperialist politics of the 1930s, but only Yoshino’s approaches our modern understanding of democracy. There are even shades of kokutai thinking in the draft document which calls for a new constitution

based on healthy common sense, embodying features such as the values peculiar to our country (i.e. our national character [kunigara]) and the morality the Japanese originally followed — values which are rooted in [our] history, tradition and culture, but which have been forgotten during the period in which the present Constitution has been enacted and during the occupation by SCAP.

Some of the “peculiar” values which need to be written back into the constitution are inequality of the sexes, reestablishment of state-sponsored religion, and open embrace of military power. Yakushiji does not cite anything with regard to the role of the Emperor, or dramatic revision to the form of government.

Amending the constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Diet, followed by a simple majority of a national referendum. There is precedent for that process to be not just a clause-by-clause change but a full-text replacement: that’s how the current constitution replaced the Meiji constitution. So it is entirely possible for the LDP to envision a truly radical revision of the constitution, in theory. As Yakushiji points out, it’s highly unlikely that any revision would be just as described, but it’s also worth noting when the leading party sets out a radical agenda.

[Crossposted at Cliopatria]

Iris Chang’s Death

Iris Chang is dead, apparently by her own hand as a result of depression. Her work on the Nanjing Massacre brought her fame and attention, of all kinds. She was reviled by some, respected and loved by others. Though her approach to sources and numbers has been criticized (I think attempts to maximize or minimize atrocities numerically is reductionistic at best, more polemical than historical), her work drew attention to Japanese wartime atrocities in a way which previous scholarship had not and which was, in my opinion, largely positive. She was clearly an energetic researcher and writer, she was willing and able to engage the public through her writing and her public appearances, and was a positive force for History, Asian Studies, scholarship in general. [Note: Second thoughts here]

Her work in The Rape of Nanking has been criticized for being polemical, one-sided, shoddy. In fact, that’s more or less a consensus among even American historians who work on Nanjing-related issues. As this article by David Askew makes clear, Chang’s position is more or less the same as the “mythical” position taken by Chinese sources. (Warning to fellow historians: Askew’s article is extremely good historiographical writing, the kind that is hard to stop reading after you start. It’s long, but it’s a great ride.) Chang, however, found some incredibly rich documents never before studied by any historian or journalist, for which alone she gets the historian’s silver star with clusters.

You can judge a person by their adversaries, some say. I was pretty neutral on Chang’s work when it came out — The title seemed overwrought, and the reporting certainly was, and the massacre itself wasn’t really news to me as an historian, though I’m always pleased…. ok, usually pleased, to have Japanese history featured, and gritty wartime studies aren’t my thing, mostly — until I got a mailing (I think the whole AAS membership did, actually) from the other side. It was translated excerpts from a Japanese historian named Tanaka Masaaki, one of the hardest of what Askew calls the “Illusion School” of “myth-making” massacre deniers. It was a study in holocaust denial techniques: highly selective use of evidence, narrow definitions of terms, distortion of contradictory evidence and ad hominem attacks. It was chilling, and when combined with the consistent use of minimizing language in Japanese textbooks, it led me to believe that…. well, that the discussion isn’t over.

[crossposted at Cliopatria]

Farewell, Soseki

I’m going to miss Natsume Soseki. I know, he’s been dead for a long time (are there any plans in the works for centennial editions or celebrations, because the hundredth anniversary of his greatest works, as well as his death, are coming up), and I’m not going to stop referencing or using his writings in my modern history classes. But one of the things I could always tell my students, if they doubted the importance of this particular novelist, is that he was featured on the ¥1000 note. No longer.

He’s being replaced by Noguchi Hideyo, discoverer of the syphilis bacterium. This is a good choice, I suppose: promotion of science and all that. Looking for images for currency, I stumbled across this article on photocatalytic substances and their use in evironmental rejuvenation and eco-friendly construction, and this article on natto-based water-absorbing resins. I spent two summers translating and cataloging Japanese technical writing, so I’m used to a certain overstatement in these kinds of articles, but there’s something very, very intriguing about the work being done here. It’s something of a truism among environmental activists that environmentally-friendly technology is its own economic reward, reducing costs and stimulating demand, but it can be hard to find really good examples when everyone points at the solar cells and says “why aren’t they cheaper yet”? I think Japan’s long-term economic importance in the world will be sustained by such technological creativity — melding scientific and economic and social innovation — and that’s worth noting. It’s also worth noting that he did the work that made him famous in the United States

Inazo, the educator and writer who worked so hard to introduce Japanese culture to the world in the early 20th century, is losing his place on the ¥5000, as well. I have more mixed feelings about that: though Nitobe is described in Hunter’s Concise Dictionary as “a strong opponent of militarism and nationalism.. an internationalist, Christian and liberal,” my strongest association with him is the cultural essentialism which he promoted through books like Bushidō: the Soul of Japan. That is a strain of Japanese culture commentary which provided great support to the militarists and nationalists over the course of the 20th century, and which still plagues us today in a variety of forms (including overwrought undergraduate essays on the samurai, which I’m plowing through now).

Nitobe is being replaced by Higuchi Ichiyo, about whom I know almost nothing. I’ll admit it: the woman being described as one of the first and most important feminist novelists in Meiji Japan I know nothing about. I know some of the work of Enchi Fumiko and Ariyoshi Sawako and Tawara Machi…. but not Higuchi. I guess I’ve got some reading to do. Still, she is the first modern woman to appear on Japan’s currency, and it’s nice to see a novelist still holding a place, though the ¥5000 is something of a ghetto in terms of daily use.

The reverse of the bills is changing as well: you can see them here. Mt. Fuji is moving from the ¥5000 to the ¥1000, and picking up some cherry blossoms. The cranes (I liked the cranes) are not moving the other way, though: the ¥5000 now features “Kakitsubata, or rabbit-ear irises, drawn by Korin Ogata.”

The ¥10000 bill will retain Fukuzawa Yukichi, which makes me very happy, though it will also be modified slightly to include the anti-forgery features of the other new bills.

And in a sign of how long I’ve been out of Japan, I hadn’t realized that they introduced a ¥2000 bill in 2000, featuring the Tale of Genji and its author “Murasaki Shikibu.” I do remember the phase-out of the ¥500 bill, and I still think that the transition to a coin for that denomination is a model of what the US government should do with its $1 and $5 paper denominations. Even I’ve mostly given up on the Sacajawea dollar, but that’s partly because I’m on an island where it’s harder to get them, but the cost savings in shifting to coinage would be considerable.

Back Online

After some four days of not knowing if anything would be restored, I’m happy to say, which has been down since the morning of November 1st, is now up and running again. I have switched to a new host and hope that I will have better luck, support, and reliability from my new hosting company. My apologies for any inconvenience caused to our readers and my fellow authors.