God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey 
by Ian Buruma.
Cape, 267 pp., £12.95, October 1989, 0 224 02493 0
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The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol V: The 19th Century 
edited by Marius Jansen.
Cambridge, 828 pp., £60, October 1989, 0 521 22356 3
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The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. VI: The 20th Century 
edited by Peter Duus.
Cambridge, 866 pp., £60, June 1989, 0 521 22357 1
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At the last triennial meeting of the European Association for Japanese Studies in late September 1988 the major talking-point was the extraordinary outburst of anti-Japanese feeling which in parts of the British press greeted the news of Emperor Hirohito’s final illness. Later in the new year, as the gruesome saga of the Emperor’s coma continued, we heard that the journalist Edward Behr had just finished a BBC documentary which promised, with exquisite timing, to blow the lid off the ‘Hirohito myth’. Behr had apparently discovered some incriminating evidence which historians had hitherto either missed or wilfully ignored. One waited in apprehension, but the supposedly key passages from ‘newly-discovered’ diaries turned out to be the same old tired mistranslations from long-published sources that Bergamini had tried to pass off as history in the early Seventies. Yet again, it seemed that the overwhelming desire for a scapegoat was being linked to the notion that Hirohito had been a Japanese version of Hitler. Much easier to assume that the whole world operates as ‘we’ do than to inquire into the nature of the imperial institution in Japanese history. It was as if in 1952, on the death of King George VI, the German press had offered up fervent prayers that the Firebomber of Dresden would go to his just reward in Hell, or as if the Argentinians were to hold the Queen personally responsible for the Belgrano.

The incident was a sobering one. The role of the Emperor in the war does need reassessment; but even to question his ultimate guilt at this stage was to appear to be condoning all Japanese atrocities in South-East Asia, and those who questioned Behr’s credentials were clearly on a hiding to nothing. If the academic world finds it so difficult to make an impact on public opinion in such a vital area of Anglo-Japanese relations, then how can we justify that part of ourselves that takes pride in being able to interpret the foreign and the strange to a Western audience?

Part of the answer must lie in the fact that there are, thank heaven, some journalists who are qualified to act as intermediaries, who know and speak Japanese well and who are not afraid to make it clear that they could not really do their job of interpretation properly were it not for the published work of academics. One such man is Ian Buruma. Educated in the Netherlands but writing in English, Buruma is known for his work on the Far Eastern Economic Review and in the New York Times, and as the author of A Japanese Mirror, a racy book on the Japanese underworld. God’s Dust, too, is somewhat breathlessly written as he moves us from Burma to Japan at almost breakneck speed, but it is a sensitive and rewarding book. He has an enviable ability to come up with sharp cultural observations in the most compromising of positions. A description of what goes on in the barbers’ shops of Taipei is nicely turned into a metaphor for the passive nature of politics in Taiwan.

The final impression left by the book is that all these Pacific nations face the same problem of how to redefine themselves in the modern world, but that they are also all utterly different and can only help each other to a limited extent. Over them all now hovers the economic might of Japan, with the country operating as the major filter through which Western ideas and images penetrate. The notion of Japan as filter is a familiar one for scholars of modern China and post-colonial Indonesia, but in the present world situation its role vis-a-vis the other nations that border the Pacific offers a fascinating field for study and reflection. Not that Buruma’s main concern lies here. His true thesis is the disquieting prospect of a revivified nationalism emerging in South-East Asia. Nationalism is a concept to which he is largely unsympathetic. He comes across it everywhere and everywhere is disturbed by its implications, but nowhere is the strain more evident than in his discussion of Japan, a country which both attracts and repels him, as it does many of us. The light touch with which he describes a disastrous meeting with the scholar Watanabe Shoichi belies the seriousness of the subject: the Japanese assumption of cultural superiority. This particular altercation is just one of a series that Buruma has recently had with luminaries in the Japanese intellectual establishment. He has had the temerity to suggest that the new International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto known as Nichibunken, which was set up by Prime Minister Nakasone just before he left office, is in fact a right-wing cultural think-tank whose role is to bolster Japan’s sense of its own uniqueness. It is true that the head of the new Center, Umehara Takeshi, has some extraordinarily silly ideas about the dim and distant past when the Japanese were pure and innocent. This romanticism cannot possibly stand up to historical analysis, which suggests that the Japanese ruling families, if not actually of pure Korean descent, were certainly an unholy mixture. It must also be admitted that much of Japanese ‘intellectual’ journalism is both small and narrow-minded, often indulging in a narcissistic litany of cultural, historical and linguistic traits that are somehow construed as uniquely ‘Japanese’. How seriously should we take this kind of thing? The question is not in itself unimportant, because how others react will, of course, help decide the direction this whole enterprise of self-definition finally takes. Indeed this is true of almost every aspect of our relations with Japan. It is important that we think carefully before reacting to anything, so sensitive are their antennae to outside response. Should we search for disturbing parallels with the kind of neurotic Volk mentality that produced such dire results in 19th- and 20th-century Europe, as Buruma and, especially, Peter Dale, author of The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness, have done? Or should we take it all with a pinch of salt?

The position of those who take up an adversarial stance and invoke the direst of scenarios is fraught with difficulties. The Japanese can always neatly turn the tables and accuse one of precisely the kind of Eurocentric misunderstanding that I laid at the door of Edward Behr. You Westerners don’t understand because you don’t really know us. From here it is hardly a stone’s throw to: you can never really understand because you are not Japanese. It is a troubling picture. Ever since the late 19th century Japan has had a sense of itself as endlessly trying to catch up with the West, and although its culture and historiography have never been subjected to the kind of imperialist Orientalism that Said has described so well in relation to the Middle East, it has in fact felt a constant need to manufacture its own version of Orientalism in order to give itself definition. The energetic promotion of the cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji image has not only managed to hide what was in fact wholesale destruction of the natural environment but has provided a climate in which a self-induced neurosis has been able to flourish which represents the Japanese as victims of persistent misunderstanding. Now that the rest of the world is busy catching up with her Japan is faced with yet another crisis of identity. Its political institutions seem incapable of throwing up the charismatic leader deemed necessary in international diplomacy, and the fruit of its economic success is a huge crop of sour grapes. The obsessive national pastime of theorising about the national identity is, one hopes, part of the process by which Japan will be able to come to terms with its new role in the world order. And if the role of the new Kyoto Center is to facilitate such a process, then a bit of salt may be in order. If one reacts too strongly, there is a danger of increasing the self-importance of these individuals and giving them extra exposure as guardians of cultural kudos.

So how do we help both the Japanese and ourselves? The first essential is to make an effort to know as much about them as they seem to know about us. It is nice to be able to report that the pioneers of this scholarly approach to Japan were, by and large, British: Chamberlain, Aston, Satow, followed by Murdoch, Waley and Sansom. It is not so pleasant to report that the initiative is now almost entirely in transatlantic hands. Ninety-five per cent of what our students, and anyone else for that matter, now read on Japan is produced in the United States by American scholars; and nowhere is this made more starkly obvious than in the new Cambridge History of Japan. In these two volumes, which cover Japan from the early 1800s to 1973, only one out of 30 contributors is British and he is now retired, his chair filled in a different area. Worse is to come. It may well turn out that in all six volumes, with anything up to ninety contributors, only two will be British, one of whom did his graduate work at Harvard and is now teaching at Princeton. Large histories take a long time to plan and bring to fruition, and this one was mooted when I and many of my present colleagues were still chewing over PhD topics. But the real reason lies in the inertia which has meant that in Britain a subject as important to our future as Japan has, until quite recently, either been regarded as exotic or marginalised on the grounds of being too difficult to incorporate into the major disciplines. Nothing grates on the scholar of Japan quite so much as being labelled an Orientalist; nothing is more indicative of a general unwillingness to deal with a country and a culture that will have an increasing impact on our lives and the lives of our children, whether we like it or not. It is devoutly to be hoped that, if nothing else, this six-volume series will prove to be a landmark, the beginning of a new awareness in the academic community at large.

It is a mark of the continued exoticism of the field in British eyes that I am still asked why I decided to study Japanese. Once, I took the question seriously enough to think about the response and it occurred to me that a chance remark by a history teacher could have had something to do with it. ‘The most important battle of the modern era,’ he said, ‘was the Battle of Tsushima.’ It was odd enough to make one think. In a sense he was right, since it was the first time a non-European power had so comprehensively beaten a European power. Certainly their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War remains a horrible lesson for Russian generals and admirals alike; and although the British applauded its fighting spirit at the time, the rise of Japan in the early 20th century was to lead inevitably to the loss of both the Dutch and the British Empires in the Far East, with all that meant in terms of the image of white supremacy elsewhere in the world. The rise of Japan is surely one of the great epics of modern world history.

One of the most difficult decisions to face the editors of the Cambridge History must have been that of periodisation. Japanese historians have their own series of pigeon-holes for Japanese history and the concept of the century is quite alien to the native tradition even today. The decision to periodise in terms of centuries might be seen as yet another piece of Western imperialism, but here it has the inestimable advantage of placing the Meiji Restoration at the centre of the story rather than at the beginning. This allows us to put the ‘miracle’ school of interpreting modernisation into perspective. Was it a miracle? Well, anything will seem to be a miracle as long as one is ignorant enough. Japan in the 19th century was in many ways intellectually and culturally the equal of the West that was knocking at its door. It is for this reason that a study of Japan, though essential for all those interested in the impact the West has had on ‘traditional’ societies, cannot on its own provide a blueprint for countries facing similar problems today. And in any case, Japan itself is now the big Other for many countries in the region.

The Cambridge volumes leave two powerful impressions. The first is that of sheer difference of historical experience. We have here a different form of revolution, a different kind of social base and economic management. and a different form of colonial expansion. What, incidentally could be more suggestive of the gap between popular and scholarly opinion on the role of the Emperor in the Pacific War than to find that he rates only one small reference in all 866 pages of Volume Six? I, for one, do not believe that this is a sign of a cover-up.

The second impression is of the appalling mistakes that specialists can make when they are drawn into the dangerous business of predicting the future. Here is the eminent Edwin Reischauer writing in 1951: ‘The economic situation in Japan may be so fundamentally unsound that no policies, no matter how wise, can save her from slow economic starvation and all the concomitant political and social ills that situation would produce.’ It must have seemed an embarrassing remark even in 1973, where this Cambridge History of Japan draws the line. Since then we have had another 16 years of uninterrupted growth and expansion.

Send Letters To:

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Vol. 12 No. 16 · 30 August 1990

Richard Bowring writes (LRB, 14 June) that a ‘chance remark’ by his history teacher at school about the significance of the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War made him interested in studying Japanese. Two cheers for Bowring’s teacher! Bowring goes on to state that ‘it was the first time a non-European power had so comprehensively beaten a European power.’ Macaulay’s schoolboy could tell him that the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 was done quite ‘comprehensively’. The boy would probably know also that the Battle of Hattin, where in 1187 Saladin defeated the Crusaders, had devastating consequences for a Western adventure.

Unless the West can rid itself of deeply ingrained illusions of natural superiority, there is very little hope of a mutual understanding between the West and the older civilisations of the East, now resurgent. One way to understanding is objective historical knowledge, to which scholars can contribute. Such knowledge may help to induce the intellectual humility to accept that Western economic and technological superiority has been, historically, brief. One cannot but wonder at the persistence of misrepresentations even in serious media and some ‘scholarly’ writings, e.g. of the Greco-Persian wars and of Arab civilisation, including its historical tolerance of Jews (in striking contrast to the treatment of Jews in Europe). Is it possible that the newly proposed history curriculum for schools will reinforce the pervasive ignorance of non-European civilisations?

J.S. Malikail
Saskatchewan, Canada

Richard Bowring writes: The comments on Tsushima were made in the context of the ‘modern era’, but nevertheless I take the point. I am a little more uncomfortable, however, when it comes to the possibility of ‘objective historical knowledge’ coming to our aid; and the usefulness of a West/East dichotomy can be very short-lived when one gets into the detail. The study of Japan in Asia quickly shows us that we are not the only ones to be guilty of cultural arrogance. But then we all need to study more European history too – even, apparently, members of the British Cabinet.

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