Thursday, August 28, 2014

Marginalia: Charlie Chaplin in Japan

     Yesterday I started reading Miriam Silverberg's fantastic book, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense - The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times. She begins by recounting a visit made by Chaplin to Japan on May 14, 1932. On this occasion, a band of right-wing extremists wanted to assassinate Chaplin and his hosts in order to 'restore' the powers of the emperor and facilitate war with the United State. As luck would have it, due to a scheduling error, Chaplin escaped unharmed. The Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, however, perished at the hands of a group of naval officers on May 15. 
     So I decided to track down Chaplin's autobiography and extract those passages referring to the incident. The following pages are from Chaplin's My Autobiography published by Melville House.

 Works mentioned:

Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. Melville House Publishing, 2012.

Silverberg, Miriam. Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. Univ of California Press, 2006.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lost and Found - Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial Japan by Hiraku Shimoda

It is still a pretty widespread idea that Japan, during two centuries of Tokugawa-led seclusion, was a unified monolith, managed peacefully and efficiently by the central powers in Edo. Within this narrow focus, one tends to omit the fact that the mavericks leading the Meiji Restoration had the difficult task of uniting to their cause a people dispensed over 260 distinct domains. At the outbreak of the Meiji Restoration Japan was messy and full of troubling divisions and, as one would expect, parts of the population couldn’t shake off the past or old loyalties with ease. This dividing line between old and new was carried out at a regional level, with some domains clinging to bakufu allegiances while others embraced the Satsuma and Chōshū alliance (satchō). The regional split is why the road to ‘modernity’ was not an easy one: on numerous occasions it took a bloody turn, the worst example being the Boshin War (1868-1869) which culminated in the disestablishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate and saw the return of the imperial court to prominent position of power. Far from ending the regional split (even through various collective and individual punishments imposed by the victors) the peace and stability following the Meiji Restoration was every so often disturbed by calls for regional independence, preservation of regional identity and historical revision of the actors of the Boshin War. All of these features had been drastically reduced, transformed and amalgamated as requisites of a newfangled, modern nation-state. The obstinate cries supporting the original form of these features were most famously and vociferously expressed by the defeated bakufu supporters, the people of Aizu domain. The circumstances which set Aizu apart and gave it the rare courage to clash with the increasingly-autocratic Meiji government are the subject of Mr. Hiraku Shimoda’s book Lost and Found - Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial Japan.

Mr. Shimoda takes stock of a special topographical counterpoint to the notion of Japanese homogeneity and territorial uniformity by investigating a region where the strong local identity was often disconnected from the collective national ethos. In doing so, he confronts the massive reshaping of Aizu’s regional culture during the Meiji period and the resistance generated by such historical transfiguration. But if this local identity was so tenacious, so set against the forces building a nation-state (and, synchronously, an empire) then where is Aizu today? 

No political unit called Aizu has existed since 1868… One must squint at a map just to see the word Aizu appear as a mere vestigial prefix on the names of several towns and villages scattered across western Fukushima prefecture.

Situated in the heart of Tohoku region, Aizu comprised the western mountainous part of Fukushima Prefecture. During the Edo period, the area was a Tokugawa protectorate, responsible for keeping a look-out on northern daimyōs with dubious loyalties such as the Satake, Date and Nanbu. The region was generally stricken by poverty and only the city of Wakamatsu had a reputation for trade and prosperity. Against these adverse conditions and because it recognised the strategic importance of an ally in an area far from Edo’s reach, the Tokugawa continued to support Aizu financially and militarily until the tragic outcome of the Boshin War. While the foundations of adherence to the Tokugawa cause can be traced back almost two centuries before the Meiji Restoration, it is worth noting here that, even during the Edo period, Aizu had a reputation for unruliness, especially when it came to samurai standards of proper behaviour. In addition, what could be interpreted as a sense for regional loyalty or even strong regional identity was not exactly developed along strict lines but was more the object of self-serving, financial prosperity and survival:

The rulers and the ruled could diverge greatly on who and what ‘belonged’ in Aizu and how much they valued the domain as a rightful place of belonging that merited their allegiance. The domain did what it could, naturally enough, to keep human and material capital within its borders for the sake of domainal well-being.

This predilection for self-preservation rather than regional loyalty was evident after the Aizu resistance was crushed by the imperial forces in the Boshin War. Various witnesses recorded the failure on the part of the commoners to express pity or sympathy towards the daimyo and his generals who were captured and carried off to Edo as prisoners of war. This indifference especially shocked the commander in chief of the victorious Tosa army and compelled him to express his feelings as following:

“When I witnessed all the commoners fleeing with their belongings on their backs, I was deeply impressed… The people avoided conflict and scattered, with none feeling any debt to the many generations of lordly benevolence… Upon seeing the fall of their country, the people felt no more remorse than did some livestock — how could this be?”

How is it possible that after the demise of their mighty Tokugawa supporter, Aizu became synonymous with a hotbed of ‘rebels’ and ‘enemies of the court,’ a mix of rowdy people who vehemently resisted and constantly frustrated forced amalgamation into the budding Meiji nation-state? And why, from this resistance, did it emerge as a primary exemplar of steadfast loyalty to the imperial cause? The reasons are interestingly varied and Mr. Shimoda presents them with the skill of a masterly historian. 

After the Boshin War 70 percent of Aizu’s rice crops were destroyed and the land was plunged into poverty and famine. While the Meiji restorationists regarded these dire straits as a fit punishment for a region that acted against their goals, soon they had to revise their isolationist policy and to contribute to the socio-economic conditions of the area. This was highly necessary as between 1868 and 1876 Aizu was a hub for counterfeiters, bandits and antigovernment insurrections. Kido Takayoshi, one of the main protagonists in the Meiji Restoration, denounced Aizu as “the greatest villain of all” and sought to “instil fear by punishing the unruly rebels… and make it impossible for others to harbour any rebellious thoughts.” Another course of action which was seen as necessary for the creation of a strong, unified state was the relocation of Aizu samurai families so as to reduce the influence which they might have had upon local feelings of disloyalty and unruliness. As one statesman aptly put it, “there is no better way to imperialise the people and wash away old habits than samurai relocation.” 

All of these actions enraged the Aizu people and reinforced their antagonism toward the central government. This enmity was already rooted in the terrible devastation brought upon the land in the aftermath of the Boshin War. But with the displacement of the old families and the encroachment of modern industrialisation supplanting old forms of mercantilism and sustenance, they also felt that their culture was being forced out of the region. Aizu locals voiced their displeasure in various petitions, calling out for the return of the Matsudaira lords (who have ruled Aizu by Tokugawa decree for centuries):

“We are a people who have always lived in an isolated land enclosed on all four sides, and we are stubborn in our ways. We are accustomed to the several centuries of benevolent nurturing by Matsudaira lordship… The ways of our old lord have seeped into our skin over more than two hundred years, and they cannot be forgotten even for a moment…”

The anger increased in 1876 when Aizu was incorporated into Fukushima prefecture. Mr. Shimoda regards this move as the straw that broke the camel’s back because it gave the people of Aizu a platform to hold even more tightly unto to their views of regional exceptionality and resulted in pronounced demonstrations of local identity.

It was the climate of modern national consolidation that fostered this local self-discovery. Faced with external violations of unstated but long-understood borders — an insensitive gerrymandering where Tokyo’s designs seemed grossly incongruous with established practices — some residents of  former Aizu were driven to reaffirm local norms and discover their distinct locality. Both prefectural rule and administrative consolidation had aimed for nation-building efficiency, but those impositions gave rise, most unwittingly, to a sharper awareness of Aizu’s regional identity relative to its neighbours and the new nation.

From this strong notion of personal and collective identity prevalent in the ex-Aizu province, the concept of Aizuppo became established. A singular definition of this term (which is in use even at the present) is hard to pinpoint. To be sure, it harkens back to the notion of “the Aizu spirit” that was invoked regularly and obsessively during the late Meiji Period to signify strength of character, loyalty and, above all, stubbornness in the face of drastic change and modern reform. “The Aizu spirit” was (and is) thus a thoroughly conservative notion, one that adhered to the acute exceptionalism of a supposedly unchanging tradition. 

The famous stubbornness of “The Aizu spirit” gradually began to be equated with steadfast loyalty which, in the nationalistic and military environment of the Meiji period, was the most admirable and supreme virtue the Japanese people could have. And because absolute loyalty toward country and emperor was the criterion that all good citizens had to demonstrate, the Aizu locals could now claim that they were the paragon, the embodiment of this moral attribute. Owing to its committed and unfaltering support for the Tokugawa government throughout history, the Aizu province had proven to be reliably loyal and so the designation of “rebels” attached to them and to all bakufu supporters in history textbooks had to be revised. The Aizu people couldn’t be rebels when in fact they most ardently and loyally supported the original Japanese state, seeing it through to its tragic demise. The sacrifices made by being on the wrong side of history were enough to warrant special consideration in the case of Aizu as it not only endured disproportionate humiliation and punishment compared to other provinces, but it eventually disavowed its ties to the old regime by taking down Saigō Takamori’s troops in the Seinen War of 1877 (otherwise known as the Satsuma Rebellion). All of this energised a grand region-wide movement in support of the elimination of the appellation of ‘rebels’ when referring to Aizu people, which even drew the passionate assistance of Tokutomi Sohō, the famous journalist and historian. Mr. Shimoda details with intriguing zest the well-publicised fight over textbook terminology but I cannot focus on this matter here. Nevertheless the report on this subject is one of the most exhilarating episodes in the book, well worth exploring. 

Furthermore I decided not to go into the excellent account of the famous Byakkotai contained in the latter part of the book. Mr. Shimoda does an outstanding job of demystifying this historical episode. I will say this though: while the Japanese nation-state was being wrenched onto a new track of history, it needed new narratives to keep the people galvanised to its cause. Imperialism needed a new disguise, a rhetoric that could be easily consumed by the public. Into all of this came “the Aizu spirit” which proved to be the most popular promoter of loyalty to the nation-state on the strength of its weighty history and convincing symbolism. National identity — a strong sense of it, necessarily accepted by everyone —  was at the forefront of governmental work in the Meiji period. Devising and institutionalising collective appreciation for a sense of belonging to a greater, unifying whole proved to be tougher than it was expected: regional differences constantly undermined this project imposed from above and from outside. In the end, these regional differences allowed room for finding a distinct socio-cultural place in the emerging national landscape that was in much need of uniformity and conformity in order to stay strong. And even regions wanted to be part of a strong nation. In Aizu’s case, Mr. Shimoda best exemplifies this trajectory when he remarks the following:

Aizu’s sense of difference — articulated through decades of identity rhetoric and captured by the idea of a so-called Aizu spirit — emerged out of an ultimately synthetic project whereby those who had once been deemed different sought to, and largely did, overcome that difference. In doing so, they could discover a homeland that satisfied local claims to legitimacy while ultimately confirming the nation’s supremacy. Thus an Aizuppo could be undeniably and unapologetically Japanese; in fact, there could hardly be an Aizuppo without a Japanese.

Work cited:

Shimoda, Hiraku. Lost and Found. Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial Japan. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Inoue Enryo's 1887 Position Statement on Philosophical Studies in Japan by Michiko Yusa

Journal of Philosophy (哲学雑誌)

Inoue Enryō’s intellectual life was characterized by a plethora of academic pursuits, made all the more distinguished because, in various ways, they all left a mark on the cultural environment of the Meiji period. In spite of this, in the laboratory of feverish modernity that was Meiji-Japan, intellectual projects such as those undertaken by Inoue were regarded as highly suspicious if not entirely unnecessary. The needs and concerns of a budding, modern nation (and an emerging empire) were considerably materialistic, more focused on the economic system, on modes of production, financial advancement and militarization. These priorities were contained in the national slogan of the era fukoku kyōhei (‘enrich the country, strengthen the military’). Based on this mantra, the government managed to attain its political and economic goals but, in doing so, it relegated culture to a secondary position. 

Individuals steeped in humanistic considerations like Inoue decried this undisguised cluelessness towards all forms of aesthetic refinement and intellectual activity. He regarded the snub to culture as a non-modern residue of Japan’s feudal past and a great obstacle to ‘civilization’ - not in the classical sense of the term, but as in ‘catching up’ with Western standards of civilization which, in addition to a strong military and industry, it also meant education and academic studies. 

Fighting this sense of antagonism towards cultural life, especially in the area of philosophy, informs much of Inoue’s work. In his Position Statement: “The Essential Importance of Philosophy and the Establishment of the Society of Philosophy” (originally published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1887 and freely available in Japanese and English translation here), Inoue gives a nuanced and ambitious defense of philosophical studies. His interrogations are clear in tone and he uses a lot of simple language to drive on his point. The use of the simple language has the radical objective of bringing the rather difficult concept of philosophy to the masses. But more on this point later.

In this Introductory Remark Inoue attests to the importance of philosophy on scientific and social disciplines:

If we delve deeply into the bottom of these disciplines, we realize that what forms the foundation of natural, humanistic, and political sciences, and what defines their scope and secures their place within the world of learning, is philosophy.

His rationale for this is nothing but foresighted. As the English translator of this piece, prof. Michiko Yusa, points out, the interdisciplinary aspect of philosophy studies along a wide-ranging spectrum of subjects has only been a recent development in Western academia — if one doesn’t take into consideration philosophy studies as complementary to both religious and secular education and the basis of learning in all European academic institutions from the beginning of 17th century until the late 19th century, a period of time which saw the birth of such scientific, social and political luminaries like Spinoza, Locke and Newton among many others. In any event, what makes Inoue’s thought so compelling and original (in Meiji-period Japan, at least) is his attempt to give philosophy an all-inclusive, ‘totalizing’ character, especially in the area of scientific investigation: 

…natural sciences need philosophy. Indeed, since times of old, philosophy has been regarded as the discipline that unifies the laws of the natural sciences and lays out their fundamental principles and laws.

To this extension of the importance of philosophy from a sedate, peripheral position in the wholeness of social activity to an active, primary project, Inoue makes another extraordinary addition: he compares philosophy to a central government. For me this is the most significant aspect of his work.

Describing various disciplines of scholarship, I once likened them to the organization of the government and said that the various natural sciences correspond to local government, while philosophy corresponds to the central government. Also I stated that while various philosophical fields are the ministries and bureaus of the central government, metaphysics corresponds to the cabinet… The central government in the world of learning is philosophy.

In Inoue’s eyes, philosophy is not a secondary, subjugated feature — it is the underlying operating structure of all autonomous disciplines, from science to politics to art. Separated from a seemingly-passive, redundant condition, philosophy brings together under its umbrella all existing categories of learning into which it naturally intrudes: this includes the study of military, economy, industry, arts ,etc. The destination for modernity — for civilization — is philosophy. It is no wonder then that Inoue sneers at those individuals who hold opposing views:

This is no different from how uninformed people perceive philosophy. Among them, those who are least erudite, do not even know that philosophy can actually benefit the lives of the people. Therefore they claim that civilization consists in nurturing national strength and expanding its military capability, and if scholars do not contribute to augmenting national strength, they are merely professing politics and law. Such is in fact the prevailing opinion of the day and scarcely a soul has seen that philosophy is actually the central government of the academic disciplines, and that it can actually benefit the nation.

Here, one should be cautiously aware that Inoue’s perceived resistance against the Meiji-era politicization of all social activity for the benefit of national unity was not an unpatriotic gesture. In fact, it wasn’t even resistance. Far from it, it was rather both a warning call and an appeal to the elites for educational reform in order to close in on the same level of ‘civilized,’ modern achievements in the social, economic and cultural fields known in the West. National prosperity was part of his impassioned plea. He reveals his obvious dedication to his nation by stating the following:

I beg you to think about the following: consider the reason why European civilization arose and developed into what it is today. The reason why their national powers rose in the recent period is not merely due to the progress of their politics, law, natural sciences, and arts. It is due to the robust presence of philosophy that inquires into the principles and laws of those other disciplines. This ought to be obvious to everyone. Today, European scholars vie to engage in the study of philosophical principles and apply their understanding to the day-to-day lives of the people, and thereby develop their civilization to benefit society. With the deep implication of this fact eluding us, we are left merely to admire how robust their efforts have been.

Now, I’m not going to offer a too-detailed critical interpretation to my reading of Inoue’s statements. Rather, I want to sketch an analysis on the ‘hidden’ political vocabulary employed in his passionate defense of philosophy. In view of the historical fact that the overall organization of private and public life during the Meiji period was in the service of the political establishment, for the creation and sustainment of a sovereign nation-state (what soon became an intricate, ideologically-imbued new social order called the kokutai), one can make the bold assumption that Inoue’s writings were indeed political. Socio-political background is a sufficient requirement for intellectual determinism; I’m aware that it isn’t a necessary one. But Inoue was writing in support of modernization, not against it. Although he had witnessed firsthand the tremors of social displacement (created by the catastrophic reorganization of the entire nation in the name of modernity), he probably viewed them as necessary. 

He certainly saw the role of government as immutably superior to individual efforts of organization. I want to offer a quote in support of my statement:

Now, among the inhabitants of local regions and especially among those who are least educated, there are people who have no idea that the local politics depends on the policies of the central government above. A few of them may know that a local government exists, but they have no knowledge of the central government that oversees local governments. Naturally, they believe that it is their own efforts that enable them to lead their daily lives in a self-sufficient manner, and consequently they believe that they do not need the assistance of a central government.

Scholars might interpret this statement as proof of Inoue’s concern with the lack of enthusiasm among the lower classes to become more aware about their environment. It might also be interpreted as an observation on the deleterious lack of access to education and, as a consequence, to the well-known fact that the central government coordinates all societal changes. This might be a stretch, but I cannot shrug off the tone of the last sentence in which, at least for me, the dismissal of individual struggles foreshadows the nationalistic quality contained in the Imperial Rescript on Education. There is no denial that the central Meiji government was involved in almost every aspect of social and cultural development, even before the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution on February 11, 1889. But it is also true that in places where its activities resulted in more hardship and economic misery, it was the people themselves who found the strength to overcome environmental limitations and to bring their lot to a higher, better standard. In places like Aizu for example, where regional identity ruled supreme, the involvement of the central government in local affairs was received with indignation and outright hostility (and, as I will try to show in a future book review, this was not necessarily due to a lack in education). And who can forget the failed struggles of Jiyū Minken Undo (Freedom and People’s Rights Movement) to establish a democratic society, when the prospect for this ideal was still fresh and possible?

But moving beyond stylistic interpretations, I want to argue that Inoue’s notion of philosophy comparable to central government was inspired and modeled on the Meiji government of his era. No other model could substitute his foundational idea. Due to his superior education, Inoue was probably able to discern the ‘movements’ of the Meiji government (or the Chōshū-Satsuma oligarchy) towards ‘totalization’ or towards a place beyond politics from where it was finally able to manipulate the construction and dissemination of ideas favorable to its preservation. This dominating place from where the Meiji political sphere eventually controlled (with brutal determination from time to time) all other spheres, including the public and private lives of citizens, was homogenous with Inoue’s idea of a Philosophy underlying — dominating even — all other scholarly disciplines. Bearing in mind the totalitarian character of the Meiji era, I ask myself this: is Inoue’s philosophy a philosophy of totalitarianism or, at least, in support of totalitarianism, of the sort that was subtly contained in its infant stage by the ideas and praxis of the early Meiji government? 

Now bear in mind that I haven’t read enough of Inoue’s work to offer a conclusive remark about his socio-political allegiances. However, I can safely add that, in spite of the openly conservative intellectual environment of the Meiji period, one can sense a new form of consciousness in Inoue’s work, one that can transcend rigid ideological articulations. Moreover, unlike some of his other intellectual peers who were distrustful and hostile towards Western encroachments upon their culture, Inoue nurtured what can only be called a cosmopolitan attitude, which can be observed in the following quote:

…in the East we have various traditions of native philosophical thought, which Westerners have yet to explore. I find fresh ideas contained in the Eastern thought. If we study these points, and compare and contrast our findings with Western philosophy, and if in due course we select good points from both traditions and formulate a new philosophical thought, not only would it gratify us, but it would also be a great honor to the entire country of Japan.

Works cited and picture source:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Marginalia: International Inoue Enryo Research

Inoue Enryō

    I would like to announce that Volume Two of International Inoue Enryō Research has appeared online, along with an exhaustive database of digital texts, bibliographies and other documents. The webpages I just mentioned contain a large quantity of primary and secondary material related to and written by Inoue Enryō in both English and Japanese. There are a lot of articles there that I'm planning to read for this blog. 

     Inoue Enryō (1858-1919) was, among many things, a philosopher, Buddhist-modernizer, yōkai gaku ('Misteries Studies') scholar and founder of Toyo University. I'm quoting below the mission of this excellent archive:

     The Purpose of the International Association for Inoue Enryo Research is to promote research on the life and philosophy of Inoue Enryo, his historical background, and other related issues. The multifaceted achievements of Inoue Enryo shall be elucidated and research exchange among members facilitated. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


     I started reading Hikaru Shimoda’s Lost and Found - Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial Japan (I will probably post a review as early as next week). I just wanted to note down a paragraph I encountered in the first chapter (page 24-5) relevant to the contents of this blog up to this point:

      It was, however, the relatively friendly Koreans whom the Aizu men engaged most frequently and personally. As Choson emissaries made their way overland to Edo for their audience with the shogun, an official Japanese party greeted them along the way, and Aizu samurai were a part of this envoy five times between 1682 and 1764. On three of these occasions, the Koreans paid a visit to the Aizu mansion in Edo, sharing tea and tobacco with the hosts and leaving gifts of black hemp, ink brushes, and the obligatory ginseng.

    Aizu is a region presently incorporated in the Fukushima Prefecture and is the subject of Shimoda’s book which is, by all accounts, an honest interrogation of the notion of regional identity. 

     I’m uploading here an informative map extracted from Ronald B. Toby’s article (from my previous review) to give an idea how far the Korean envoys had to travel from Seoul to Edo (which was probably a good reason why the visits were so rare, considering the means of transport and the road infrastructure of the Edo Period — only twelve times have the Koreans embarked on this lengthy, tiresome trip).

Work cited:

Picture source:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Beyond Sakoku: The Korean Envoy to Edo and the 1719 Diary of Shin Yu-han by James B. Lewis & Carnival of the Aliens - Korean Embassies in Edo-Period Art and Popular Culture by Ronald P. Toby

I picked up a few significant items from reading James B. Lewis’ article Beyond Sakoku: The Korean Envoy to Edo and the 1719 Diary of Shin Yu-han:
  • Hatada Takashi  supports my initial observation (inspired by reading Bayliss’ book) about Japanese-Korean relationship when, according to James B. Lewis, he remarks that ‘the Japanese view of Korea throughout most of the Tokugawa period was the antithesis of the twentieth century Japanese view, shaped as it was by the imperatives of imperialism and colonization;’
  • In the 16th and 17th century Korea was also a secluded country, cut off economically and diplomatically from the rest of the world, earning it the appellation of ‘Hermit Kingdom;’
  • The poverty of Tsushima Island in the postwar years following Hideyoshi’s failed attempts to conquer China in 1592-1598 was an important factor in opening up trade relations with Korea;
  • The other factor was the need for an external recognition and legitimization of the authority of the bakufu over a newly unified country — a factor supported by Toby in his article (see below);
  • Between 1607 and 1811 Korean envoys visited Japan 12 times and these visits, followed by trade activity, spurned record revenues for Japan’s economy due to the widespread manufacturing and sale of cultural products based on these visits; 
  • Protocol seemed to be equally imperative and impedimental in smoothing out relations while forgery of politically-sensitive documents was rampant;
  • Korea’s cultural output was very popular among all classes of Japanese society and this sweeping cultural demand outweighed diplomatic achievements.

        The highlight of James B. Lewis’ article is the Appendix or A Translation of a Selection from Shin Yu-han’s Haeyurok: The Entry into Edo, and Comments on the Shōgun and his Retainers. This part is well worth reading as it offers rare first-hand insights into eighteenth century Japan. Shin Yu-han (or Sin Yuhan whom I’ve mentioned briefly when I talked about Jeong-Mi Lee’s article) took part in the 1719 diplomatic mission to Japan. He kept a diary entitled the Haeyurok in which he recorded in astute, critical and sometimes funny deftness all that he saw and experienced in his long travels throughout Japan. There is mundane stuff about official attire, banquets, and rigid schedule that had to be followed to an annoying precision. The most remarkable passages are his descriptions of meeting Yoshimune (the eight shogun, 1684-1751) and his interpretive take on Japanese hierarchical, hereditary system of leadership. I would like to render below some of the most informative and exciting excerpts from Shin Yu-han’s diary. The translation was done by James B. Lewis and I reproduce it as it appears in the original: 

Yoshimune’s character is dauntless, superior and wise, and this year, he is thirty-five years old. He is of strudy spirit and his (sic) a diginified bearing. He is a lover of the martial arts but finds no joy in literature. He respects economy and rejects extravagance. Ordinarily he says, “Japanese think highly of Korean letters. But the style is unique for each. Although we study it, since we cannot become skillful, for us, it is best to write in Japanese. When the Korean ambassador comes to Japan, there are ceremonies to display our military might and to provide music, but these have no meaning, either. The military is the way to defend ourselves, but if they see it and it scares them, we lose the meaning of our desire for contact, or if they despise it we have not achieved out (sic) scheme of displaying force. When it comes to musical skills, we have our mutual customs. Why should foreign music gladden the ear; what is the purpose of this ceremony? In the way of friendly relations, value lies in sincerity. They are men from a faraway land, do not delay them. We must see them home pleased. We shall pare away and remove all extreme rhetorical flourishes and details,” and so forth.  When practicing governance, he puts honesty and humility first. He aids the poor and reduces their taxes. Those who commit capital crimes have their noses severed instead of being executed. All sing his praises.

When one of his minsters entered his presence dressed in brocades, Yoshimune immediately asked him the cost of the gown, and said, “Even the cotton robe I have on is sufficient to cover the body.” Thereafter it is said that not one of his ministers wore brocades.

…the Hayashi house has presided over letters in Japan. Generally speaking, all those who practice literature with the state as their patron, come from this house. Those who have been recommended as students and draw a salary are several tens of people. However, when viewed, the (product) is clumsy and simple and does not succeed (in having) a style. Since all Japanese offices are hereditary, even if there is a scholar of high caliber and profound learning, without studying under Nobuatsu [Hayashi], he will not find a position. The situation is laughable. 

The rules which were brought at daybreak, were not only written in Japanese kana, but were also written in grass writing and not at all clear. According to the magistrate, Amenomori Akira was bed-ridden with illness and there was no one who could interpret the document, no one who could translate it into Chinese. The envoys said that with unclear rules of protocol, they could not present the communication. They dispatched a fast messenger to summon Matsuura Tadashi, but he said it would be difficult to write it on the spur of the moment and declined. Japanese literature is, in the main, written carelessly, is blurred, muddled, and unskillfully copied. Accordingly, everyone expressed disapproval. 

Before I move on to the next article, I would like to point out that James B. Lewis wrote a book entitled Frontier Contact Between Choson Korea and Tokugawa Japan which, from what I can tell, has a richness of complementary information regarding the same subject matter described above, complete with demographic statistics, pictures and other interesting details related to the Korean envoys to Japan in the early modern era. That book is in my possession and I hope to read it one day, if not in its entirety, then at least a couple of chapters that could add some new information to the topic of early Korean-Japanese contact. 

The second article that I want to talk about is Ronald P. Toby’s Carnival of the Aliens - Korean Embassies in Edo-Period Art and Popular Culture. Complementing the topic of Korean ambassadorial visits to Japan, this compelling essay contains, to a large extent, meticulous art criticism in reference to the many pictorial representations of Korean processions. Toby looks at the historical origins of these paintings but, mainly, he details the color composition and visual arrangement of elements contained in them, which are of interest not only to the art scholar but also function as clues to the assortment of commendatory attitudes toward Korean envoys prevalent among the Japanese people. Among the detailed exploration of such artistic products is Hanegawa Tōei’s Chōsenjin raichō zu which I have attached at the beginning of this review. This and other similar artistic depictions and representations of Edo-period Korean envoys (in the form of ema, byōbu-e, and emaki) were a successful source for financial investment and national trade. As Toby mentions,

The depiction of embassies, particularly Korean ones, by the turn of the eighteenth century had become a major thematic genre in every medium of Japanese art. Not only did courtiers, the bakufu, and daimyo commission paintings to record the embassies, but artists and print shops churned out dozens of versions of prints and pamphlets with Korean embassies as their subjects, suggesting an eager and ready market.

However, for me, the most interesting item in Toby’s essay is his exploration of Tōjin gyōretsu (foreign parades) in which participants put together Chōsen yama (Korean floats) and paraded in the streets masquerading as Korean envoys. The earliest recorded incidence of this kind of matsuri (festival) took place in 1647. For this historical occasion hundreds of participants adorned Korean attire and their floats sported 

Nishijin silks, already the finest in all Japan [and] were decorated lavishly with dragons and phoenixes, lions and unicorns, all embroidered and appliquéd in gold thread.

The most astounding aspect of these festivals was the ability of the common folk to gain the viewership of the shogun himself, something that not even samurai of higher social rank could obtain easily. As a result, members of the lower class were given the rare opportunity to escape the rigid strictures of Edo-period social division and to assert equality and even moral superiority over members of higher status. In the Meiji period, these festivals were discontinued because they were seen as remnants and reminders of the Tokugawa Shogunate and its link to a past where peasants could step outside their social class.

The historical importance of Korean culture on the effects and development of Japanese identity (with all the complexities this notion has to offer) cannot be underestimated or forgotten (as various Japanese revisionist scholars of extreme nationalistic persuasion have been attempting to do for some time). The last lines of Toby’s article resonate strongly with me:

Korean embassies had become part of the fabric of national consciousness, helping ordinary people articulate the very nature of their world, and their own place in it. Korean embassies, that is, had, by the Genroku period, become part of the universal vocabulary of contemporary Japanese art and popular culture, part of the landscape of the mind of artist, celebrant, and viewer alike.

Works cited in this article:

Lewis, James B. "„Beyond Sakoku: The Korean Envoy to Edo and the 1719 Diary of Shin Yu-han.”." Korea Journal 25 (1985): 22-41.

Toby, Ronald P. "Carnival of the Aliens. Korean Embassies in Edo-Period Art and Popular Culture." Monumenta Nipponica (1986): 415-456.

The pictures used here all come from Toby's article.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Views of the Neighbor: Japanese and Korean Intellectuals in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Jeong-Mi Lee

The Waegwan-do or 'Japan House' designated by the Korean court for Japanese residence and trade (1783)

In my previous review I mentioned that the Japanese government and intelligentsia of the Edo period (1603-1868) held a significantly different view of Korean culture from their Meiji period counterparts. For me, this reality seems very perplexing, especially in light of the well-known fact that Japan of the Edo period carried a foreign policy described as closed country (sakoku) which implied minimal external contact and virtually non-existent cultural and diplomatic exchange with other nations. One would think that uneducated, (racially) discriminatory presumptions would find their peak in such an environment, especially towards a country that was the object of several failed conquering attempts in the Imjin War of 1592-98. It would not be incorrect to think that animosity between Korea and Japan would reach its height in the aftermath of that invasion. Nevertheless, a diversity of scholarship counteracts such presumptions.

In order to elaborate on the antithetical perception of Korean culture I would like to turn my attention to an article entitled Views of the Neighbor: Japanese and Korean Intellectuals in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries written by Jeong-Mi Lee. The article is readily available to download for free here. I would also like to include references to preceding research done on the same theme, which can be found in titles contained in Jeong-Mi Lee’s bibliography at the end of her rigorous study. 

I must confess that I had no clue that Korean culture had any significant impact in Japan beyond the introduction of Buddhism from the Kingdom of Paekche (or Baekje) in the 6th century and the cultural transformation of Japanese arts as a consequence thereof. Jeong-Mi Lee’s assessment of the importance of Korean influence in the development of Neo-Confucianism during the Edo Period reveals two interesting things:
  • After the restoration of diplomatic relationship in 1607, Korean scholars still thought of Japan as ‘an inferior country with an inferior culture.’ Such prevalent views were undoubtedly residues from the bloody Imjin War of 1592-98. 
  • Neo-Confucian scholars became the main cultural Korean export to Japan. Yet even among these scholars the sense of superiority returned when they witnessed Japanese cultural accomplishments and political institutions.
However, this difficult atmosphere was rectified with the appearance in Korea of a special group of scholars who sought to learn more about their neighbor. Jeong-Mi Lee explains that,

These scholars, termed Practical Learning (Sirhak) scholars, attempted to see Choson’s neighbor as an equal state in accordance with the concept and diplomatic practice of kyorin, or neighborly relations, and expressed fresh views of Japan. In the eighteenth century scholars and officials associated with Practical Learning began exploring Japanese society through more recent information about the island country brought back by the members of the various embassies who had traveled there.

It was the students and disciples of these Sirhak scholars who became the influential enablers and developers of Neo-Confucianism at all levels of social, cultural and political interaction in Japan of the Edo Period. Some reputed individuals from that camp included Kang Hang (1567-1618), Fujiawara Seika (1561-1619), Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) and Nishikawa Joken (1648-1724). All of these people were impacted by the teachings and writings of Yi Hwang, otherwise known as T’oegye (1501-1570) and their indebtedness to this man is revealed by countless expressions of praise and admiration. Other contributors to the proliferation of Neo-Confucian ideas included ex-prisoners from the Imjin War who discarded their postwar animosity, married Japanese women, had children and never returned to Korea. 

So great was Japan’s fascination with Korean culture that Sin Yuhan, chief diarist working at the Korean Embassy in Japan wrote that,

The Japanese people were enthusiastic about seeking our writings, without distinction of social rank and position. Yhose people respect [Korean] items as if they belonged to gods or wizards and treasure them like jewels. The Japanese even sought handshakes and writings from our palanquin carriers and the servants, who know little about writing…

The better part of the article presents the thought of a reputed Sirhak scholar, Yi Ik who wrote extensively about Japan and sought to present the country not as inferior (as the prevalent opinion was bound to be in the Korean Peninsula) but equal in its unique cultural achievements and, foreshadowing the uncertain future, even dangerous. Yi Ik criticized the antiquated popular belief that Japan was an uncivilized land by pointing out the high levels of literacy which, unknowingly to him, could rival many Western nations from the same period. 

I want to draw attention to two significant quotes by Yi Ik mentioned in the essay by Jeong-Mi Lee. The first one reveals the impeccably astute intellect of a pre-modern scholar with prescient insight:

It has been six to seven hundred years since the Japanese emperor lost his political power. This was not the wish of the people [of Japan]. Among the population loyal to the imperial court, the name of the emperor is still revered and those people will obey what he says. Something [relating to the imperial court] may possibly happen later on. If a new generation was to assemble, and [they] were to succeed in persuading the emperor to reign over the polity, they would call on others [to overthrow the bakufu] and their righteous desire [for the emperor to rule the country] could bear fruit. It is possible that the daimyos of the domains might join [to support the emperor]. If this occurs, [the representative of the shogun might claim], ‘He is the emperor, and I represent the king [meaning the shogun].’ How would we deal with this?

Approximately one century after his death, the difficult question that preoccupied Yi Ik would become manifest as Japan would experience the Meiji Restoration. With the break of the bakufu and the restoration of the Emperor on the throne and at the helm of the country’s leadership (although this is a contentious view), decades of equal respect and consideration between Korea and Japan would come to an end and marginalization of the Korean people would become a continuous point of stress between the two countries (one that will persist until the present time). Which is why I have to mention the second quote by Yi Ik:

During the Imjin War, the desecration of the royal tombs [by Japanese troops] indeed caused resentment and a desire for revenge. The dispatch of Ming reinforcements [to the Korean peninsula] in the Wanli period [1573-1620] was an act of virtuous benevolence that can never be disregarded. However, the devastations [of the Japanese invasion] left nothing and no methods to recompense Ming China [for its munificence] were found… There is much to say about the invasion; however, the ringleader [Toyotomi Hideyoshi] is dead and other people already regret the past misconceptions. Time has passed; it is time to think of letting our people disarm and rest… Overall, neighborly relations enable us to enhance mutual friendship, control feelings, and show sincerity [toward each other]. In so doing, the existence of the royal court, the society and the people will be perpetuated and maintained in peace and in comfort.

Yi Ik’s conciliatory tone was for the benefit of building a closer and more cordial relationship with Korea’s neighboring country. He could not foresee the violence and destruction orchestrated by Japan that would visit his nation more than a century after his passing. Here I cannot disregard the fact that, having had the past experience of similar tribulations during the Imjin War, Yi Ik nonetheless encourages his country fellowmen to accord greater understanding and friendship towards the Japanese so as to benefit both nations. It is with sad irony that one remembers that the Japanese completely changed their views of admiration about their neighbor and, during the late Meiji period, all the way throughout Taishō and the prewar Showa periods, they disseminated the idea of a weak, uncivilized Korea, a nation whose ‘barbaric’ people have invited foreign occupation and economic stagnation, a nation which, as a result of its inherent racial inferiority, deservedly had to come under the tutelage of a superior Japan. 

However, in the spirit of Jeong-Mi Lee’s article (which is an abridged version of what could possibly be a great, interesting book) and in solidarity with Yi Ik’s vision, I do not wish to dwell on a history of brutality. This has been covered by other writers in a more just and precise manner. Here, I am interested only in how Korea’s image of Japan and Japan’s image of Korea have developed over time. My curiosity was originally spurned by Bayliss’ short rendition of this interesting historical episode in his monumental book. This is an episode which should be accorded additional research, as the results of a broader investigation could show even more points of contact that brought Japan and Korea together during times when they positively influenced each other and built relationships exceeding mere economic interest. On the same subject, I intend to check out in the near future James B. Lewis’ Beyond Sakoku - The Korean Envoy to Edo and the 1719 Diary of Shin Yu-han and Ronald B. Toby’s Carnival of the Aliens. Korean Embassies in Edo-Period Art and Popular Culture, both of which can be accessed through JSTOR. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014


As I mentioned in my very first post, I intend to publish reviews of academic articles and essays. I thought it would be good to reiterate and clarify my approach in relation to the contents of this blog. In general, the blog functions as an archive for my thoughts regarding the books and articles I read in the service of my own research or for leisure. The readings and the analyses which appear here will be strictly limited to the diverse field of Japanese Studies. With that in mind, I would like to add that I do not intend to review the strengths or weaknesses of an academic article as I think such a course of action is detrimental to the usual experience of exploring new avenues independently, without preliminary bias. I also think it is discourteous, if not outright insulting, to claim or pretend that I know more about a subject outside my academic field. The so-called 'style' of an academic paper is of peripheral importance to its content. I merely intend to list the most interesting and most valuable items contained in the article under review, performing a sort of ‘in-depth summary’ (pardon the oxymoron). I nevertheless intend to adopt a comparative method by means of which I hope to stir interest in a topic with wide-ranging scholarship; for that matter, I will try to include as many references to other works as I know (or consider to be of value). For the most part, the articles I reveal here are a welcoming distraction from my own work and, therefore, I tend to view them in a positive, favorable light. Finally, I have to say that these articles contribute a great deal to my limited knowledge of Japanese history and culture; this particular point warrants an assessment on my part. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

On the Margins of Empire - Buraku and Korean Identity in Prewar and Wartime Japan by Jeffrey Paul Bayliss


Norma Fields’s book In the Realm of a Dying Emperor made a strong impression when it came out in 1991. In the preface, Norma laid out an acute observation which, characteristic of her fearless disposition, explored the complexities of her book’s content and exposed the bleak, precarious nature of what it meant to live in one of the world’s ‘most orderly and prosperous societies.’ An intimate passage strips bare the historicity behind the prose (misguidedly implied by the author’s credentials as a foremost specialist in East Asian Studies) and recovers its purview, elevating the book into the realm of personal confession and social criticism:

When there are neither visible oppressors nor victims, and where memory of historical suffering has grown remote, freedom becomes subtle, banal, and finally, elusive. To call attention to its flight amidst pervasive prosperity is a thankless undertaking. Most who embark on such a venture have not chosen it. They have been driven to it, by vivid confrontation with the residues of historic oppression, by encounters with victims and oppressors, who are, after all, produced even in times of prosperity and peace as well as war, and finally, by recognition of the repressiveness of everyday life, a recognition they cannot dispel in spite of potency of common sense, most especially the belief in the existence and importance of social harmony.

The unnerving quality of these lines makes itself present in Jeffrey Paul Bayliss’ On the Margins of Empire - Buraku and Korean Identity in Prewar and Wartime Japan, the subject of this review. Unlike Norma’s book, which deals with a Japan in the midst of a psychologically-redefining, collective upheaval following the death of the Showa Emperor in 1989, Bayliss’ book approaches a Japan at the turn of the twentieth century, when the country found itself in the throes of an unrelenting and successful pursuit of Western industrial technologies, vital requisites for its own militaristic and imperialistic aims. The bulk of Bayliss’ monumental archival research deals with the periods of time mentioned in the title, specifically the late Meiji period (1868-1912), the Taishō period (1912-1926) and the prewar and interwar Shōwa period (1926-1945). The political, social and economic traumas of this interval and their importance in the historical formation of a modern Japan cannot be overstated but they have been tackled more extensively by other writers. In this book, Bayliss is concerned with the sophistications of the relationship between Korean and Buraku minorities under the auspices of violent modernization, failed attempts at a democratic process and the militarization of all aspects of life, to mention just a few of the major overhauls of the social order during the scramble to create Dai Nippon Teikoku (‘the Great Empire of Japan’).

The common plane where Bayliss’ and Norma’s intellectual concerns actually intersect is revealed by the first line of his Introduction:

For those with more than just a casual interest in modern Japan, the once widely held notion of it as a remarkably homogenous, socially harmonious nation has been exposed as a historically contracted and carefully maintained fiction - one that conceals a diversity of groups of various ethnic and social backgrounds in order to deny their claims to membership in the nation and facilitate discrimination and exploitation.

 Bayliss’ book, as the title aptly reveals, examines the history of the Burakumin and the Koreans and the formation of their identities from victims of a protracted discriminating social order that has its roots in Japanese antiquity to militant activists in a hostile modern environment afflicted by war and repression. For these social categories their oppressors are visible, intolerance is a constant living reality and freedom is not only a distant panacea but, in Japan of the Taishō and early Shōwa years, it is also a dangerous, even criminal, object of interest. There are many injustices portrayed in this book but Bayliss’ main aim is not to compile a catalogue of historical proofs for an acrimonious audience. His main purpose (at which he excels) is to draw on a voluminous assortment of primary and secondary resources to construct an almost complete overview of the development of Buraku and Korean identities. These two distinctive groups on the margins of Japanese society progressively converge, influence each other and eventually break apart in their mutual pursuit of recognition, tolerance and equality. 

The cultural, social and political realities behind the convergence and the split dominate the pages of the book. Bayliss’ choice to investigate these two minorities together, in a comparative manner, is nothing short of exciting, if not necessary, especially in light of the extensive research on single-minority focus which dominates the scholarly field. As the author points out, the Burakumin and the Koreans shared not only a long history of discrimination and exploitation, but they also lived together in the same communities and often worked in the same industries. As I read through, there was no doubt in my mind that, despite their many differences, contradictory allegiances and distinct identities, the Burakumin and the Koreans had their points of contact.  

The book is organized around seven chapters. To perform an individual analysis of each chapter is counterintuitive as the material covered by Bayliss is too compelling and sweeping; moreover, the author himself summarizes each chapter in his Introduction. I will instead focus on a few interesting historical points described in the book.

Chapter One takes a detailed look at the origins and evolution of discriminatory attitudes towards Koreans and Burakumin beginning with the Edo period (1603-1868) and continuing through the Meiji period (1868-1912). In order to exercise greater control over all the social strata of a newly-unified country, the Tokugawa government instituted policies that made outcaste status hereditary and legally bound. It is noteworthy to mention that a class of outcaste people (senmin or ‘unclean people’) existed even before the Edo period and it included such groups as the eta (‘much filth’) and the hinin (‘un-human’). Members of the senmin underclass undoubtedly lead a desolate existence ripe with exploitation and segregation but the Tokugawa government gave them defined roles and functions in the society (such as skinning animals, making leather, collecting and removing human waste and corpses) and these were protected and preserved by decree. Despite their prominent role, the senmin were almost virtually absent from accounts handed down by Edo period scholars — in sharp contrast to the Meiji intelligentsia who, in its attempts to build a nationalistic, all-inclusive notion of what it meant to be 'Japanese,' never ceased to hypothesize on the hereditary origins of the Burakumin, fostering more discrimination and exclusion throughout their findings and debates. 

        Another contrast to the Meiji period was the Tokugawa high regard of Korean culture, a consideration which began to wane with the appearance of kokugaku (national studies) scholars in late Edo period. From hereon and continuing beyond the Meiji period, the general view of Koreans as inferior was exemplified (and amplified) by Japanese Prime-Minister Itō Hirobumi’s assertion that a ‘subservient way of thinking’ (jidai shisō) was an inherent and causative factor to the general economic and cultural stagnation of the Korean peninsula (an evaluation that gave rise to the much-accepted teitairon or ‘stagnation theory’ among Japanese historians of that era). Bayliss does a comprehensive job of tracing the hardening of this view among Japanese nationals from mythological origins (in the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki) to social Darwinian discussions characteristic of the post-industrialized capitalist ethos which flourished in Japan at the time. All of this was happening in the backdrop of a vitalized consolidation of the nation-state centering on the emperor as a symbol of national and racial unity (a process which coalesced in the notion of kokutai). Most revealing of this first chapter are the condescending and disparaging views towards the Korean and Buraku minorities by important literary figures, scholars and dignitaries such as Fukuzawa Yukichi, Katō Hiroyuki, Nitobe Inazō, Kita Sadakichi and Shibukawa Genji, to mention a few famous ones. Later it became apparent that these views were part of a more elaborate strategy to build a national identity lacking any visible imperfections or impurities, and to stage the foundations of a modern Japanese empire.

The subsequent chapters take a look at Japan’s imperialistic foundations and the seismic changes of public opinion towards war at a large socio-cultural level. The aftermath of the Korean annexation in 1910 led to the further joint marginalization of Korean and Buraku minorities and also, more notably, to their distancing from each other. This distancing was caused in large part by their opposing views concerning Japan’s global exploits. We find out that Burakumin were loyal to the state as it proceeded to exercise political and economical control over Korea, whereas Koreans understandably denounced Japan’s imperialistic incursions into their land. The Burakumin felt that by pledging uncritical support to the emperor and to the imperialistic aims of the state, they would be recognized as patriotic citizens equally worthy to be included in the greater Japanese nation-family and their discriminated status would cease to exist or, at least, be alleviated. For their part, Koreans were supportive of a self-governing Korea and their open endorsement of ‘illegal’ independence movements (most notably the March 1st Movement of 1919) vexed the Japanese. Regardless of their conflicting positions confronting the much trumpeted developments of Japanese militarism (domestically) and imperialism (externally), the principal aim of both Burakumin and Koreans surpassed political loyalties.  According to Bayliss, 

The divergent paths taken by each group were not simply the result of choosing which nation one ‘naturally’ belonged to, but came about as each formed different answers to the same fundamental problem: how to restore and maintain a sense of pride and self-worth within a society that denied human dignity to those it imagined as irredeemably different from the majority.

From the late Meiji period all the way until the conclusion of WWII, the Koreans and the Burakumin were caught in the relentless effort by the Japanese state to convert them into true ‘imperial subjects’ (kōmin). This involved the total disregard of any sort of claim to personal privacy as the state inserted itself in the community and the private lives of the Burakumin by means of kyōfūkai (moral reform societies) which sought to ‘reform’ and ‘re-educate’ the outcastes in order to make them true Japanese. These ‘cosmetic’ strategies proved to be major failures chiefly because they did not improve in any way the material livelihoods of the outcastes or the economy of their community. As for Koreans, the push to turn them into loyal citizens proved to be more brutal especially in the case of those advocating Korean independence or tried to organize into leftist societies that were sympathetic to their cause. In the midst of a rigorous and committed implementation of anti-leftist suppression, propagators and supporters of leftist ideology were hunted down, arrested, tortured and sometimes killed, while leftist organizations were banned and disbanded. By the late 1930s, Japan had endured several economic downturns and was aggressively extending its colonizing reach beyond Korea and China. This development called for ‘total mobilization’ at home:

An important part of this effort was to convert everyone, including minorities, into loyal, cooperative subjects who would contribute to the war effort and not be a burden to the state in its time of unprecedented crisis. The human dimension of ‘total mobilizaiton’ was in essence a renewed emphasis on the old slogan of ikkun banmin [‘one ruler, many people’], the idea of one familial nation, with the emperor as father and the subjects as his children.

In exchange for being part of this ‘family’ Burakumin and Koreans had to endure cruel statist exploitation in the form of slave-labor. Thousands of members of these minorities were forced to work together long, destructive hours in mills and mines (in conditions that were largely unsafe and unhygienic) with no prospect for advancement and no end in sight. Bayliss’ book offers a range of forthright descriptions of these working environments. What stands out from his outline however is not the degree of brutality that befell the Koreans and the Burakumin but the evidence of an upsurge in interminority relations which lasted until Japan’s defeat in 1945. And although these contacts were largely motivated by self-interest or, every so often, resulted in violent clashes or, in many cases, ended up popularizing the racial and social differences stirring up acerbic dissociation among the minorities, there were certain areas of association that enjoyed the participation of both Burakumin and Koreans. As Bayliss mentions in his last chapter,

…whether it was buraku women and Korean men marrying in the wake of the Pacific War, Suiheisha organizers and Korean residents of Higashi Shichijō reaching out to one another in the wake of the flood… or even buraku landlords who were willing to stick up for their Korean tenants in the face of community opposition, these acts by individuals of both minorities revealed a peculiar kind of mutual understanding and trust, born of the shared experience of living at the ostracized margins of Japanese society.

There is more to say about Bayliss’ detailed exploration of Suiheisha (a political organization founded in 1920 to fight against discrimination and defend the interests of the Burakumin until it was forced to disband in 1940); the financial and political successes of a small number of memorable and exceptional individuals among the outcastes and Koreans; the displacement of minorities or ‘unwanted elements’ to the remote regions of Manchuria in order to facilitate the state’s imperialistic expansion; the influence of leftist thought and the dynamics of proletarian organization which gave minorities the necessary ideological apparatus and the courage to demand equality in the face of classist adversity. All of these items get their own interesting chapter: nothing that can be written here can match the grand scope and sharp narrative of the book.

The insertion of Norma Field’s quote in the opening part of this review may have seemed marginal at first glance and, indeed, forced. For the unaware, it is truly insensitive to imply that the social traumas experienced by the Burakumin and the Koreans living in prewar and wartime Japan are comparable to the ‘social traumas’ in the aftermath of Hirohito’s death. But while the death of the emperor ushered a new era (Heisei) the discrimination against visible and invisible minorities remained in place and, with minor variations, it stood the test of time. Even today, Buraku ghettos still exist.* In these ‘times of prosperity and peace,’ black vans belonging to the Zaitokukai (a nationalistic, far-right group) drive through Zainichi Korean neighbourhoods chanting violent, derogatory slogans, calling out for the deportation of non-Japanese foreigners. Following a recent ruling by the Supreme Court, permanent non-Japanese residents are refused the right to access the nation’s welfare system.* These ‘visible’ displays of intolerance (camouflaged in the deceiving mantle of economical restructuring and freedom of expression) carry a historical burden. So what can be done to prevent the harmful growth of intolerance and discrimination in these times of globalization, when the rights of minorities are unjustly propped against overriding measures in the servitude of financial capitalism (a different sort of empire), when national history is cultivated in a petri dish of collective amnesia? Bayliss concludes his book on a somber tone, one which could be the starting point for an answer:

This was the dilemma that had plagued these minorities since the late Meiji period: assimilation was no guarantee of acceptance. Only when the majority no longer had any recognition of difference, past or present, could these minorities be accepted as equals. This unforgiving logic was as true for minority individuals as it was for the groups with which they bore an association. For burakumin and Koreans in Japan during the age of empire, it meant a place on the margins, regardless of whether they conceived of liberation from discrimination in terms of complete acceptance by the majority or complete freedom from association with it. 

Works cited in this article: