Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category


Conferences: The Berlin Wall and Master Keaton‘s Germany

28 October 2009

In a few weeks, I’m slated to attend and present at the “‘November 9, 1989’—The Fall of the Berlin Wall, Twenty Years After” conference at the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio. [Edited: Since the conference link has expired, here is a suitable news piece on the conference.]

My paper addresses one of the conference themes of how artists, writers, directors, architects, musicians, and performers have captured the contradictions and conflicts of the post-Wall and post-Cold War period in realistic forms. The work I selected is a Japanese manga and anime series called Master Keaton. (The Wikipedia entry on the series is not the most extensive source of information, but it provides a good English-language introduction.) ‘Exploring Master Keaton‘s Germany: A Japanese Perspective on the End of the Cold War’ will look at how the Master Keaton manga and anime series present post-Cold War Germany as a struggle to redefine both personal and national identities, complete with echoes of Japan’s own struggle to redefine its national identity in the wake of World War II.

One of the more challenging (or aggravating, from the researcher’s perspective) aspects of scholarly writing about Japanese animation is that most of the existing research tends to be written by fans who find it difficult to write like academics or by academics who have very little understanding of the social or cultural nuances of anime fandom. It’s only in the past few years, possibly as late as 2005 or 2006, where fannish academics started to push anime and manga as genres worthy of serious study. Many academics tend to be far too caught up in justifying their focus on the medium instead of actually addressing their chosen topic. In an effort to prove that they’re not just writing about ‘porn or Pokémon’, they’ll clutter up their research with literary criticism jargon to make their conclusions sound more impressive (when they could have been phrased far more simply and effectively), or completely isolate the source text from Japanese culture and attempt to interpret it through a Western perspective to make it more accessible to Western readers. (At the risk of singling out one particular academic for criticism, Susan Napier’s writings about anime tend to exhibit both of these flaws to a greater or lesser degree.) But there are some well-written papers on the genre, including Matthew Penney’s 2005 article on the influences of military Germany on Japanese pop culture, so I hope that my own research will make a decent contribution that might be publishable at some point.

Regardless, it’s a little intimidating to contemplate. I’m trying to pull together a discipline I understand (general Cold War studies) with a series I thoroughly enjoy (Master Keaton), supplemented by research in areas where I’m much less grounded (postwar Japanese sociology), and presenting it to an audience that may not be at all familiar with the genre. A fun challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.


Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

17 February 2009

Another particularly good review of the following book can be found as part of the Institute of Historical Research’s collection of book reviews.

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

On 15 August 1945, nine days after the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, the Japanese government unconditionally surrendered to the Allied powers and brought World War II — known to the Japanese as Daitōa Sensō, or the Greater East Asia War — to an end. For the next eight years, Japan would be occupied by the Allies, led by the United States under the supreme command of General Douglas MacArthur. As the general history goes, the occupying authorities issued various edicts and reforms to root out the oppressive militarism and fanatical emperor-worship of the war years, all in the name of bringing modern democratic ideals to Japan. The Japanese, for their part, seemed to accept the new social and political order with humble gratitude, as well as profound thanks for the victors’ benign guidance in building a democratic society on the ashes of defeat. Yet as in so many cases, this simplistic reading of historical events glosses over years of bitter political struggles and social upheaval, of little children mimicking their elders by playing ‘prostitute and GI’ and sly satirical poetry published in literary magazines and more than a few Japanese politicians committing suicide out of despair and shame. In short, the story of the occupation of Japan is seldom told from the perspective of the Japanese — an omission that John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II seeks to rectify.

Embracing Defeat begins, understandably, with the defeat, and the earth-shattering effect it had on many ordinary Japanese people who had been prepared to give their lives for the emperor and for their homeland. Japanese society had been shaken to its foundations, and people had to reinvent their lives and reevaluate their ways of thinking even as they scrabbled for enough food to stay alive. Dower describes the various subcultures that sprang up under the occupation, from the illegal trades of the prostitutes and black marketeers to the growing influence of left-wing writers and thinkers, many of whom benefited from the fact that they had spent the war in prison or exile and could not be accused of sympathising with the wartime regime. The remnants of that regime also had to come to terms with the occupying authorities, whether in the war crimes tribunals or in the painful negotiations over the status of the emperor and the shape of the country’s new constitution. Dower devotes several chapters to analysing the various battles that Japanese politicians had with the occupying authorities over the details of the reinvented political system, even as General MacArthur’s subordinates seemed to go to inordinate lengths to curtail ordinary people’s attempts to express their opinions in a more free and democratic fashion — whether through strict censorship, strike-breaking, or other curbs on popular protest against the government. Embracing Defeat includes many similar incidents where the tensions between prewar Japan and occupied Japan had to be worked out in careful compromises, and Dower’s equally careful analysis shows how these compromises shaped the Japan that emerged from defeat and sought its own place in the postwar — by that point, the Cold War — era.

Perhaps because of the wider availability of documents from the Japanese national archives and the occupation’s Tokyo headquarters, Embracing Defeat dwells on life in Tokyo and a few other major cities at the expense of a more detailed look at life across Japan. (Granted, a survey of the particular circumstances of the occupation of Okinawa would require a separate book of similar length.) The jumps between social history and political history can also seem jarring at times, even though the wealth of insightful anecdotes helps to make up for the transition problems. Overall, Embracing Defeat is both far-reaching and thoughtfully written, especially when it comes to Dower’s familiarity with the subtleties of the Japanese language. Many of his most informative passages explore how a certain word choice or English-to-Japanese paraphrasing altered the effect of a notable statement or idea, whether it involved the concept of the Japanese imperial family’s descent from the goddess Amaterasu or the politically charged nuances of possible Japanese translations for the word ‘democracy’. In a sense, Dower’s emphasis on translation and word choices is central to the main themes of Embracing Defeat — the ability of language to shape political and social thought, the reinvention of old traditions and the creation of new ones, and the complex relationships between victors and vanquished that were never absent from everyday life in occupied Japan.


The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Mrs Mortimer (edited by Todd Pruzan)

16 December 2007

A bit of humour for this Sunday’s posting — not exactly social satire, unless you think that bad Victorian-era writing satirises itself. In this case, it might just qualify as such.

The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Mrs Mortimer (edited by Todd Pruzan)

The word ‘Victorian’ can be and is often used as something of a pejorative term, with the meaning ‘narrow-minded’ or ‘prudish’. It’s safe to say that there’s a good reason for doing so at times, especially in connection with clothing styles, moral instruction, or anything related to Oscar Wilde. Victorian cautionary tales for children are as grim and ghoulish as the more traditional fairy-tales, always reminding the young that death is an ever-present part of life and that wicked boys and girls are always punished severely (and good isn’t always rewarded in equal measure). So in that respect, it may not be so surprising that a Victorian children’s book that talks about the various peoples of the world would be long on criticism and short on pleasantness.

This is where Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer’s books come in: three books, to be precise, all written in the mid-nineteenth century. Each book purports to be a guide to the different countries of the world and the people who inhabit those countries (one book deals with Europe, one with Africa and Asia, and one with the Americas and Australia), and Mrs Mortimer manages to find some kind of fault with just about everything and everyone. Each description of a country comes complete with a slew of disapproving comments. Norway might be a beautiful country, with kind and good-hearted and honest people, but ‘The greatest fault of the Norwegians is drunkenness‘. Amsterdam is noteworthy mostly because ‘there is no city in which there is so much danger of being drowned, because it is full of canals‘. The Irish are (horror!) Roman Catholic, which is ‘a kind of Christian religion, but it is a very bad kind‘. When Greeks are unhappy, they are known to ‘scream like babies‘. Mrs Mortimer doesn’t even have many kind words for her own countrymen, though she does take pains to remind her young and impressionable readers of a very simple thing: ‘What country do you love best? Your own country. I know you do‘. Not surprising, considering her overwhelmingly negative opinions on the various bits of Europe that aren’t England proper.

The world outside of Europe is really far worse, though, in her eyes. Most of Africa can be written off as a land of ignorant savages, nasty cannibals, and Mohammedians who read a very wicked book that is made of evil stories and lies. Australia is full of convicts and colonists, of course. The people of Siam resemble the people of Burma, ‘but they are much worse-looking‘. The Chinese are elegant people, but are quite mad. In North America, Washington, DC, is ‘one of the most desolate cities in the world‘ — and most Americans keep slaves, which is an abominable sin. The list goes on and on, to the point where you almost can’t decide whether to laugh at her opinions or bang your head against a wall to get her prissy, disdainful tones out of your ears.

Why is this book worthy of a read-through, then? Well, for starters, Mrs Mortimer wrote the book without ever having left England and with only a limited knowledge of England itself. All of her opinions came from other works and from a mass of different sources — one look at her writings gives a hint as to how respectable Englishmen and Englishwomen of the day looked at other countries within the comforting blanket of the waxing British Empire. Her books went through several editions in her lifetime, and it’s safe to say that Mrs Mortimer’s bad-tempered guides to the Victorian world had a marked influence on young children’s first impressions of other lands and other people. Echoes of her sentiments appear even today in classical stereotypes of ‘foreigners’. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to go back and see where and how certain stereotypes have been reinforced over the years…and with Todd Pruzan’s careful editing of these mostly-forgotten children’s books, it’s possible to look at the world through a decidedly ‘Victorian’ lens.


Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker

2 December 2007

Occasionally, I do try to post reviews of books that I didn’t really care for. This book happens to be one of them.

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima is a historical account of the events leading up to the dropping of the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, often told in the words of the participants. Walker tells the story in a vaguely narrative form, fleshing out the identities and characters of the scientists and military experts who worked on the bomb, the crew who flew the actual mission, and assorted Japanese civilians and military personnel whose stories illustrate what life was like in Hiroshima shortly before the city was levelled.

I spent a little too much time on my postgraduate work delving into the historiography and vast amount of literature on the end of World War II to make a book on Hiroshima my first choice of reading material. But the book looked interesting enough, and so I started reading through it to see if there was anything new or interesting that Walker mentioned that I might be able to pick up from the text. I was going along quite fine, until I reached the following passage:

Of course, the decision was always inevitable. So inevitable, perhaps, that it could hardly be called a decision. There were so many urgent reasons to drop the bomb. Together they made an irresistible cocktail. It would have been far more remarkable had it not been dropped.

Setting aside the idea of an ‘irresistible cocktail’ of reasons, this passage made me stop and stare. I may or may not have mentioned this in previous book reviews, but I’ll say it now: there is nothing that kills my interest in a history book faster than the author’s use of the word ‘inevitable’ in the context of crisis decision-making. I hate the use of the word ‘inevitable’ by historians because it is beyond sloppy, the equivalent in my mind of a vague handwave accompanied by an ‘enh’ sound. And to see ‘inevitable’ placed in the context of Hiroshima and the dropping of the atomic bomb…I will admit that I actually had to close the book and walk away from it in order to calm myself down. A visceral reaction, to be sure — almost certainly influenced by the fact that I’ve visited Hiroshima and seen the results of the bombing — but that one word infuriated me precisely that much.

There isn’t much more I have to say about the book after that. A little outside research would have me point to Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Shuntaro Hida’s The Day Hiroshima Disappeared as better alternatives to Walker’s book. Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima has its good points and interesting sections…but this is a subject that in my opinion deserves rather more thought and attention than Walker has given it.


Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

27 November 2007

I borrowed this book from a friend during a trip to Japan a few years ago, primarily because my friend swore up and down that it was far and away the best and most truthful book about geisha life in Japan. I’d certainly have to agree with that assessment.

Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

Geisha of Gion (the UK edition title; the US edition is titled Geisha: A Life) is by Mineko Iwasaki, who for many years was the preeminent geiko (‘woman of art’, the preferred term for geisha in the Japanese city of Kyoto) in Japan. Having left her birth family at a very young age to train for her calling, Iwasaki devoted her life to the study of her art and worked her way to incredible success — only to retire at the very height of her fame when she realised that she could not tolerate the strictures placed upon her and her fellow geiko by the obsessively tradition-bound ways of her profession. Iwasaki wrote the book as a response to the publication of the highly fictionalised Memoirs of a Geisha, intending to give a more credible and truthful account of her life as the successor to her adopted family’s prominent okiya, or geisha house, in the Gion district of Kyoto.

The life of a geiko of Iwasaki’s stature was nothing short of gruelling, and Geisha of Gion gives as much detail about the geiko lifestyle as one might conceivably wish to know. Long hours and late nights, rigorous classes in dance and poise and fine arts, countless hours spent applying and removing layers of makeup and heavy silk clothing, and above all the constant knowledge that a geiko is always on display from the moment she leaves the house and goes out in public until the moment she steps back inside the relative sanctuary of the okiya. The book takes care to dispel many of the stereotypes of geisha life, particularly the belief that a geisha is little more than a cultured, high-class prostitute for the rich and powerful. Yet Iwasaki also criticises her former profession, pointing out that most girls who became geiko in her day left school at the age of fourteen, the minimum standard required by law, and that all of their training and hard work left them with few truly marketable skills to support them if they chose to retire or were compelled to stop working due to ill-health or other troubles. In her opinion, the ‘flower and willow world’ (as the geisha life is often called) did not do enough to adapt to changes in society, and one of her main fears was that the very rigidity that was meant to protect the practice of traditional arts in Japan would only end up leading to their permanent disappearance.

Having skimmed through bits and pieces of Memoirs of a Geisha, I have to agree that Geisha of Gion is most definitely the better book. Far less sensationalism, far more real story. And I think that this truthfulness also makes Iwasaki’s story that much more memorable, because you can tell that she really did love what she did as a geiko, and that leaving her profession, her beloved calling, was probably as difficult a decision as anyone can make.


Metro Maps of the World, 2nd Edition by Mark Ovenden

12 October 2007

I freely admit to being something of a trainspotter. Not in the sense that I write down engine numbers in little books, but in the sense that I admire the organisation involved in the smooth running of public transportation. I do hope that this review doesn’t make me sound a complete anorak.

Metro Maps of the World, 2nd Edition by Mark Ovenden

I’m fond of maps, and the development of maps and map design. The ways in which we display information intended for public use is a particularly fascinating subject, bringing together all kinds of aspects of semiotics, information management, graphic design, and overall aesthetics. So Mark Ovenden’s Metro Maps of the World sets my heart a-fluttering in a way that rather defies its status as a book that seems to be meant for display on a coffee table.

The book shows the development of underground/metro systems in cities all over the world, and more specifically, the development of their mapping systems. Due reverence is paid to Harry Beck, the Englishman who revised the way that metro maps were created — instead of showing how the London Underground lines really looked to scale with a London street map, he simplified the design into a cleaner, more readable format that is more of a diagram than a proper map. (Here’s an image of Beck’s revised Tube plan from the early 1930s; compare it to one of the pre-Beck maps.) But Metro Maps of the World covers more than just London. Ovenden’s book compiles historical maps of the world’s major metro systems, from the Moscow Metro to the New York City subway, from Berlin’s U-bahn to Tokyo’s TRTA/TOEI system. There are sections in the book devoted to smaller systems that are no less intricate in design, as well as metro systems whose construction is still being planned.

Gorgeously illustrated and rich in detail, Metro Maps of the World is utterly fascinating to anyone who has attempted to navigate the metro system of a major city. And if you plan to visit any major city in the near future, the book might also be terribly useful from a practical standpoint. Better to get an idea of how the maps work when you’re still at home, after all — it certainly beats standing in front of a metro map and feeling panic rising in your stomach when you realise that you’ve no idea how to get where you want to go.


The Mitrokhin Archive (Vols. I and II) by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

30 August 2007

I have more than a few previously written reviews, so I’m going to attempt to post at least one a day or every other day until I clear out my backlog and can start adding my current reading matter. If you’ve followed my reviews before elsewhere, please be patient — I’ll get to new material soon enough!

The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Britain and the West by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin
The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

The story of Vasili Mitrokhin is so extraordinary that it is rather difficult to accept at face value. It is a truly stunning intelligence coup of Cold War history, even though it took place in that murky time at the end of the Cold War — a time when the various espionage networks in Europe were just coming to terms with the fact that the world was changing out of all recognition.

Simply put, Mitrokhin was a KGB officer who worked in the intelligence service’s archives, holding one of the less glamourous but no less important posts in the espionage hierarchy. He had held that position for many years, and in his time countless documents and files on the inner workings of the KGB had passed through his hands. But Mitrokhin had become disillusioned over the years with the Soviet system, having seen firsthand how the KGB manipulated the Soviet justice system and worked to stifle any and all attempt to truly reform society and improve the living standards of the ordinary Soviet people. And so, at great risk to himself, he began to smuggle different documents out of the archives and copy them by hand, returning the originals and hiding the copies in various locations around his home. He carried on this secret copying for nearly twelve years until his retirement in 1984, and though he often considered possible ways to escape from the Soviet Union and get his precious documents to the West, he remained patient. In March of 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin packed up sample of his documents, drove them across the newly-opened border into the new Baltic republic of Latvia, and visited the Western intelligence services to present his papers to those who might find them of interest. And once SIS got its hands on the papers and discovered the extent of Mitrokhin’s note-taking….

Both volumes of The Mitrokhin Archive are a fascinating attempt to make sense of all the documents that Mitrokhin copied. Some of the secrets in the files were utterly shocking revelations at the time — one example being the case of Melita Norwood, a British woman who had been one of the longest-lasting spies in KGB history, and who had passed low-level secrets on nuclear research to the KGB ever since the Second World War. Other documents reveal Soviet involvement in other Western European countries, particularly in connection with the French and Italian Communist parties. Still other documents shed light on Soviet counterintelligence during events like the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the clampdown on the ‘Prague spring’ in 1968, including information on how Soviet agents posed as sympathetic Westerners to infiltrate dissident groups throughout Eastern Europe.

The Mitrokhin Archive II focuses on the rest of the world, most specifically on the ‘Third World’ nations that the Soviet Union regarded as likely locations in which to build socialist or communist states. The book is divided into sections on Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with chapters focusing on either a specific country or time period for the KGB’s activities. For instance, Mitrokhin and Andrew devote two chapters to India, one of the premier targets for KGB activity, pointing out the extent to which the KGB promoted Indira Gandhi’s paranoia that the CIA and various other Western intelligence services were plotting to depose or murder her. The Soviet war of attrition in Afghanistan also gets two chapters of coverage, attempting to untangle the complicated connections between various factions and rival groups in the late 1970s through the 1980s. Other countries and regions also receive a careful study, with some intriguing revelations:

  • Soviet espionage in China after the Sino-Soviet split was made all but impossible by the fact that the Chinese secret police knew all the identities of the KGB’s agents in the PRC and proceeded to kill them all off — a lesson on why it’s not always good to share everything with your allies
  • Attempts to spy on China by way of Japan ran into problems when the Japanese Communist Party chose to ally itself ideologically with Beijing
  • KGB involvement in starting and spreading the urban legend about Latin American children being kidnapped and killed to provide donated organs for rich Americans

(I’m not entirely certain if it’s a reflection on the fact that I’m not as ‘genned up’ on Third World Cold War history as I thought I was, but I found the second volume to be a little less readable than the first. It may simply be that I’m not as familiar with the names and events mentioned and discussed, in which case a little outside reading might be in order to see if the research makes more sense to me then. Just a bit of qualification that might explain why I preferred the first volume to the second.)

Vasili Mitrokhin died in 2004, shortly after the publication of the first volume of The Mitrokhin Archive. Christopher Andrew completed this second volume on his own, working with Mitrokhin’s original notes. There has been some controversy over the archive, particularly from scholars who question Mitrokhin’s credibility. How, they ask, could someone who never managed to rise above a middling rank in the KGB manage to evade the strict security surrounding the archives and spend the better part of his career making notes on extremely sensitive case files? When I think about some of the real-life spy stories that have shown up in the press since the late 1980s, I’m a little more inclined to take Mitrokhin’s archive at face value. Even if it’s exposed as a fraud at some point in the future, the Mitrokhin Archive would still be a great set of books to show just how engrossing a fraud can be.

Regardless, anyone with any interest in espionage and intelligence history will want to read these books. They are thorough and painstakingly detailed, remarkably comprehensive and written in a crisply academic style that suits the subject matter well. Mitrokhin’s vast collection of papers sheds light on Soviet intelligence activities around the world, from the early days of the October Revolution to the events leading up to the coup that all but toppled Gorbachev. Some of the real stories told in the archives would put any writer of spy fiction to shame.