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Fathoming the depths and heights of Japan’s intercultural encounters


JAPAN’S LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WEST by Sukehiro Hirakawa. Folkstone: Global Oriental, 2005, 557 pp., £50 (cloth).

Rudyard Kipling, one of the most popular writers in the English tongue of his generation, addressed his poem “The White Man’s Burden” to the American people in 1899 — when the United States was emerging as an imperialist power in Asia, having made the Philippines its colony in the western Pacific. Of the poem Theodore Roosevelt said it “is rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansionist standpoint,” the standpoint of the “powers” that divided the world among them.

Sukehiro Hirakawa recounts this episode not just for its own sake, interesting though it is, but to remind his readers that “the white man’s burden” soon found “the yellow man’s burden” as its counterpart. This concept was advanced by Soho Tokutomi, Kipling’s contemporary, who was a prolific writer and became the most influential apologist of Japan’s imperialism.

In his nationalistic writings Tokutomi challenged white supremacy and urged his countrymen to come to the aid of the oppressed peoples of the same “yellow” race of Asia.

Racism is one of the themes of the intellectual history of Japan Hirakawa presents in this impressive book. His comprehensive knowledge of Western as well as Japanese (and Chinese) history and literature protects him from even the temptation of one-sidedness. At the same time, he does not shy away from sensitive and unpopular topics. Tokutomi, for instance, is virtually unknown in the West and not much read nowadays in Japan because, as a prominent rightwinger, he was incarcerated under the U.S. Occupation.

Kipling, the great apologist of British imperialism, by contrast, is still held in high esteem as the author of “The Jungle Book.”

And this is hardly exceptional. Rather, there is a pattern of skewed perception, biased representation and double standards that characterized the relationship between Japan and the West from the very beginning. With the title of his book, Hirakawa describes this intricate relationship as one of love-hate and, with his elegant pen, shows just how exciting and never boring this relationship is, forever swaying between admiration and contempt.

Japan’s modernization is full of biographies of Japanese intellectuals who embraced Western ways enthusiastically but at one point or another met with disappointment and disillusionment, realizing that “civilization,” as promoted by the Western powers, half-swallowed eagerly, half-forced down their throat, was a code word for “power.”

Soseki Natsume, for example, a writer and lecturer in English literature, came to the conclusion that instruction at regular schools in English, a common practice in late 19th century Japan, was “only one aspect of an excessive subordination for foreign culture.” As Hirakawa demonstrates with a wealth of quotations, many intellectuals realized the necessity of this subordination in view of the advanced state of Western technology and science; but they also resented it, especially because they were so often made to feel their own inferiority amid Western arrogance and racism.

For 200 years, Japanese interaction with the West was channeled through the Dutch trading factory in Nagasaki, and as such completely under their own control. But then the Japanese were deprived of this prerogative all of a sudden. That they were forced at gunpoint to submit to another nation’s will had a profound and lasting impact, because they (and the rest of the world) were not yet used to American threats of violence.

By means of comparing Japanese, European and American intellectuals’ views on Japan’s development from being threatened into submission to threatening others, Hirakawa recounts the story of Japan’s modernization and Westernization during the stormy Meiji Era in a highly original and enlightening way.

The leading intellectuals of Japan’s modernization, when they traveled to the Western world, went by sea, starting from Yokohama or Kobe and proceeding to London or Marseilles. Every single port their ships called on en route, from Hong Kong to Port Said, was under Western, mainly British, rule. No one who took this route could fail to notice “the vast and ruthless expansion of the Western colonial powers.” This shared physical experience of Western dominance was an eye-opener to author and political theorist Yukichi Fukuzawa; Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister; novelist and poet Ogai Mori; philosopher and historian Tetsuro Watsuji; and writer Soseki, among others.

Directing his readers’ attention to such detail is typical of Hirakawa’s method. In making times past come alive, he makes readers see why Pan-Asianism as a reaction to Japan’s rapid modernization gained strength, increasingly so after Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1904-05, and why Tokutomi’s argument of “Asia for the Asians” did not sound hollow to Japanese ears.

Japan’s love-hate relationship with the West has many faces. One is that, good students of Western civilization that they were, Japanese politicians followed the British model, building an empire and maintaining colonies, while Japanese journalists began to denounce British imperialism. Hirakawa speaks of Japan’s “anti-imperialist imperialism” in this connection — an apt description. One of many that make this book well worth reading.