My choice for best book in 2015 is Dominic Ziegler’s “Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires” (Penguin Press). This is a sweeping panorama through time and space that probes the remote frontier where Russia, China and Mongolia, and the peoples and cultures of this region, intersect.
The Amur River is the centerpiece of this mesmerizing exploration of fascinating and little-known parts brought to life by astute observations spanning several centuries, and diverting digressions into all sorts of topics ranging from fauna, fowl and furs to freebooters, feral fascists and the forlorn and forgotten in this often woebegone land. Ziegler connects the dots in luminous prose and regales readers with anecdotes — such as being arrested right outside a prison for illicit dealings but then managing to spend the night in a crumbling palace that, like much of the Siberian hinterlands, had fallen into desuetude. And then there is the memorably long drive with only one CD over potholed byways in the Siberian badlands, a Boney M endless-loop inner circle of hell — think “Rah, rah Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine!”
This is travel writing at its best, giving one a bracing sense of the discomforts endured and the enthralling but endangered ways of life in this vast, remote region of stunning vistas and natural beauty. It is intriguing to consider the clash of empires that yet reverberate, but this pales next to accompanying the naturalist, historian, sociologist, ethnographer and cultural epicurean-cum- journalist Ziegler, who holds forth at The Economist, on his adventures and follies, a riveting reminder of one’s own paltry learning.
My next co-favorites are “Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory and Japan’s Unending Postwar” (University of Hawaii) by Akiko Takenaka, a historian at the University of Kentucky, and “The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory and Identity in Japan” (OUP) by Akiko Hashimoto, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Takenaka usefully complicates the Yasukuni problem, noting that while it serves as a stage for competing war memories and remains a symbol of Japan’s collective amnesia overseas, it’s important to understand the difficulties that vanquished aggressors confront in commemorating the stigmatized war dead. Alas, Takenaka notes, there is increasing acceptance by the younger generation of the blinkered revisionist history promoted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. These “post-memory generations” prefer to be cast as victims of Western imperialism than vilified for atrocities committed. Blame is shifted and responsibility diluted so that those eager to shed the burdens of the past can honor the war dead without guilt.
Hashimoto asserts there are currently three competing narratives featuring heroes, victims and perpetrators, the latter of which is targeted by revisionists. In the immediate aftermath of defeat, almost nobody doubted that the war was a tragic mistake and it was impossible to valorize what the armed forces did because there was no denying what everyone knew. But over time, as the events receded into the mists of time, the legatees are now seeking redemption, and asserting a vindicating and exonerating version of events that emphasizes the consequences endured rather than those inflicted.
“The Abe Experiment and the Future of Japan: Don’t Repeat History” (Renaissance Books) by Junji Banno and Jiro Yamaguchi, translated by Arthur Stockwin, first appeared in Japanese in 2014, but it remains salient in assessing the virtues of understanding failure and the current state of Japan in the Abe era. In their dialogue, the authors discuss the need for countering efforts to revise the Constitution and Abe’s sweeping attacks on Japan’s postwar order. Along the way, they explain the different shades of Japanese conservatism and Abe’s revanchist tendencies. Readers also can learn about the travails of social democracy in Japan and the collapse of the Democratic Party of Japan. On a hopeful note, Yamaguchi concludes, “The Japanese people are not stupid, and they can understand the foolish arguments of the Abe regime.” Perhaps, but what party can give them a voice?
Especially when powerful actors seek to stifle discordant voices. In “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima” (OUP), ethnomusicologist Noriko Manabe examines the power of music in galvanizing protest and expressing dissent in Japan. Why music? Because “it engages the mind, body and heart, communicating messages in a way that is ear-catching, danceable, direct, emotion-provoking or obscure. … It is a call to action, a source of consolation, and an outlet for creative expression — all of which are particularly important in a situation where entrenched interests make political change difficult.”
Drawing on extensive fieldwork, Manabe explores cyberspace, festivals and the social media strategies that artists adopted to get around music company censorship of anti-nuclear sentiments. Her astute analysis of Kazuyoshi Saito’s “Zutto uso dattan daze” (“It Was Always a Lie”) explains why it resonated so powerfully and became a sort of anthem for anti-nuclear protesters. Helpfully, she provides links to YouTube video playlists that accompany each chapter (see www.norikomanabe.com/publications/the-revolution-will-not-be-televised)
In brief, Melbourne University’s Akihiro Ogawa helps us understand the shifting relationship between citizens and the state in the 21st century in “Lifelong Learning in Neoliberal Japan: Risk, Community and Knowledge” (SUNY Press). He argues that lifelong learning is a risk-management strategy for people in an era of neo-liberal reforms, where updating skills and knowledge is essential to surviving amid the growing precarity of employment and threadbare social safety net in contemporary Japan.
This precarious state of affairs is elaborated upon in a trenchant collection of 13 chapters by leading academics edited by Frank Baldwin and Anne Allison titled “Japan: The Precarious Future” (NYU Press). Topics range from demographic challenges, crisis management and the expanding precariat to macro-economic issues, political leadership, regional relations and the Constitution.
Regarding the sad state of politics in Japan, a “read it and weep” collection of 21 insightful chapters by prominent specialists, “Japan Decides 2014: The Japanese General Election” (Palgrave Macmillan), edited by Robert Pekkanen, Steven Reed and Ethan Scheiner, is highly informative about electoral politics and Abe’s bait-and-switch campaign strategy, which is likely to be reprised next summer.
I have chapters in both of those volumes and edited “Asian Nationalisms Reconsidered” (Routledge). This features 22 chapters spanning the region by a posse of experts who assess the domestic and international implications of nationalism in ways that challenge and complicate the renascent Asian narrative. Japan Times readers familiar with columnist Debito Arudou’s views on the politics, policies and perils of an exclusionist national identity can now access a fuller scholarly elaboration in “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination” (Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield). Finally, on a merrier note, Christopher Rea’s “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China” (University of California) exposes how China’s funny bone evolved from the 1890s to the 1930s at a time when demons from within and without required everyday coping strategies rooted in mockery, mirth and sardonic buffoonery.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.