The lazy blogging from my upcoming talk continues...
Modernization, Imperialism, and the Debate over Japan
The continuing influence of this initial image of Japan as an exotic and backward society can be seen even in the writings of a sympathetic turn-of-the-century participant-observer like Lafcadio Hearn, who showed a marked preference for traditional and folk culture throughout his fourteen years of living in Japan. It’s not that he was unaware of the rapid modernization, industrialization, and nationalist consolidation of Japan in the Meiji era--surely the parallels between Japanese and American expansionism from the mid-1860s until his death in 1904 (after a civil war, the victors first gained control of core territories, then asserted influence abroad through annexation and occupation) didn’t escape him. Indeed, as distinguished Hearn scholar Roy Starrs has recently argued, it was precisely Hearn’s love of traditional Japanese culture that lead him to excuse and indeed support the very state policies in Japan that lead him to leave the United States and give up his American citizenship. At the end of his 1904 work, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, Hearn justifies the Meiji regime’s wars against China and Russia as attempts to preserve Japanese sovereignty against a gathering threat of European imperialism and cautions the regime to preserve as much of traditional Japanese culture as possible to avoid Western cultural imperialism.
It’s worth contrasting Hearn with another well-travelled American contemporary of his who in his journalism and fiction came to opposite conclusions about the tendency and legitimacy of Meiji-era transformations: Jack London. In such articles as “The Yellow Peril” and “If Japan Should Awaken China,” such short stories as “Goliath” and “The Unparalleled Invasion,” and most notably in his dystopian science fiction novel of 1908, The Iron Heel, London characterizes Japan as a potentially imperialist threat to China, the West, and the international socialist movement. As University of California at Berkeley American literature scholar Colleen Lye demonstrates in her brilliant study America’s Asia, London was particularly worried that Japanese military and management prowess and Chinese size and labor/trading capacity could combine to form a commercially dynamic, technologically advanced rival to Anglo-American civilization.
One way of reading these diametrically opposed attitudes toward and images of Japan from Hearn and London is to link their Pacific writings to late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century debates within American culture over the U.S.’s own modernization, industrialization, national consolidation, and expansionism. Hearn’s sympathy for a putatively anti-colonial Japanese imperialism and London’s horror at a putatively imperialist Japanese anti-colonialism are two sides of the same coin. They express the ambivalence many Americans were feeling toward the transformations of their own society and culture. With Germany and Russia, Japan and the U.S. were leading rising powers in an age characterized by the dominance of the British Empire; each modernizing nation-state had to choose whether to follow or how to modify the templates of European imperialism established by the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and British. It was precisely Japan’s similarities to the U.S. around 1900 that made its actions such a controversial mirror for even dissident Americans of the time.