Wednesday, July 11, 2007

That's More Like It! Back to Lazy Blogging, JASF Edition

Time to set the table! What follows is the opening of a talk I gave last Saturday at the Japan-America Society of Fukuoka. For this coming Saturday's talk, which is FINALLY done, check out Mostly Harmless. Given how busy I am in our final month or so in Japan (on this stay, that is!), I'm going to subject my "readers" to more of this talk over the next few days. Not the best of meals, but what can you do?

This talk, “The End of the American Century in Japan? 1941-1995,” picks up where last week’s “From Manifest Destiny to War in the Pacific, 1846-1945” left off. In that talk, I gave a very rough sketch of the changing images of Japan in American eyes, from an exotic and backward culture in the mid-nineteenth century to a modernizing, industrializing rising power at the turn into the twentieth century, to a militarist, imperialist enemy by the middle of that century. I emphasized that such shifts should be understood in the context of American experiences with and representations of other non-U.S. cultures and countries and argued that they are often more revealing of American mindsets than Japanese realities. By showing how certain images and styles of representation get cut and pasted from one group to another or get recycled from one time period to another, I tried to suggest how complex and difficult it can be to understand and analyze them.

Implicit in my talk were the following questions. What is the relation between image and reality? Between attitude and action? How, for instance, did Commodore Matthew Perry’s studies of European writings on Japanese culture and society as he was preparing to lead his first expedition to Japan, along with his experiences fighting Mexicans and Indians in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, influence his strategies and tactics as a negotiator with bakufu representatives? In what ways may Washington war planners, all the way up to President Harry Truman, have been influenced by American war propaganda emphasizing the brutal savagery of the Japanese military and the fanatical loyalty of the Japanese citizenry, particularly in the spring and summer of 1945?

These questions, of course, raise larger and even more difficult ones. To what extent can subjective human beings limited to partial perspectives understand each other objectively? Indeed, is such objectivity possible or desirable? This is not only a question of knowledge, understanding, and truth; it is also a question of how to understand the nature of reality. If we are tempted to argue that Americans often and perhaps even consistently mischaracterized Japan between 1846 and 1945, by what standard do we judge their characterizations to be mistaken? If even Japanese self-images of this time period do not escape the difficulties and complexities of aesthetic and political representation, where is such a standard to be found?

These issues in the relation between representation and reality, in turn, raise questions about how to characterize the first century of U.S.-Japanese relations. Was the Pacific War an inevitable conflict between two rising and expansionist powers with claims to and designs on the Pacific? Was it a blip in an otherwise amicable bilateral partnership? Was it a relatively arbitrary swing of a randomly seesawing relationship?

I’m going to return to these questions at the end of this talk. But first, by focusing on the shifts between 1941 and 1995 in American representations of Japan from wartime enemy to Cold War ally to economic rival, I’ll emphasize just how complex and difficult they are--and how much is at stake in them.

5 comments:

The Constructivist said...

Wondering why this post isn't on the front page of the blog today. Oh well. Better things to worry about and all.

The Constructivist said...

Ah, the magic complaint fixed the problem. Blogger is weird.

Daniel J. Gall said...

As for your posts not having titles - have a look at your dashboard: somewhere in there, you will find a formatting tab, on which is listed a Yes-No-Option to decide on a point called "Display Title Box" (or something like it, I'm using the German version for my Blogger-blogs here). So, you can actually switch it on and off.

I'll get back later this evening to solve that Flannery O'Connor quest two posts back.

Daniel J. Gall said...

And, lo and behold, this post does have a title! Hallelujah! Sorry for giving advice on a resolved problem...

The Constructivist said...

Well, since I did nothing to resolve it, the advice is still quite useful, since it'll probably crop up again. Always better to have something to try besides complaining! Thanks.