This is my first guest piece on Henry’s blog. I would like to thank him for inviting me to post on it and hope that we all can keep the blog going while he’s away.
I wrote on my own blog about the Upper House elections that are taking place in Japan today (as folk that know me will know – am keen on looking at foreign elections and seeing what they might tell us about the politics in that country!). The Japanese mid-term elections look like they might be a defeat for the ruling LDP – which has dominated Japanese politics since its creation in 1955. However, as the Upper House is weaker than the lower one, I am not sure that the LDP will actually be blocked from carrying out many of its policies – given its Lower House majority – since the Lower House does have the constitutional power to overrule the Upper House.
In addition, it seems to me – and I wonder if those au fait with Japanese politics will be able to enlighten me on this – that the ideological differences between the opposition Democrats and the governing LDP are not that different. The Democrats are themselves a fairly-centrist catch-all party.
Prior to the 1990s and the growth of the Democrats, the main opposition party was the Social-Democrats. They did have political differences with the LDP and a different ideological view. They used to get 20-25% of the vote in most elections until the 1990s. I understand that a lot of their MPs did go over to the Democrats when they were founded, but it still seems to me strange that their support has fallen back so dramatically. If anything, the economic recession that post-1990 Japan has suffered should be making people more keen to try a different economic approach. The LDP was popular before 1990 because it presided over the dramatic economic boom of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. When the boom ended, I would have assumed that voters would have turned to the main opposition party. Instead, it seems that voters flocked to a new party – one that does not seem to take notably different economic views from the LDP. The Social-Democrats have been reduced to less than 5% of the votes and, in fact, poll worse than the Japanese Communist Party [which has actually increased its support in some elections since the end of the Cold War].
July 29, 2007
This is my first guest piece on Henry’s blog. I would like to thank him for inviting me to post on it and hope that we all can keep the blog going while he’s away.
April 10, 2007
Traditionally histories of Japan have told a story whereby suddenly the rule of the Shogunate was overthrown in the 1860s and replaced by the restoration of the Emperor. Historians have traditionally told this tale as a story of modernisation- the Meiji Restoration or Meiji-Ishin of the 1860s and 1870s was a revolt against a society Marx categorised as overwhelmingly feudal in favour of a new capitalist society, in favour of Western style modernisation. Definitely that is the way that many western observers at the time perceived the Restoration- individuals like Ernest Satow, the secretary to the British Embassy, saw the Meiji Restoration as a mere episode of imitation- indeed Satow argued that Japan could never get beyond the third or fourth rank in the list of world powers because it was a society of imitators not initiators.
That was not the only Western view at the time. In the Spring of 1874, the Russian Revolutionary leader, young associate of Alexander Herzen and anarchist, sailed to Japan as a correspondent for a Russian radical newspaper. Professor Sho Konishi has just published a fascinating article about Menchikov's intellectual experience in Japan and how it altered him, Russian anarchism and even Japanese leftwing ideas in the twentieth century. Menchikov came to Japan with pronounced anarchist views- he argued that Russian society should seek a future in agrarian Anarchist cooperative communes. What he found in Japan led him to revise his estimate of anarchism- he became less slavophile and more intellectually curious. Menchikov argued that within the Ishin lay potentials not for imitating the West, but for exploiting the best of the West but within a framework that was more just and more cooperative. Menchikov was distinct from many Westerners in the way that he interpreted the Ishin and its ideology. One of the most fascinating ways that Konishi shows this is to counterpose two transalations of the same passage in the same document, the Charter Oath of 1868, here is Lord Aston, a British diplomat who translated a passage thus:
Our Mikado has become convinced of the necessity of upholding the policy of commercial relations, and has caused our friendly intercourse and trade with foreign countries to be established on a liberal scale. This is the only course by which we can take our place in the community of nations, and remain true to natural principles of truth and justice.
and here is Menchikov translating exactly the same passage,
Our Mikado has become convinced of the necessity to maintain friendly relations with them; only in this way can we take our proper place in the ranks of other nations, without backing down from the principle of mutual aid and equity.
Notice the very important distinctions between the two translations: in Aston's translation the last clause is made much milder and much softer, in Menchikov the last clause is placed in a much more stark oppositional light. Lord Aston's translation suggests that the Mikado will allow reform according to the principles of natural justice- which could include capitalism- whereas Menchikov is much stricter, it is the principle of mutual aid and equity that he sees as the exception, something much more threatening to Capitalism.
Menchikov's view was that the Ishin was full of contradictions and counter-impulses to modernity and capitalism. He argued that the Ishin held within it the possibilities for breaking out of the sterile atmosphere of Western capitalism and encouraged by some of his Japanese friends saw potentials for an anarchistic polity to emerge. Part of the reason for this distinct analysis came from Menchikov's own background- as a Russian he had a more ambivalent relationship to Western Capitalism than either Satow or Aston. Interestingly as well other Russians saw the Ishin in more complicated terms- for the orthodox churchmen in Japan at this point, the Ishin was a rising motivated by religious fervour not any desire for capitalism. Menchikov therefore was not alone.
Almost as much as his work in Japan, Konishi points out, it was Menchikov's work upon his return to Russia in 1876 which was key. He took what he had seen in Japan and in his great history of Civilisation attempted to model out of it a description of human progress, which didn't end at capitalism but saw capitalism as a stage through which men went. The experience of Japan made him concede that there were vital and important civilisations outside of the West. He argued on the basis of his Japanese experience that creativity was produced within civilisations not by racial purity but by racial mixing- and he expressed a lack of confidence in any attempt to suggest that the acheivements of civilisation were either black, yellow or white, rather he argued was humanity as a whole that had developed civilisation. He suggested it was geography which suggested the way that civilisations developed. Menchikov divided the world into three periods- the period of the rivers- most importantly the Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow and Euphrates and Tigris, then the period of the seas and then the modern time of the oceans. Each period made a geographical feature useful to developing civilisation but in each time it was ultimately up to human will as to where civilisation would develop. Menchikov used Japan as an example- he suggested that the Japanese were a racially mixed people and that their island situation, buffetted by storms, ultimately formed the nation's history and character.
Konishi suggests that Menchikov's work became well known- forming the attitudes of leading Russian intellectuals such as Plekhanov and Kropotkin, and also establishing the memes for Japanese leftwing political thought right through the twentieth century. He argues that in Menchikov's work we can see both an alternative vision of modernity- and also a model of the kind of cultural exchange that took place in the 19th Century.
The historical argument, Konishi puts forward seems plausible to me- having said that he never anchors Menchikov's thought down to something particular- I suspect brevity may be the problem there. Whether Menchikov's anarchist vision is an alternative for us now depends on economic arguments- the like of which Chris Dillow makes and which I am not expert enough in to either refute or confirm. What is interesting here is that Menchikov offers us a different way to understand modernity- even somewhere like Japan and places like Turkey would also fall into this category I suspect- modernisation was not the simple adaptation to capitalism that often naive students of history think that it was. Other processes of ideological infiltration were going on- and often harmonised with elements of the society infiltrated. Menchikov found friends in Japan and reinforced his anarchism through his visit there, as well as supporting Japanese anarchism from the outside. The part of Konishi's argument that I would endorse is that interraction between societies is often not as simple as it seems- ideas are passed across which contradict each other and battles that are beggining in some places (like in this case Europe) are often finished beyond the boundaries of Europe (as in this case in Russia and Japan).
Chou En-Lai was once asked what he thought the consequences of the French Revolution were, he said that it was too early to say what they were. To rephrase Chou, if we were to ask where the consequences of Japanese anarchism or Russian debates over peasant communes took place, Konishi's work allows us to establish that the two intersected and spun together out into the world, taking a global stage for what were once unrelated local approaches to politics.
December 12, 2006
This blog has the honour this month of hosting the Asian History Carnival- and honour it is. I am not an Asian historian though I am a historian and have been shocked by the sheer quality and quantity of writing about Asia out there on the net- we have for you today all kinds of history, from the longue duree to the tightly focused study, from contemporary history to ancient history, representatives from every geographical area, Russia, China, Japan, India, South East Asia they are all represented here. We have all kinds of article, many different types of issue and history. There isn't as much medieval history as I'd like and not as much ancient history- my digging was obviously not good enough- but what there are are some of the best articles on the web about history I've read.
So to begin let's take in those parts of Asia and topics which few of us think about much if at all- Kazakhstan has unusually been in the news thanks to Borat recently- more interestingly though Ben at NewEurasia suggests it might have been amongst the first places to domesticate horses. Despite the prominence of Iraq in the News, the Kurds seem yet again to be ignored, something that R.D. Gasti at Ahuyevashi has tried to resist with this fantastic post about Kurdish nationalism. The Kazakhs and the Kurds are at least sometimes heard of by most of us, but as for the Tatars never- something that Garth Trinkl is keen to redress at his blog Renaissance Research. Coming closer to traditional history, but still as a society within a society, largely impervious to historical study we find the Assassins- a useful introduction to them is provided over at the World History Blog by Miland.
The other thing that we all tend to underrate when it comes to the history of various countries and continents is the importance of cultural exchange and comparative history. Well luckily the bloggers have been busy again. Alan Baulmer takes time out at Frog in a Well to remind us how Chinese ruling families have been attracted by other civilisations and even religions. Stephen Zavestoski notes at the Curious Stall that how present day Americans find inspiration from Indian TV heroes (ok its not history but it fits the theme). Dave and Stefan wonder about American interraction with Asia more generally- they use comparisons of Japan and China's contacts with the West in the nineteenth century to come to some interesting conclusions about why the countries have different attitudes to the US today. Comparative history has gone through a boom this month- Erik Ringmar is thinking about the reception of giraffes in China and in Europe and what it says about colonialism, I've criticised some of his conclusions here. Ringmar's work and the work of Tonio Andrade on Taiwanese and Dutch colonialism form the basis of this meditation on the differences between Chinese and European colonial policies. Colonialism is only one way for societies to interract though: as the Mutant Frog records here by showing the first attempted adoption from China to the US. That contact may have proved abortive, but the experience of Japanese prisoners in Kazakhstan during the second world war was as Leila shows at Neweurasia very genuine.
Contact leads to communication and there has been a real discussion this month in the blogosphere about the way that Asia and the West communicate with each other. Kotaji points out based on a translated Korean article the difficulties of applying simplistic models of Stalinism from the past to the present in the case of North Korea. Mohammed Fadel is also irritated by Western misinterpretations of the East and comes to the defence of Edward Said's orientalism, pointing out how Said's theory improved studies of early Islamic law. Adam Valve is also unhappy, he can't find Martin Amis's analysis of Russia or of Islam convincing. Using Asian history as a resource for Western politics or identity has always been common though, Morgan Pitelka brings a fascinating new light to this with a small collection of photographs of Japan taken by American GIs in 1951. G. Willow Wilson though isn't so unhappy, she finds solace in a group of thinkers who she thinks were genuinely open to Indian influence in the later Raj. Over at the Sepia Mutiny western intellectual trends specifically the economics of Milton Freidman are being used to analyse Indian economic development.
If the West has a political interest in Asian history, then so do many within the continent and a fair number of bloggers have picked up this month on examples of this. Xiaode for instance discusses how China is looking back at the mid nineties from the perspective of today and what the comparrison says about Modern China. The anonymous Qing historian looking at the Chinese papers sees more though, he sees the the modern Chinese start to reinterpret their history, thinking not about decline but about the restoration of the ancient Chinese empire. Any instability in Eastern Asia though is dwarfed at present by the instability in Western Asia- Juan Cole on his blog carries a link to a radio program he did about Shia and Sunni historical tensions in Iraq. Tensions within civilisations and regions are at least as strong as tensions from them to the outer world- Pass the Roti shows how those tensions can have a real impact on the evidence of the past that we have, leading to the destruction of ancient monuments in India. That wouldn't come as a surprise to Synchroni-Cities, for him ruins in a city like Delhi, can be the only indications left of past suffering and trauma.
Away from such gloomy notes of forboding and memories of destruction, away, let us merely revel in the past. I have a passing weakness for the history of crime- well Dave and Stefan fill that need by providing evidence of the plot discovered by James Legge amongst others to use the drains of Hong Kong to attack the city's infrastructure in the 19th Century. If you prefer less vicious enjoyment, then why not come over and read the Mutant Frog about the First Car introduced to Japan. Ah but don't get complacent because those boys at Blogging Walk the Talk, Dave and Stefan will bring you right down again with the tale of Eu Tong-Sen, the Hong Kong millionaire, his houses, mistresses, children, legal squabbles and atrocities committed during World War Two. Away from stories of murders, millionaires and cars, its worth considering with Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well the intellectual lineage of modern Asian society- in particular the teacher who framed Mao Tse Tung and other leading communists' ideas about the world.
Intellectual history becomes a bit of a trend as soon as we look at the blogosphere's contributions to knowledge about the old and famous Asian civilisational centres this month. Chandrahas one of my favourite literary bloggers, takes the time to consider and quote the exquisite poetry of the Turkish poet Orhan Veli Kanik. At Chinalyst, they too are interested in intellectual history, over there Absurd fool considers in a deeply thought through essay what relevance the concepts of humanism and enlightenment have to Chinese history. At the Qahwa Sada, the authors (academics concerned with the Middle East) are more interested with the structures of Saudi oil production and the way that the Americans have exploited it over the years. Garret Johnson wants us to think about Russian democracy and the events of 1991 all over again as a way to explain present problems. Jonathan Dresner (the onlie begetter of this carnival) is also concerned with the longue duree, he wants us to look at Pearl Harbour as the end of a process of American Japanese relations stretching back to Commodore Perry. What Jonathan wants to do for American Japanese relations, Professor Cutler does every day for the contemporary Middle East, thinking about politics in an incredibly historical way, look for example at this post about the Middle East, the Democrats and the tensions in the region. Moving back to culture, Abu Sahajj reminds us of how different various cultures are, by thinking about how we define a Japanese geisha. The Axis of Evil Kneivel though reminds us that no matter what our cultural peculiarities there are some tragedies that all of us can empathise with across our boundaries, he brings up the horrible case of the disaster in a factory in Bhopal.
Its a rather grim note to end upon- but this carnival attests to some of the richness of the blogosphere concerning Asian history that's out there. Blog after blog is filled with interesting ideas, novel facts and good thought about this vast continent and impressive history- I've learnt a hell of a lot from collating these entries- so everyone keep writing. More than that submit your articles to the next Asian history chronicle and volunteer to host, its great fun- and I hope its fun to read these links!
LATER Typically I left off the list a crucial link- for all Asian historians and wannabe Asian historians (the category I fit into!) this is a link to the Carnival Homepage itself where you can volunteer to submit articles and also to host one of these carnivals- honestly its great fun, not too difficult and you will come across some truly wonderful writing.