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BOOK REVIEW | ‘Anti-Japan: The Politics of Sentiment in Postcolonial East Asia’ by Leo T.S. Ching

Right premise, wrong approach: Ching returns to his theme of wanting to decenter the nation-state in East Asia and find a new solution to the “anti-Japanism” which he sees as a function of the lingering Cold War.

Jason Morgan, Reitaku University

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Duke University professor of Japanese and East Asian Cultural Studies Leo T.S. Ching makes a serious and compelling claim in his new book, Anti-Japan (Duke University Press, 2019). “Anti-Japanism,” Ching writes, “is symptomatic of a larger structural shift in the region [of East Asia], signified by the rise of China and the unresolved imperial and colonial legacies of the Japanese empire.” (141)

Whereas other places in Asia, and in the rest of the world, fought against colonial powers and won independence after World War II, for Ching the downfall of the Japanese Empire to the United States in 1945 locked Japan, and much of the former Japanese Empire, into a Cold War paradigm that stymied the decolonization process. “War defeat replaced decolonization (or deimperialization in Chen Kuan-Hsing’s usage) and the possibility of postcolonial reflexivity,” Ching avers, citing Chen’s landmark 2010 volume Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Duke University Press, 2010). (8)

But now that a muscular People’s Republic of China is throwing the Cold War alliance system in East Asia into disarray, Ching wants to imagine a way forward for the region that allows for a real reckoning with the past and a disentanglement from both colonialism and the Cold War, “without falling into the trap of ethnonationalism.” That is, without using “anti-Japanism” to score easy political points and gin up support for central regimes which have every interest in evading underlying political and social problems. (15)

Ching’s premise is that anti-Japanism in East Asia is largely a byproduct of the historical distortions caused by Japan’s losing World War II to the Americans ー and not to her colonial subjects (15). It’s well worth considering, as recalibrating the political map of East Asia is arguably the most pressing geopolitical challenge given America’s decline and China’s rise.

Godzilla, Bruce Lee, and… Gender?

In chapter one, Ching revisits the often-cited Japanese film Godzilla (1954) to help contextualize the early postwar moment in Japan. This contextualization via the travails of the flame-spewing giant lizard was done most capably by William Tsutsui in his brilliant 2004 book Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (Macmillan, 2004), which Ching, puzzlingly, does not mention or even list in his bibliography. 

Tsutsui sees the Godzilla movies as part of their broader geopolitical and transhistorical background, with the thermonuclear testing by the Americans in the South Pacific and the exposure by Japanese fishermen to deadly radiation as horrifying reminders of a not-so-distant wartime past.

Ching takes us in a surprising direction, however, when he pairs his Godzilla meditations with Bruce Lee’s hardbody resistance to Japanese anti-Sinicism in the 1974 film from Hong Kong, Fist of Fury (1972) 

“What sets [Lee] apart [from other Asian film stars such as Jimmy Wang Yu, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen],” Ching writes, is his propensity to display his upper body, especially during fight scenes. Unlike the visual representation of other Asian male figures, Lee always deliberately takes off his shirt, displaying his chiseled physique. And the image of the body is not static. Instead, as Chris Berry has argued, Lee’s body is a ‘transnational frame’ that offers different interpretations in different times and in different places according to local circumstances. Furthermore, in a transnational framework, it becomes significant that the vehicle for the ‘triumph of the underdog’ narrative is also a Chinese man and that the particular masculinity he embodies foregrounds the eroticized male body. (27)

It goes on, but you get the picture. Is Ching seriously thinking about East Asian politics or history, or is he spinning his wheels wondering why Bruce Lee takes off his shirt?

Nationalism Tuned Flat

The problem here seems to be an over-shyness about reckoning with nationalism and ethnonationalism. Ching “place[s] ‘nationalism’ in quotation marks to denote the complication of the theorization of nationalism, more appropriately nationalist sentiment, surrounding Gojira [i.e., Godzilla] and Bruce Lee. The goal of the chapters that follow is to point to the limits of nationalism in relation to anti-Japanism and gesture toward a subnational and transnational articulation of decolonization.” (35)

Along these lines, Ching takes up the “Japanese devils” (Riben guizi) trope which the government of the People’s Republic of China pushes on its citizens. Ching’s point of departure is the 2005 “demonstrations” in the PRC against the “Japanese devils,” ostensibly sparked by textbook reform in Japan and the possibility that Japan might gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council

However, sustained demonstrations in a Communist dictatorship are almost never spontaneous. If you are “demonstrating” in China, you are either getting paid by the government to do so, or, if not, you are marked for transport to a concentration camp. Decolonization seems to have little to do with the PRC’s gameplan. 

Somehow, Ching does not mention that the biggest spontaneous demonstration in modern China, Tiananmen, led to the massacre of thousands of Chinese people by the rather ironically named People’s Liberation Army. 

There is ethnonationalism, as in the Japanese devils “Two Minutes Hate” which the Chinese government whirrs up from time to time. And then there is authentic nationalism, such as at Tiananmen, when people gather to call for a better deal for their country.

Perhaps this lack of political nuancing explains why, in the same chapter, Ching states that Japan was “the only non-Western (nonwhite) imperialist power”.

“Only non-Western (nonwhite) imperialist power”? The Chinese Communist Party currently enslaves Tibetan Buddhists, Mongolians, Uyghurs in East Turkestan, and the entirety of Hong Kong. It is building a debt-empire in Laos, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Ecuador, and throughout Africa. And it has designs on Okinawa, Indonesia, Djibouti, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. This list is not exhaustive, but it is a good start. And it is a very disturbing reminder of what ethnonationalism— not abortive decolonization— is wreaking in East Asia and beyond.

Comfort Women History Needed for Balance

Chapter three, on the comfort women, is the low point of this volume. Ching begins by expressing his annoyance over a March, 2007 presentation on the comfort women featuring Kim Ok-sun, who claims to have been a “sex slave” for the Japanese military.

Ching admits to being “angry at the self-absorbed and over-privileged students who used the occasion to flaunt their unreflexive self-righteousness and moral superiority” and “irritated” at a co-panelist’s “patronizing and universalizing attitude that subsumed Ms. Kim’s experience under a discourse of human rights, with little regard or sensitivity toward Ms. Kim who, I surmise, must have repeated the same testimony and relived the horrendous experience [of being a comfort woman] countless times.” (57)

The comfort women have, indeed, been compelled to give the same performance repeatedly. Ching is right to be annoyed that others layer their own activism over the comfort women’s lived experiences. Yoon Mee-hyang, for example, is a South Korean lawmaker and former head of a North Korea-tied organization which runs what is essentially a prison, the House of Sharing (Nanum ui Jip), for the surviving comfort women. The wardens of the House of Sharing control access to the surviving comfort women and script everything they are allowed to say in public. 

Yoon was forced to leave the House of Sharing in 2020 over allegations of embezzlement and exploitation. The allegations were made by Lee Yong-soo, who also claims to have been a comfort woman. Currently, Yoon’s political party is trying to ram through legislation that would make it a crime even to question the comfort women narrative. This is the reality of what could rightly be called the Comfort Women Industry.

But if Ching does not like grandstanding using the comfort women as pretext, then why does he lend credence to the December, 2000 show trial held in Tokyo by a band of militant feminists who found the long-dead Japanese emperor, Hirohito, posthumously guilty of war crimes? (74-75) 

As should be obvious given the people involved, the tria” was a publicity stunt which does nothing to help the surviving comfort women. The trial also has little to do with comfort women history, and everything to do with the Comfort Women Industry.

Ching might have made a key distinction here between the two, but he appears to have been hamstrung by scant historical research. His sole cited source for comfort women history is the “Fact Sheet on Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’” put out by the comfort women activist group running the Asia-Pacific Journal. (146)

The Chiaroscuro History of Taiwan and Japan

In chapters four and six Ching turns his attention to Taiwan for what are the two strongest efforts in this volume. Unlike South Korea, Taiwan has not built its current political edifice on anti-Japanism, a curious fact which Ching investigates with skill and understanding.

The dōsan generation (dōsan from the Japanese word otōsan, or father) in Taiwan, Ching explains, “conveys an amicable and respectable sentiment” toward the former Japanese empire of which Taiwan was a part. (82) “Unlike the young consumers of the so-called Japan-fever tribe (hari-zu) in contemporary Taiwan, whose identification with Japan is exclusively driven by consumption,” Ching writes, “the older generation’s relation to Japan is mediated through recollections of belonging, social order, and the lament of being abandoned.” (82)

Ching then tracks four recent works released in Japanese in which authors in both Japan and Taiwan look back fondly on the Ribunjingshin (Japanese spirit) which animated Taiwanese life under the empire. (85, 92) This nostalgia, Ching argues, is mapped onto the benshengren/weishengren dichotomy (native Taiwanese vs. mainlanders and their descendants) which marks Taiwanese political life today. (84)

This is a good point. As Taiwanese people continue to move strongly in the direction of independence, Ching argues, they assert themselves not only against the threats of Beijing, but also against the Nationalist rule which suppressed Taiwanese independence after 1949. These complicated overlappings and cross-hatchings of history and memory are compelling, and Ching rather handily explicates them in this chapter.

In chapter six, also about the history and memory of Japanese rule in Taiwan, Ching examines Japanese novelist Yūko Tsushima’s Exceedingly Barbaric (2008) and the Taiwan aboriginal filmmaker Laha Mebow (Chen Chieh-yao)’s Finding Sayun (2010) as “rehabilitations of colonial wounds,” although “not through the normative politics of recognition, but [as] a fictive articulation of intergenerational intimacy through indigenous knowledge of myth-making that displaces historical colonialism as the primary site where an alternate and non statist reconciliation can take place.” (116)

Taken together, Ching argues, the October, 1930 Musha Rebellion, during which Japanese forces cracked down pitilessly on an uprising by the Seediq indigenous people, and the story of a Ryōhen settlement woman named Sayun who died helping a Japanese administrator and was later memorialized with a bell, reveal the contradictions in remembering Japanese rule in Taiwan. (120-122) On the one hand, the Japanese could be harsh taskmasters. On the other hand, they did much good for Taiwan, and the benefits of Taiwan’s season in the empire are still remembered with gratitude.

Regaining a Clear-Eyed View of Geopolitics

At the end of chapter six, Ching returns to his theme of wanting to decenter the nation-state in East Asia and find a new solution—rooted in reconciliation and “love,” as he asserts in chapter five, to the “anti-Japanism” which Ching sees as a function of the lingering Cold War.

Ching’s pessimism about the nation-state seems rooted in concerns about “national and political (hetero) normativity” (229) and other catchphrases which, although certainly wildly popular in the faculty lounge, bear little actual connection to what is really at stake in East Asia. 

The People’s Republic of China is sending aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, submarines and destroyers  carriers to harass its neighbors. As far as I can tell, this has nothing whatsoever to do with “heteronormativity”.

Nevertheless, Ching wants Japan to acknowledge its past faults and “genuinely and seriously engage with its deimperialization process by embracing anti-and pro-Japanism as a platform to begin dialogues with its Asian neighbors toward a possible regional reconciliation for futurity.” (142)

The reconciliation Ching hopes for and the “deimperialization” and long-delayed decolonization Ching awaits may indeed be underway, but the anti-Japan key of so much of East Asian politics and nationalism has, I think, almost nothing to do with history or with Japan, and almost everything to do with ethno-nationalistic power plays by ambitious political leaders and dictators.

Anti-Japan is a slim and affordable volume, but is, unfortunately, not worth readers’ time even on these easy terms. 

The kind of intellectual streaking through the arena of history and current events which cultural studies theorists offer does very little to help us understand where we have been and where we might be headed next.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Title: Anti-Japan: The Politics of Sentiment in Postcolonial East Asia 

Author: Leo T.S. Ching

Publisher: Duke University Press (2019)

ISBN No. ISBN 9781478002895

Formats: Print

To learn more: Visit the publisher’s website at this link.

To purchase: Through the publisher, here, or through Amazon, here.

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Author: Jason Morgan