History in the remaking

The Manchurian Myth - Japanese Political History since the Meiji Renovation 1868-2000
January 31, 2003

Disentangling politics and history has become an ambivalent exercise. It used to be a matter of methodology, jargon and academic convention. But revisionism has complicated things, opening up a range of possibilities that blurs any neat categorisation of these disciplines.

History as an ordered, rational collection of facts has acquired a Whiggish whiff, and postmodernism has made a mockery of the idea of objective fact. The post-postwar generations trample over the moral certainties of the second world war, collaborators parade alongside resistance fighters in the pantheon of national memory, and post-colonial guilt haunts the present of the once-triumphant victors.

The political utility of history in the present is now a given, and both history and politics have taken on new, merged dynamics. Whether one writes of political history (as with Richard Sims) or politicised history (as with Rana Mitter), the revisionist challenge to the discipline is one that cannot be ignored. In the works under review, we see two different ways in which this uncomfortable yet unavoidable exercise is being conducted in academe.

Sims' book is a complex combination of approaches to history. It delivers a chronological, yet narrowly focused perspective on Japanese politics from 1868 to 2000. Yet Sims also implies a questioning of standard versions of history. For example, his insistence on the use of "renovation" instead of "restoration" to describe the advent of the imperial Japanese state in the modern era points to a rethinking of reproduced history. Likewise, his periodisation is not standard issue: Taisho democracy is bracketed between 1918 and 1932 instead of the dates of the emperor's rule (1912-26), and the postwar era is determined by the dominance of the conservatives between 1952 and 1993.

However, Sims ultimately appears to be trying to contain his subject matter rather than release it from conventional constraints. His detail of the intricate political manoeuvrings in Japan is impressive - if Ito Hirobumi had been suffering from a carbuncle on his big toe while pondering the clauses of the 1889 constitution, Sims would have known about it.

Yet this attention to detail is quarantined from a wider socio-political and foreign context. The chapters are event-based while important observations and the narrative tend to be buried in the chronological flow of dense material. Moreover, the material is not informed by any overarching thesis. The primary concern, that of political stability, is taken over by Sims as the gauge of political success in modern Japan in much the same way that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party would want it.

We are told that several events are "a matter of debate among historians", but we are not enlightened about the historians or their disagreements. We are alerted to the occupation administration's ambivalence towards Japan's democratic potential after the second world war - the war was "a militaristic aberration in modern Japanese history" and yet "there was something fundamentally unhealthy about Japan's whole process of modernisation since 1868" - but key terms such as "modernity", "fascism" and "nationalism" are not defined.

By constraining his narrative, Sims avoids dealing with moving targets in modern history. While a textbook should not aspire to the same standard as an academic monograph, Sims would have been well served by achieving a better balance between narrative, context and analysis. Other details, such as the birth dates of major figures or including macrons in the text for Japanese terms as well as in the index, do belong in a textbook. This book would nonetheless be invaluable to undergraduate politics and history students, especially if read alongside broader thematic texts such as those by Ann Waswo or Janet Hunter.

In Mitter's The Manchurian Myth , we see in a scholarly monograph a full-frontal assault on the shifting uncertainties of modern historiography. Indeed, Mitter's subject matter exposes a question of intense historical sensitivity, as he unravels the imperatives and mechanisms behind the creation of a heroic myth on which to construct a nationalist narrative for modern China. His seminal treatment of narrative, perspective, political opportunism and ideological consequence represents a wake-up call for historians, particularly those who are inspired to revisit interpretations of the second world war.

Mitter sets out to examine what he identifies as the myth of Chinese resistance to Japanese imperialists in Manchuria in 1931-33, and then articulates how this contributed to the shape of Chinese nationalism. By identifying the nature of local collaboration and resistance, and differentiating the versions presented to outsiders from the self-image of resisters, Mitter provides an empirical foundation to his finely honed delineation of these usually invisible, yet decisive, forces of history.

Mitter's methodology points to an embrace of revisionist history, in the sense of challenging set-piece, received versions of events and their significance. Through archival exploration and discourse analysis he remains acutely aware of the political imperatives that attach themselves to charged historical episodes. Identities are "constructed", the concept of nationalism is "self-presented", and both intended and unintended political outcomes are simmering beneath the surface. Mitter states plainly that his objective is to show how "national identity is used for very practical and tangible political purposes". His book is a resounding testimony to the achievement of that goal.

Mitter's treatment of sensitive and perplexing issues is also inspiring. In alluding to the translation culture that influenced the language of resistance as well as nationalism, Mitter sheds light on the Manchurian experience as a sensitive issue for China and Japan. The respect-contempt pendulum that marks the bilateral history of China and Japan is underscored by the fact that the Chinese had to employ imported Japanese concepts to give voice to their own nationalism, while achieving conceptual clarity through the presence of Japan as a specific, identifiable and present enemy in the 1930s. In this way, Mitter's volume is an ideal counterpart to Louise Young's equally impressive book Japan's Total Empire (1998). It is essential reading for historians of China and Japan. In sharing a dedication to elaborating the role of the imagination in shaping versions of the past, Mitter and Young represent cutting-edge revisionism at its most productive and illuminating.

Rikki Kersten is professor of modern Japan studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands.

The Manchurian Myth: Nationalism, Resistance, and Collaboration in Modern China

Author - Rana Mitter
ISBN - 0 520 22111 7
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 295

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