Episode 44 – Dr. Takashi Fujitani (Toronto)

Originally published on July 20, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Takashi Fujitani, Dr. David Chu Chair in Asia-Pacific Studies and Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Dr. Fujitani is the author, most recently, of Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Koreans During World War II, published by the University of California Press in 2011. Dr. Fujitani, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Takashi Fujitani: Well thank you very much for inviting me.

TG: You’ve published on issues ranging from imperial pageantry, of course in Splendid Monarchy to legacies of the Asia-Pacific War in Perilous Memories, and also issues of identity and race in your more recent book Race for Empire. So, I was wondering if you could describe, broadly, how the Meiji period has intersected with your research over your career?

TF: Right. Well, as you know, my first book and in fact my dissertation as well, really focused on the Meiji period, and though I haven’t been working on that period for a very long time, it’s constantly on my mind. I suppose you could say that that research had a real formative impact on the way that I think about history in general and Japanese history in particular and modernity and a lot of other things.

The way that it intersects with my research today is manifold, but two I think that I would start with are issues of nationalism and imperialism. These are two issues that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time, and they intersect with almost everything that I do. As you mentioned, there are a lot of other topics that I’ve been engaged in as well, but you could say that these were starting points in what I’ve been doing ever since.

So I’m working on two different books (well, actually probably three different books), and with one, we could maybe think of it as an addition to my 2011 book Race for Empire. It’s a revisionist history of the Second World War, what I’d like to think of as a post-nationalist history of the Second World War. It has a tentative title now: Whose Good War?, and the idea being, rhetorically speaking but also in terms of its assumptions, that it really wasn’t a very good war for almost anyone. The basis of my being able to think through the war in this way, I think, stems in some way from the earlier work on nationalism and my critique of nationalism because a feeling that I’ve had over the long period of time is that nationalism is one of those phenomena that has a very limiting and, in fact deadly impact on the world in which we live. It’s not only a limitation of national borders (as we’re seeing in the news constantly), but it’s a limitation of an imagination of how we can live and understand human difference. So, nationalism is something that I’ve been critiquing throughout the beginning of my work on Meiji continuing into the Second World War period. And nationalism, in terms of this book that I’m talking about now, has had a very debilitating impact on how we remember the war in my view.

We remember the war, generally in the United States at any rate, and to some extent in other places, through national memory in which we tend to think that the Allies were the good guys and then the Axis powers were the bad guys. I don’t mean to substitute this Japanese right-wing interpretation of the Second World War in which I would be saying that the Japanese and Americans were basically the same and good. But rather to say that this was a war of empires in which each of those empires, including the Japanese Empire and the American Empire, were striving to overcome between crises of capitalism and of imperialism. So, they went to war with each other more because they were so alike rather than because they were so different. This had great costs to the colonized world, which paid a huge price for their inclusion in the war itself, including the colonial soldiers who fought for all the empires basically, including the Japanese Empire, where you have huge sacrifices made by Koreans, Taiwanese and others for the Japanese war effort.

But nationalism itself prevents us from understanding these kinds of similarities in the empires, and it also has this inherent problem that I mentioned at the beginning. So, that’s one book that I’m working on. That is going to be a long-ish book, and I could take much more than the time we have talking about it. But let me say something else about a book that I’m working on right now, the one that’s immediately in front of me, which will probably strike you and any other listeners who know anything about my past work. I’m writing this short book on Clint Eastwood, and when I tell people: “Yes, I’m writing this book on Clint Eastwood,” they usually snicker (laughter), as I think I heard you in the back when doing that. (Laughter) Then I begin to talk about it and then I talk about it a bit more and then usually, they will, in the end, say something like: “Well, maybe this will be one of your books that finally sells.” So, I’m hoping that’s the case.

TG: (Laughter)

TF: But it is a serious book, and as it has many different aspects to it, I can’t talk about the whole thing.

TG: Does it rotate around The Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima being the other one?

TF: Part of it is about Flags of Our Fathers, and the two films that meant to be paired. And then I go onto some of the ones about the Southeast Asia, and the Korean War. The one which may be surprising, which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Asia is the Western classic Unforgiven. In fact, I’m thinking a lot about the Westerns these days, and thinking about the ways in which the Westerns have never been only a product of America. Japan, in particular, is very much a formative influence on the Westerns as we know them.

The one Western that made Clint Eastwood famous as a star, an actor was that Spaghetti Western Fistful of Dollars, which you may know, was modelled on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Questions of Asia have been very much part of Clint Eastwood’s life, and to a great extent, much of what he’s doing is trying to take account of American entanglement with Asia. But anyway, the one that I’m working on is Unforgiven, and I’m reading it against the Japanese-Korean director Lee Sang-il’s remake of Unforgiven.

The difference is that the original takes place in the American West, and Lee Sang-il’s remake takes place in Hokkaidō. Again, there’s much that I’m doing in this piece that I can’t talk about for now. But just getting back to your original question (a long way around getting back to it actually) of how this work ties into the Meiji period, which it would not seem to in any way but it does, for Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which takes place in the American West, there’s no engagement with the question of settler colonialism and the Indigenous peoples in the region. However, one of the strongest threads of Lee Sang-il’s film is settler colonialism in Hokkaidō and the situation with the Ainu.

What I’m trying to posit there is that the question of settler colonialism and indigeneity is such an important part of the United States in the 19th century and Japan in the 19th century, but Lee Sang-il is the one who really takes it up and has prompted me to think in different ways, also, about the relationship between Meiji Japan and the American West. Part of what I’m doing in this strange land of film criticism and history is to try to talk about history at the same time that I’m talking about the film and the critique of it. It’s not to say that we historians know the facts (or better, that we know the history) but in fact, what I’m trying to do is to use Lee Sang-il’s remake of the film to tell us something about history and, actually, the simultaneity of history as it unfolded in the 19th century in Japan and the American West.

So I’m pushing against the idea of Japan in the 19th century as a “latecomer,” a “late developer” to modernity, but really trying to think about the ways in which territorialization in particular was happening at the same time and on a much grander scale in the United States (and in Canada for that matter) than what was happening in Japan. Nevertheless, the stakes were very similar and the impact on Indigenous peoples was very similar. For this book, I say it’s on Clint Eastwood, but it’s not really about Clint Eastwood himself, but it’s more about the cultural production of Clint Eastwood, and how it reflects much about the American imagination of the nation, of race, indigeneity and empire.

What I take away from this is that really, the simultaneity of the 19th century, and Japan and the United States, is that this moment makes me go back to the Meiji period and think about it in a somewhat different kind of way. So, if you think about the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota (the great massacre of the Lakota people), that takes place in 1890, which is the same year as that the Meiji Constitution goes into effect. I’m really trying to bring together these two histories by thinking not only through what we call primary materials or materials from that period, but also through a kind of rethinking through film and other kinds of voices.

TG: I’m curious. There’s certainly a lot of parallels in the fact that young American advisors were brought to Hokkaidō to lead the settler colonialism of that area with agriculture. But then also, the emphasis on development or Kaitaku in Hokkaidō; the constructing of railways and public works as a way to claim territory seems very similar to what happened in the American West.

TF: Yes, that’s part of the story as well and as you mentioned, I think people these days have been working on that connection between American and Canadian thinkers and advisors in Hokkaidō, which is work that should be done. Clearly, there is a way in which the management of indigeneity was taking place globally at exactly the same time that you have the formation of a world system made up of nation-states and colonies. But we too often forget that it’s not nation-states or colonies alone, but also the treatment of Indigenous peoples and in fact, the invention of that very category of understanding that is taking place in that period. So, I do see a strong connection between the U.S and Japan up to now.

TG: And that’s a timely moment to remember that too with the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of Hokkaidō coming up next year.

TF: Right. Yes, so this is one of the interesting things since we are both located in Canada – [inaudible]. You know, the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation and 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration are coming in exactly the same academic year. I think it’s a kind of puncture to the ways in which the histories of North America, Japan and Asia and other places in the world have been so closely tied together, and it also points to the fact that we too often don’t recognize those kinds of connections.

TG: I want to go back to this question about nationalism and imperialism. You were talking about how two of these strands were coming together, and I was thinking as you’re talking, maybe because of nationalism and certainly because of hindsight of World War II, whenever we talk about nationalism in the case of Japan, thinking ahead into maybe the 1930s, we talk about nationalism as something that’s dangerous. But then, maybe during the Meiji period, there’s this talk of nationalism and imperialism that is maybe seen in a more positive light? Are they different? What happens in between that causes such a different reaction?

TF: Right. The assessment of nationalism, I think, needs to operate in different registers, and just like history, I think, needs to be thought of in different registers. Nationalism for some, may appear to be a good thing. Nationalism for others at exactly the same moment would not seem to be a good thing and then similarly, from period to period, it would seem to be a negative thing or a positive thing depending upon the time and the position of the person speaking. So, it’s often the case that people will talk about nationalism as a “good nationalism” and often call it “patriotism,” and then sort of an “ultra-nationalism” or “nationalism gone berserk.”

But to me, there’s a kind of berserk-ness to nationalism from the onset. So, I understand the issue when a people are threatened by imperialism as Japan was in the 19th century. One response to that could be nationalism, and nationalism could be anti-colonial, but I think what we’re finding increasingly is that now, we need to come to grips with the price of nationalism, and that even in those moments where nationalism seems to be a healthy response, it carries with it certain kinds of logics that have a lot of very negative repercussions. Some of those I spoke of at the very beginning, but the limits of our imagination, the limits of the ways in which we can think beyond national borders, the ties of nationalism to racism, the present moment of “America first,” it could be “Japan first,” it could be “Canada first,” “France first,” whatever it might be. But these are all parts of nationalism whether one would regard it as healthy or not.

The other thing that I’ve sometimes been asked is: “Okay, so if you’re a critic of nationalism, what would you have done in ‘68?” And I said: “Well, in a way, it’s an obscene question, but it’s a ridiculous question as well because I’m not there in 1868. I’m here now.” What I think is most important is how we understand the history of nationalism now because that’s what we should be doing as historians, understanding history as a history of the present: What is history going to tell us for how we live now? Obviously, it’s going to tell us something about how people have lived in the past, but once, for example, Japan has avoided becoming colonized by Western powers, then it’s that same nationalism that lives on today, so even at that moment when it seems like a good idea, we need to think about: What are some of the problems that grew out of it?

TG: And then you see in the Hibiya Riots of 1905 or maybe popular celebrations at the end of the Russo-Japanese War or ten years earlier, the Sino-Japanese War, some people would say that there is a straight line between those nationalistic expressions and fascism in the 1930s. But that doesn’t seem like the same kind of nationalism or is it?

TF: Well, I think some people are trying to make a strong case for the singularity of this phenomenon that we call fascism, but I think that the elements of fascism are already there in nationalism in a lot of ways. Fascism grows out in the contradictions of capitalism and the inability to deal with social and economic contradictions, and then those worst elements of nationalism come to provide a core to how to overcome those contradictions.

When we talk about the crisis of representations, it could be about how the nation becomes the centre of fascist imagination in most places that we know, including in Japan. Fascism also tends to be associated with tight control over the ways that people live, the kind of freedoms that they have, but I think that’s very much tied up with nationalism itself. There are certain ways in which, despite the rhetoric of freedom, limitations are imposed upon free subjects even in a liberal nation-state, and that continues into the period of fascism. So, I don’t see fascism so much as a completely distinct phenomenon, but an extreme version of what goes wrong with nationalism during a crisis of the economy.

TG: I’m wondering if World War I maybe de-legitimized nationalism. Before that, imperialism and war in general seemed like this gentlemanly sport, but then World War I comes along. And it seems like any sort of nationalistic expression afterwards is seen as something suspicious or perhaps nefarious?

TF: Throughout the world or do you mean in Japan?

TG: I’d say around the world, but particularly from we as contemporary historians when we talk about expressions of nationalism in Japan post-1914 or post-1919 in particular. Then it slides into this narrative of Japanese fascists, and so then, people would say: “Well, as early as 1880s, 1890s, you can find these antecedents for fascism.

TF: Well again, I think it depends on the way you’re positioned, where one was positioned within the social, political formation at the time. In the colonies, as we know, the World War I period was precisely the moment for the valorization of anti-colonial nationalism, so I think that’s one issue.

In Europe, there is this problem of nationalism, and the way that it was seen as being largely responsible for these nations going to war with each other. There’s a spurt of scholarship on nationalism as a religion and the problems with it, and so forth. I think globally, there is something like that. I don’t know if we see the same thing in Japan partly because although it’s involved in the First World War, it doesn’t see the full effects of it domestically in the same way that European countries saw it in Europe and its dominions.  

TG: I have two questions in mind about nationalism, and of course one that comes to mind is this accusation that Japan is currently seeing a rise of neo-nationalism.

TF: Right. What we could also talk about is neo-racism. There’s no doubt that ever since at least the 1990s, there’s been a strong element of people on the right in Japan who had been dissatisfied with the same sorts of things that people in the United States on the right were dissatisfied about. A more critical treatment of Japan’s history with what Japanese neo-nationalists call “the masochistic view of history” has been going on for some time now, and I think it has something to do with globalization and the response to it on the part of the right wing. It has something to do with the economic downturn and the way that nationalism is so often invoked to compensate for economic problems that people, often in very disprivileged positions economically, resort to nationalism and racism in order to find some kind of solace or compensation in recognition of their own economic situation.

So, I’m not sure how much contemporary criticism we’re supposed to go into or not go into, but there’s a pairing of Drumpf and Abe, right? A kind of representation of a nationalistic imagination at this moment in history. Why was it that Abe was the first one to go to see Drumpf after the inauguration? Why was it that Abe was invited to make a speech to a joint session of Congress a couple of years ago? And these are all ways in which they’re reaffirming their vision of “America first” and “Japan first,” but with recognition of subordination to the United States.

If I can be completely blunt, I think the real right wingers in Japan (who I don’t mean to praise) would be critical of Abe for kowtowing too much to the United States, but he’s doing it through a certain type of right-wing nationalism in my view. It’s an interesting thing, and just to go back briefly to the Clint Eastwood book and the Letters from Iwo Jima by Clint Eastwood, that again is part of a strategy of reinforcing the relationship between Japan and the United States in the Asia-Pacific, with a recognition that somehow, in the war we fought with each other, America never wants to say that it was in the wrong in any way in that war.

On the Japanese side, they’re trying to say in that film and elsewhere in right-wing discourse that despite any problems you might think about with that war, the Japanese people did what they thought was in the best interest of the war, and this is where nationalism, again, kicks in, where they say: “We were just trying to do what was the best for our country. The United States were doing the best for what they could with their country, and so we were equal.”

They were what Carl Schmitt would call “just enemies.” They fight each other in the war, and then when it’s all over, they’re supposed to get along with each other again, and that’s the kind of performance that Abe has been trying to sustain during his period in office. It doesn’t seem like he has any other solution outside of that, although politicians outside of Japan are trying to really re-think what their relationships with the United States should be. So here again, I think that neo-nationalism in Japan and particularly Abe’s relationship to it is a huge cost to the people of Japan even though they may be thinking that he’s looking out for their interests. In a way, he’s looking out for their short-term interests, but not in terms of long-term policy in which they finally become an independent sovereign state, which I don’t think Japan is at this point.

TG: When we put the Meiji Restoration into the international perspective, and maybe look at the Restoration from the region as a whole, what is the impact of the Restoration on the rest of East Asia?

TF: Well, again, this is a huge topic. One can say many things about the Meiji Restoration and its impact upon the rest of East Asia and the rest of the world for that matter. So, how do we think about the past in a complicated way in which we can point out to certain things that might be useful for thinking without necessarily completely regarding them as “good” or “bad,” “negative” or “positive.” But how could we think through the Meiji Restoration or the Meiji period to arrive at ways of thinking about issues today?

So, one of the big issues that comes out of the Meiji Restoration and the decision that is made at that point is how the Japanese leaders and intellectuals are going to position themselves vis-à-vis the rest of Asia, right? For somebody like Fukuzawa Yukichi who writes about “Datsu-A-Ron” (“Getting out of Asia”), he makes a decision to model what Japan should become more on the European/American model of the capitalist nation-state. That includes his advocacy of the Japanese monarchy, the reform of the Japanese monarchy, making it the symbol of the Japanese nation. So he’s a strong liberal advocate of the tennōsei, the emperor system, which causes quite a few things: one is the limitations of liberalism.

The problems of liberalism in the 19th century includes both internal to Japan and as part of the formation of Japanese colonialism and colonialism around the world. It used to be a time, I think, when liberalism was seen as being antithetical to imperialism, but we can now see clearly both from work done on European liberalism and British liberalism, especially (but other liberalisms as well), and liberalism in Japan that it was not at all antithetical to colonialism. It served as a springboard for colonialism.

When we go back to your original question about the Meiji Restoration and its impact upon the rest of Asia, one thing that could be said for certain is that with the Meiji Restoration and the Meiji period, the Meiji formation that came out of that was a formation modelled largely on Europe. It is a formation that allowed for the development of Japan as an imperial power with colonies, and that’s not to say that it was just mimicry because I do think this lets the Japanese off the hook in terms of what they did to the other countries. But it is to say that a decision made in the interests of Japan at that time was understood by these leaders to go the way of liberal empires. And so, that’s one way that I would think about it.

Of course, we could think of so many other ways that are somewhat different, and one of the ways in which we could think of it as somewhat different is more global than East Asia regional. So we know that in the late 19th century into the 20th century, and especially with Japan’s victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, that Japan began to serve in some unexpected and I think misunderstood ways as the leader of the non-white racist of the world. This was something that people like Du Bois took up in his writings. And so, Japan served as an inspiration for how other peoples who were colonized or were under threat of being colonized could liberate themselves from Western imperialism. So that’s a discourse that goes throughout the world to Africa and other places under European domination.

The problem of course is that Japan, as I’d been saying, was really no different from the other empires, so that model of Japan was a dead end model. But some things can come out of that. I was just at a workshop in UC Irvine organized by a new consortium in Black Studies in the University of California, and one of the engagements there by Nahum Chandler is about Blackness in the Asian century. To some extent, going back to the Meiji period and later, thinking about what Du Bois called the “colour line in the modern world,” we could go back to Asia more largely but Japan in particular to rethink how people understood that, and recuperate what we think might be useful now, and then to criticize what we think went wrong in that period.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode: 

Takashi Fujitani, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, July 20, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-44-dr-takashi-fujitani-toronto/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.