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The Sino-Japanese War and the Birth of Japanese Nationalism (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 147-151 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0033

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Saya Makito has studied the adaptation of Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike) in different forms of popular entertainment, such as yōkyoku, sekkyō, and jōruri, from the Muromachi to the Tokugawa period.1 He analyzed the transformation of the classical story into different forms of popular culture and probed the social contexts behind them. In this book, titled Nisshinsensō “kokumin” no tanjo (The Russo-Japanese War: the birth of a “nation”)2 in the original Japanese edition, he has applied a similar method to the popular adaptation of not canons or classical tales, but the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), “one of the most important turning points in the modern history of East Asia” (p. xxi).

Saya writes in the preface that the media “reorganized the events of the Sino-Japanese War into a collective social experience” (p. xxiv). However, subsequent chapters demonstrate that it was the amorphous mind of ordinary people that pressured the media to make up heroic tales or the great cause of “modernizing” Asia. Not only journalism but cultural media such as theaters, social events, toys, and children’s play also responded to pressure from the public. Neither the government nor newspapers could control the fervor. Political leaders tried to take advantage of the passion behind this collective social experience but usually found great trouble in trying to cool it down.

Readers of the English edition of Saya’s book should note that the original Japanese edition was published in the so-called shinsho (a pocket-sized paperback) style. Expected readers were mainly general history lovers. Thus, there were no footnotes in the original. The reference list was also very basic and contained no specific citation information. This is partly why Saya rarely adds theoretical light or poses a challenging question concerning the wider implications of the formation of a national mindset in late nineteenth-century Japan. However, translator David Noble made a good effort to render the English edition more useful to professional researchers than the Japanese original was.

Having said that, it is undeniable that each chapter of this book certainly contains many intriguing topics. Chapter 1 starts with the analysis of “Kinkibushi,” a song popular across the country during the war. The lyrics of the song include grieving over the death of Saigō Takamori. Though his death had nothing to do with the Sino-Japanese War (Saigō died in 1877), the lyrics made Saigō’s death the reason for “punishing” China. Saya points out that Saigō was “summoned up” (p. 4) as a symbol of heroic resistance against the Meiji government’s weak-kneed diplomacy toward China and Korea.3 Saigō was a symbolic trigger of popular patriotic sentiment. Many mythical stories became associated with Saigō, and there was a rumor that Saigō had survived the Satsuma Rebellion (also known as the Seinan War) and escaped to Russia. Even members of the new generation of intellectuals who were trained in higher education based on Western models, such as Uchimura Kanzō, were among those who “summoned up” Saigō.

Chapter 2 analyzes war reports by journalists. Newspapers competed fiercely for breaking news which brought them a considerable increase in circulation. Not surprisingly, the content most eagerly awaited by readers were sensational stories rather than accurate reports. A total of 129 war correspondents were dispatched by 66 newspaper companies. People rushed to Ginza, where many newspaper companies were located, to buy the extra editions of the newest war reports. One of the most successful newspapers was Kokumin shinbun, of which Tokutomi Sohō was the manager and editor-in-chief. Matsubara Iwagorō’s Seijin yoroku and Kunikida Doppo’s Aitei tsūshin, both of which were originally serialized in Kokumin shinbun, gained great popularity. These works included not only reports on the war situation but also correspondents’ observations of Chinese and Korean culture and daily life, which were overwhelmingly “distorted by the worldview they embraced of a modern Japan vs. a backward China and Korea” (p. 38). Partly because of this biased view, war correspondents rarely reported the brutal acts committed by Japanese forces, such as the Port Arthur Massacre (the Lushun Massacre), and thus the incidents did not arouse public attention. Although some newspapers...



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