- Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame
In the last 15 years the literature of the Japanese empire has become a thriving and vexing field. Propelled by the path-breaking work of Kawamura Minato, literary historians have recovered fiction and poetry made to disappear after 1945 and shown the empire’s impact on the literary field as [End Page 158] a whole after the 1890s.1 More recently scholars have remapped East Asian literary relations to account for imperial circuits of exchange and examined the Japanese-language literature (Nihongo bungaku) of writers in Taiwan and Korea. Paradoxically, many studies of the culture of Japanese imperialism tend to reproduce categories such as national culture and national identity that the topic itself offers the chance to dismantle. Tropics of Savagery makes important contributions to the field and also displays several of its problems.
This is a history of the trope of the savage—the “tropics” of savagery—in writing about the southern colonies of Taiwan and Micronesia. Through careful research, Robert Tierney shows that the culture of empire infused the work of canonized writers such as Satō Haruo and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, and reintroduces writers such as Ōshika Taku whose fiction confronted the realities of colonial governance and its ideological contradictions. The book also traces ways that literature engaged representations of the savage in the colonial sciences of anthropology and ethnography. The wide-ranging analysis of colonial discourse that results is based on the view that Japanese imperial culture had a triangular structure: politicians, colonial administrators, and social scientists appropriated colonial discourse from Europe and the United States to legitimate the empire, but the subordination of Japan in interimperial relations prompted an imaginary identification with Japan’s own colonial subjects. Tierney characterizes this phenomenon as “imperial mimicry,” a term he derives from Homi Bhabha’s arguments on colonial mimicry.2 Modern Japanese literature, which “as a whole is mimetic with respect to the West,” necessarily reproduced the mimetic orientation of the imperial state in representations of the colonies and colonial subjects (p. 17). This analytical foundation of Tropics of Savagery raises conceptual and methodological questions that will have to be solved by future scholars.
Tropics of Empire offers two sets of chapters, on representations of the savage in Taiwan and Nan’yō (the islands of Micronesia). Representations of savagery are not realistic descriptions but “polyvalent tropes” shaped by “discourses on civilization, race, ideology, and literature” (pp. 2, 7). Japanese colonial discourse produced a diptych of contrasting images. In the literary imagination, the violent savage (often a headhunter) coexisted with the simple and noble savage; the one resisted the benefits of colonial civilization while the other was its victim. Although the number of people in Taiwan and Micronesia that could be construed in such terms was tiny, [End Page 159] the savage “loomed surprisingly large” in the literature of empire (p. 11). The chapters on Taiwan show the development of these images through the appropriation of theories of social evolution and biological determinism coming from Europe and North America and the categories of international law. Colonial anthropology and ethnography, following European models, made the aborigines of Taiwan “Japan’s very own ‘savages’” (p. 82). Several writers of fiction questioned dominant images of the violent savage. Ōshika Taku’s story “Yabanjin” (The savage, 1935), sometimes described as the Japanese Heart of Darkness, features a narrator who goes native out of disillusionment with capitalist modernity. Satō Haruo’s “Machō” (The demon bird, 1923) is made of a pastiche of ethnographic discourse, which it deconstructs while simultaneously creating an allegory of the massacre of resident Koreans following the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Tierney similarly argues that writers of fiction, within self-imposed limits, questioned the ideologies that supported expansion into Micronesia. Beginning in the 1890s the tale of Momotarō, the boy found in a peach who grew up to conquer an island of ogres, was repurposed to encourage colonial heroism. In a flood of new versions, including...