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  • Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame
  • Emma J. Teng
Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame BY Robert Thomas Tierney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 307. $49.95.

In 1984 Marius Jansen lamented that there were no "Japanese Kiplings."1 Now, a new book by Robert Thomas Tierney aims to persuade us to take a fresh look at Japanese colonial literature. In writing Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame, Tierney sets out to rescue the forgotten works of the Japanese colonial literary archive from the dustbin of history, to which earlier scholars had consigned them. His primary objective is not so much to uncover the Japanese equivalent of The Jungle Book, but rather to examine the culture of imperial Japan, which the author calls "the most important non-Western colonizer of modern times" (p. 1) in its own right. The title of the book is borrowed from Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse,2 playing on the dual meaning of the word "tropics," which refers both to the geographic location of many of Japan's colonies and to "tropes"—figures of speech. The particular tropes Tierney examines are the figures of savagery and representations of the tropics in Japanese writings of the colonial period (1895-1945), which he demonstrates are key to understanding the nature of Japanese imperialism.

As in all colonial situations, Japanese writers of this era traveled to the colonies and produced a variety of literary works based on their experiences and their imaginations of the colonial Other: travelogues, essays, fictional stories, and a wide array of other texts. The study of [End Page 186] such colonial literature is already well established among Europeanists and postcolonial scholars, and has begun to take root among Asianists as well. Joining Leo Ching's Becoming Japanese: Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation, Faye Yuan Kleeman's Under an Imperial Sun: Japanese Colonial Literature of Taiwan and the South, Karen Thornber's Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature, and Matthew Fraleigh's newer work on Japanese colonial reportage,3 Tropics of Savagery will be a welcome addition to the new crop of scholarship on Japanese colonial discourse and imperial literature. It also makes a great contribution to the broader literature on Oriental Orientalism. Tierney approaches his subject from a comparative angle, relating it to Western colonial discourses. His book will thus be of general interest to scholars of colonialism beyond the field of Asian studies.

Given that Japanese colonizers, like their European counterparts, produced a colonial literature, why is it that we have yet to hear of a Japanese Kipling? Tierney convincingly argues that the blame lies not with the writers themselves, but rather with literary scholars. He points out that almost all the celebrated authors of modern Japanese literature traveled to or lived in the colonies at one point or other, and wrote about their experiences in a variety of genres. In the 1930s and 1940s, many of Japan's most prestigious literary awards went to works set in the overseas colonies. Yet, this body of literature was virtually ignored by post-World War II literary scholars in both Japan and the West. Asking why this rich vein of literary production was never tapped, Tierney calls for a reassessment of its worth and significance. In doing so, he follows a resurgence of interest in the colonial literary archive among Japanese scholars—a movement that has produced a wealth of multivolume reprints and colonial literary anthologies over the past two decades. As Tierney notes, his work would not have been possible without the pioneering efforts of Japanese scholars and publishers "to preserve this vanished past" (p. 185). [End Page 187]

Tierney identifies two reasons for the long-standing neglect of these works: first, Japan was overall reluctant and slow to come to terms with its colonial past in the immediate post-World War II era; second, the implicit Eurocentrism of Anglo-American postcolonial studies has led the field to focus on Western imperialism (especially British) at the expense of non-Western colonial experiences. In...


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