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  • Reading Colonial Japan: Text, Context, and Critique ed. by Michele M. Mason and Helen J. S. Lee
  • Elise Foxworth
Reading Colonial Japan: Text, Context, and Critique. Edited by Michele M. Mason and Helen J. S. Lee. Stanford University Press, 2012. 320pages. Hard-cover $80.00; softcover $24.95.

Reading Colonial Japan illuminates Japan’s seven decades of colonial rule (1869–1945) through well-written translations of Japanese primary sources from the colonial era and related analytical essays. The book’s nine contributing scholars underscore the connection between colonial discourse and colonial subjugation and impart that Japan did not exert its authority through a single or consistent ideology. Rather, several rhetorical mechanisms were used—intentionally or otherwise—to convert “the violent facts of colonialism” into a “noble cause” (p. 4). Each of the book’s eight chapters includes an introduction to a Japanese text, a translation of the text, and an analysis. Given the paucity of scholarship on Japanese colonialism, this volume is a welcome addition to the field and should prove useful for courses in Asian studies and post-colonial studies.

The editors, Michele Mason and Helen Lee, place particular emphasis on the colonization of Hokkaido and the role this played in constructing the modern Japanese nation. They emphasize that both Hokkaido and Okinawa have commonly been dismissed as internal colonies, and that this has concealed both the violence that ensued when these territories were appropriated and the massive economic, social, and cultural ramifications, including the “Japanization” of other peoples (p. 5). Related chapters explicitly associate these early colonial forays with modernization in the Meiji era and colonial expansion in the Taishō era.

The book begins with Michele Mason’s translation, The Shores of the Sorachi River, of a short story by Kunikida Doppo (1871–1908), which concerns a prospective Japanese settler in Ainu Moshir (Hokkaido). Doppo’s work shows the degree to which Hokkaido was conveniently conceived of as an empty, unclaimed space that could become a utopia in the hands of the Japanese and their civilizing assistance. The story brings the awe-inspiring and impenetrable forests to life, all the while making the Ainu null and void. Mason expertly illustrates how the story disregards the subjugation of the Ainu, and she interrogates the stance of victimhood taken by the settler-colonizers, whose hardship in taming the land is given the limelight by Doppo, further hiding the Ainu from view. Her critique successfully undermines the work’s dominant narrative, in which Hokkaido’s integration into Japan was a natural process rather than a colonial one. [End Page 313]

Following this is Richard Siddle’s translation of the Hokkaido Former Natives Protection Law, with a critique provided by Komori Yōichi. Enacted in 1899, the law was, in Komori’s words, “a program of forced assimilation” (p. 55). He questions the word “protection” (hōgo) in the title of the law, as it blatantly conceals the realities of the Japanese invasion. The fine translation, although naturally less interesting than the literary texts, is an important inclusion. Komori’s critique, however, is somewhat disorganized in places. Nevertheless, the points he makes about the pretexts of emigrant protection and debilitating assimilation policies are relevant, and they shed light on Japanese colonial immigration policies and how they destroyed much of indigenous culture and society.

I particularly enjoyed Davinder Bhowmik’s translation, Officer Ukuma, of a prizewinning 1922 story by Ikemiyagi Sekiho, and the critique that follows. Both the story and the critique (also written by Bhowmik) offer insights into the colonization of Okinawa and the perverse responses of the protagonist, an islander turned police officer. The irony for Officer Ukuma is that, in Bhowmik’s words, his “career success and ‘impure’ heritage result in his exclusion from both his workplace and community” (p. 97). This leaves him to contend with an uncomfortable identity vis-à-vis both Okinawa and the mainland, an identity that is both hybrid and ambivalent. I found Bhowmik’s turn, in her critique, to Gayatri Spivak’s work on subaltern identity to be ill fitting: in my view, the unequal power dynamics between the protagonist and his lover render him with more agency than Bhowmik admits. A more...


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pp. 313-316
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