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  • Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo by Annika A. Culver
  • Joshua A. Fogel (bio)
Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo. By Annika A. Culver. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2013. xii, 268 pages. $90.00, cloth; $32.95, paper.

Recent years have witnessed the growth of Anglophone research on the years of the Japanese empire in Asia: some from military historians (such as a number of works by or edited by Mark Peattie), some by primarily China historians branching out (such as works by Parks Coble, Prasenjit Duara, and Timothy Brook), and some by Japan historians (such as Louise Young). A subsection of this last group has even learned some Chinese and can thus access something of the wealth of materials in that language. Studies of the Manchukuo (Manzhouguo) state sponsored by the Japanese military have also—slowly—begun to emerge, usually following the lead of Japanese scholars, such as Yamamuro Shin’ichi and Yamamoto Yūzō, in content and theme. One element we have lacked until now in English is an examination of Japanese art and culture in the Manchukuo period, and this volume begins the process of filling this gap with a look at avant-garde culture (principally painting and photography but some literature as well). Kudos to the author.

Culver has many aims, some of them pulled off better than others, in this work. The most interesting one for me was an analysis and description of how Japanese cultural figures of a self-consciously leftist avant-garde predilection got swept up in the state’s rightist direction of politics and culture in Manchuria. Some of this can be explained through the odious phenomenon of tenkō, and Culver shows us figures who clearly moved from left to right as they embraced the autocratic, Japan-dominated nature of Manchukuo. This would have been an excellent opportunity to demonstrate just how close utopian pipe dreams for Manchukuo were to Soviet pipe dreams at the same time, and she does nod in that direction but never takes it on fully. In one instance, she discusses the glorification of labor by Japanese photographers, and this would have been a perfect chance to offer a comparison with the same phenomenon in the Soviet Union of the 1930s (as in “boy meets tractor”).

Culver goes to lengths to identify the form of politics and culture in Manchukuo and back on the home islands as well with fascism. She would have made her case considerably stronger had she ever defined what she means by the term. As such, it remains little more than an epithet, especially in its adjectival form. On at least four separate occasions (pp. 46, 106, 119, 146), she cites Alan Tansman’s idea of a “fascist moment,” when in a sudden artsy epiphany one switched from left to right. I may be caricaturing the idea somewhat, but this does little more than beg the question of tenkō [End Page 411] and as such is frankly fairly silly. I suspect far more base motives on the part of artists and writers and far greater pressure (physical and psychological) from the state compelled such cultural figures to embrace the Japanese kokutai. Think of what brings Winston Smith to the point at the end of 1984 at which “He loved Big Brother.” The 1930s was still a time when “fascism” was positively invoked by many (including, as Lloyd Eastman demonstrated several decades ago, Chiang Kai-shek) as a means of bringing the economic and political chaos of the Depression under control and organizing a powerful state to do it. A clear definition of what Culver meant by the term would have gone a long way toward clarifying her own position.

As someone not trained in art history but with an interest nonetheless, I was somewhat at a loss as to how to deal with Culver’s analyses in her chapters on art and photography. I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes the analyst was finding what she wanted in the art—whether it was clearly there or not—and wondered if another equally well-trained critic might have a thoroughly different reading of the same...


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