- Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame by Robert Thomas Tierney, and: Nanyo-Orientalism: Japanese Representations of the Pacific by Naoto Sudo
For many years, disciplinary boundaries have hindered the production of major analytic works on Japan’s Pacific empire, particularly in Micronesia. As Robert Tierney notes in the introduction to Tropics of Savagery, postcolonial theory tends to be relentlessly focused on Europe and its colonies, and the tendency of many universities to relegate scholars of Japan to area studies programs only exacerbates the problem. Even within Japanese Empire studies, the politically anomalous position of Micronesia within a League of Nations Mandate and its relatively smaller population have caused it to be neglected in favor of other, more visible colonies. Micronesia scholars like Wakako Higuchi, Keith Camacho, and Greg Dvorak have made important contributions to the growing body of scholarship on the region’s Japanese occupation, but sustained engagement between Pacific studies and East Asian studies remains rare.
Tropics of Savagery and Nanyo-Orientalism are ambitious, theoretically [End Page 579] rich studies of the culture of Japan’s Pacific empire and welcome contributions to the field. Tierney, a scholar of Japanese literature, focuses primarily on the figure of the “savage” in colonial discourse during Japan’s occupations of Taiwan (1895–1945) and Micronesia (1914–1945). This trope of savagery, Tierney argues, is central to understanding the imagination of Japanese colonial writers and the imperial culture they helped to produce. Tierney is careful to note that the savage was “without a referent or indeed without any basis in reality” but that it nevertheless operated as a “polyvalent signifier” for a conflicted and evolving imperial culture (7). Imperial culture, both different from and mimetic of Western imperialism, embraced the image of the savage as a foil against which Japan could be made over into a modern, civilized nation. At the same time, the savage functioned within a “rhetoric of sameness” (21) through which Japanese authors claimed a closer kinship to the people they colonized than Western imperial rulers could.
While Tropics of Savagery mainly seeks to intervene in Japan studies and empire studies, Naoto Sudo’s Nanyo-Orientalism aims more directly at a Pacific studies audience. Sudo is primarily a scholar of postcolonial literature. Like Tierney, he is concerned with making sense of the triangular relationship among Japan, the Pacific, and the West that proved so powerful in defining Japan’s imperial culture. But Nanyo-Orientalism reaches farther in its temporal and geographic scope, engaging colonial and postcolonial Japanese discourses and English-language Pacific Islander responses in Hawai’i and Guam. If there is a “polyvalent signifier” in Sudo’s work, it is the South Seas (Nanyo) itself. Sudo organizes his readings of the Nanyo as trope into two broad categories. On the one hand, what he calls “Nanyo-Orientalism” frames the Nanyo as a “primordial chaos to be reclaimed or liberated from Western rule by the Japanese” (5). This discourse originates in the prewar period but continues in modified form within contemporary Japanese culture. On the other hand, Sudo understands the Pacific as a “locale of diverse subjects striving together under imperialist regimes” and a site for the production of postcolonial and decolonizing literary work (19). Thus Sudo offers readings of Japanese and Islander-produced texts as “incomplete, unstable, and fluid—‘oceanic’—decolonizations produced from vantage points of the colonizer, colonized, diasporic returnees, emigrants, and hybrids” (20).
There is significant overlap in terms of theoretical grounding, methodology, and source base between these two works. Postcolonial theory is a touchstone for both authors. Tierney uses Homi Bhabha’s notion of “colonial mimicry” as a jumping-off point for his analysis, adapting Bhabha’s work to account for the implicit presence of Western colonial...