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  • An Imperial Path to Modernity: Yoshino Sakuzō and a New Liberal Order in East Asia, 1905–1937 by Jung-Sun N. Han
  • Paul E. Dunscomb
An Imperial Path to Modernity: Yoshino Sakuzō and a New Liberal Order in East Asia, 1905–1937. By Jung-Sun N. Han. 244 pages. Hardcover $39.95/£29.95/€36.00. Harvard University Asia Center, 2012.

Some readers of Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s 1924–1925 novel Naomi may find themselves frustrated, as I am, that while the protagonist, Jōji, freely shares his most intimate feelings regarding the woman who is the object of his desire and, indeed, obsessive [End Page 336] fascination, he seems utterly unwilling to share one of the most important and telling details of his life: What did he read?

A Western-trained electrical engineer in his late twenties, Jōji epitomizes the success of bunmei kaika (Civilization and Enlightenment), a Meiji-period project of modernization that sought to earn a place for Japan and the Japanese among the leading nations of the day by bringing their state, society, and themselves up to suitable levels of “civilization” as defined by Western standards. These standards were, on the whole, liberal, focusing on rationalism, progress, and the critical role of the educated individual in actualizing modern values domestically and envisioning a nation-state that, properly constituted, performed this role internationally, with the combined result of bringing the benefits of modern civilization to all.

In the domestic sphere, modern statehood appeared to require the establishment of constitutional government, which delineated the roles of citizens and of the state in pursuing its objectives. There was wide variation among these emerging modern states in terms of the accepted locus of sovereignty, the extent of rights to be granted to the people, and the curbs on state power that would be tolerated by the authorities, but the notion that some sort of representative, broadly democratic institutions were necessary in order for a state to claim a place among the civilized, advanced, and great nations of the day was not subject to serious challenge. This proposition was readily embraced in Japan.

Internationally, this Western-defined modernity resulted in imperialism, a project that was also pursued by modern states worldwide, and in many different forms. For some nations, often latecomers to the process, imperialism was portrayed as the privilege of advanced nation-states. For the more successful imperial powers, however, it was more often described as the burden that such states must bear in responsibly discharging their duty to spread civilization globally. The level of control to be exercised over subject peoples also varied, from the more informal commercial imperialism favored by Great Britain to the more muscular pursuit of formal colonies as practiced by imperial Germany. According to Jung-Sun Han, author of An Imperial Path to Modernity: Yoshino Sakuzō and a New Liberal Order in East Asia, 1905–1937, “at the ideational level, imperialism was rationalized, facilitated, and legitimized in terms of ‘international laws’ designed to diffuse the Western social norms of ‘civilization,’ while continuously reproducing differentiation and inequalities among the peoples it incorporated” (p. 7).

While Han does not make reference to Tanizaki’s Naomi, while reading the book under review it occurred to me that the novel’s character Jōji seems to serve as a representative end product of Japan’s project of modernity, and, moreover, to perform double duty as an avatar for the new middle class that arose out of Japan’s pursuit of the domestic portion of its modernization agenda. Han describes this middle class as “one of the most conspicuous yet least examined social formations in modern Japan,” noting it was “the civil servants, the salaried employees, and the intellectual elite and experts in government agencies, private corporations, and other specialized and [End Page 337] professional institutions” who served as “the active creators and aggressive consumers of the newly formulated Taishō democracy” (p. 6). I imagine, therefore, that Jōji would have been a regular reader of the journal Chūō kōron and would most likely have sympathized with the writings of one of its most distinctive voices—and the central figure in the book under review—Yoshino...


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pp. 336-341
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