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  • In Transit: The Formation of the Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere by Faye Yuan Kleeman
  • John Whittier Treat
In Transit: The Formation of the Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere. By Faye Yuan Kleeman. University of Hawai’i Press, 2014. 320 pages. Hardcover $52.00.

Faye Kleeman, well known for her earlier publications on literature in the Japanese empire (most notably Under an Imperial Sun, University of Hawai’i Press, 2003), has now cast her attention to other cultural activities in the multiethnic, multinational realm of Northeast Asia (Korea, Taiwan, China, and Manchuria) under uneven Japanese hegemony during the first half of the twentieth century. In Transit: The Formation of the Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere returns to her previous work on such Japanese authors as Miyazaki Tōten, Sakaguchi Reiko, and Masugi Shizue, but much [End Page 341] of it is new and not limited to prose literature. Her ambition is large: “I intend to examine aspects of the intercultural flows between the metropole and the colonies of the Japanese empire, exploring the patterns and trajectories of knowledge flow and cultural exchanges. … I hope to unpack the abstract, totalizing concept of ‘colonial modernity’ disseminated by Japan to its neighbors in East Asia through the medium of cultural transactions.” But, unlike others who have attempted this, Kleeman means to do so on “the intimate, personal level” (p. 7). The result is that Kleeman presents us with a series of brief but thematically linked biographies of (mostly female) writers, activists, dancers, and marriage partners who scaled with varying success the high barriers between the ruling and ruled peoples in the empire. This serves her aim “to transcend previous studies of the Japanese empire as a hegemonic macrosystem with unifying governing principles” (p. 16). I would prefer to say Kleeman extends rather than transcends the “previous studies” she may have in mind, such as that by Leo Ching (Becoming “Japanese,” University of California Press, 2001) and Karen Thornber (Empire of Texts in Motion, Harvard University Asia Center, 2009). Kleeman’s emphasis on individuals, rather than on the larger assemblages of historical currents that molded them—such as the technological advances in media during their lifetimes—has both advantages and disadvantages. Celebrity lives (on account of either fame or notoriety) are exceptional as well as totemic, and thus risky if not finally intractable as historical evidence.

It makes sense for a scholar such as Kleeman, interested in “the complex relations of gender, class, and ethnicity,” to focus in her new book on the particular figures she has chosen to include (p. 13). Kleeman writes in her introduction that the chapters to follow comprise a multidisciplinary and multitextual history of the Japanese empire with an emphasis on women. Only the first chapter features a man. Miyazaki Tōten (1870–1922), who descended from the ranks of the samurai class to become a naniwabushi raconteur, was a proponent of a largely benign—for his time—“Pan-Asianism.” The author of the 1903 popular update of the Coxinga fable, Meiji Koxinga, Miyazaki is Kleeman’s chance to ferret out the somewhat romanticized cultural elements behind his day’s Pan-Asianism, which stands in contrast to the state’s later political ambitions. Kleeman mines Meiji Koxinga for “interesting elements that reveal contemporary attitudes towards East Asian cultures” and largely “contemporary geopolitical anxieties and aspirations” (p. 40). But in the end, a figure as marginal in history as Tōten has to be seen as the expression of those anxieties and aspirations, not their progenitor—a problem with any account that forsakes the usual cast of “great men” for actors (here, actresses) well outside the halls of power, but also a potential corrective to the presumption that only prime ministers and captains of industry make history.

By comparison to the first, Kleeman’s second chapter, on Japan’s “Mata Hari” Kawahara Misako (1875–1945), is somewhat long and tedious. (The detour into Japan Romanticist Yasuda Yojūrō might have been dropped.) But perhaps Kleeman needed a stretch to prove that Kawahara, far from being a stereotype of the “New Woman” [End Page 342] of her day, was instead a transitional figure who went from being an ambivalent...


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