- Like No Other: Exceptionalism and Nativism in Early Modern Japan by Mark Thomas McNally
Mark McNally’s Like No Other is an exceptionally thoughtful analysis of kokugaku in late early modern Japan. The book makes a groundbreaking contribution to the field in multiple ways, but most of all through its main argument: that kokugaku should primarily be understood as a form of exceptionalism, comparable to the US exceptionalism of the modern (and contemporary) era. McNally argues this point convincingly and takes the time to intelligently explain to us why this argument is important.
McNally demonstrates the significance of his argument mainly by contextualizing kokugaku among other, both earlier and contemporaneous, discourses of exceptionalism in early modern Japan. This contextualization is in and of itself another major contribution of the book. The second half of the book in large part analyzes kokugaku exceptionalism and links it with previously established discourses; chapter 4 focuses on early Tokugawa Confucianism and chapter 5 on late Tokugawa Confucianism (Mitogaku). These two chapters combined form a very solid and readable contextualization of the position of kokugaku in relation to the broader (majoritarian Confucian) intellectual milieu of early modern Japan. The last half of Like No Other, made up of these two chapters plus a tour de force conclusion, would have made a fine, concise monograph in its own right. It is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in issues of nativism, exceptionalism, or simply nationalism in East Asia.
The first three chapters, which follow an introduction that is highly readable and comprehensively comparative (in the good sense), consider kokugaku and some of its modern historiography in relation to the developed academic analysis of American nativism and exceptionalism (meaning the nineteenth- and twentieth-century traditions of nativism and exceptionalism in the United States of America). With chapter subheadings like “Billington and Anti-Catholicism” and “Higham and ‘Racism,’” these early chapters treat us to a true comparative contextualization of Japanese kokugaku in relation to contemporaneous movements in a completely different society: the United States. McNally is masterful in seamlessly integrating this material into the book. His use of the US comparative lens seeks to demonstrate the limitations of the term “nativism” for describing the high period of the kokugaku movement—which is so often linked in textbook-level writing to sonnō jōi ideology—while also demonstrating the more useful aspects of the idea of “exceptionalism” both as political theory and in history. McNally’s argument that kokugaku was in many ways not nativist seems to rely on a reading of kokugaku that is at times too sympathetic. For instance, in table 1 on page 62 McNally claims that colonialism, immigration, and face-to-face contact were not part of kokugaku ideology. The deep-seated presence of anti-Korean and anti-burakumin [End Page 114] sentiment in the writing of figures like Hirata Atsutane, however, not to mention anti-Chinese sentiment more broadly, seems to me to make this claim highly questionable—especially if we assess it in terms of later history. But McNally’s linking of kokugaku to exceptionalism seems much more solid. This linkage then sets up a firm basis upon which to contextualize kokugaku within the earlier Japanese intellectual history of “exceptionalism”—a history that the second half of McNally’s book smoothly traces back to the seventeenth century and correctly ties to the global historical context of the fall of the Ming dynasty and its regional consequences.
Combined, these two halves of Like No Other serve to fruitfully reposition the study of kokugaku, both integrating it more fully into the wider political and intellectual history of its own place and time and opening it out to wider comparative analyses involving other places during the long nineteenth century—and thereby issues of nativism and exceptionalism in early modernity and modernity globally. For this reason, Like No Other is an important book that could serve to reopen the international study of Japanese nativism and exceptionalism to serious cross-cultural and historical analysis.