- That Distant Country Next Door: Popular Japanese Perceptions of Mao's China by Erik Esselstrom
In a compact, four-chapter narrative, Erik Esselstrom's new book brings to life the vibrant cultural currents and sub-currents circulating between China and Japan during the three decades since the end of WWII. Major events in "that distant country next door" often stimulated "everyday Japanese" to review their recent past of war on the continent and reassess the meaning of their own progress. Repeatedly, popular discourse on relations with China found its hinge on the highly contentious domestic debate about the U.S.-Japan relations, especially the Mutual Security Treaty, which had moved millions to the streets in protest. This study of Japanese perceptions of China, therefore, becomes also a study of Japanese reflections on their own society and its relations with the rest of the world.
Stepping away from the beaten track of political narrative of relations between China and Japan, That Distant Country Next Door captures a large section in history by way of delineating the Japanese images of China under the Communist leadership. Historian Erik Esselstrom makes a strategic choice of selecting five moments to structure the otherwise nebulous subject of "perceptions" and anchors them firmly in history past and present. Following the "Prologue" that highlights his large argument about the importance of history in contemporary popular perceptions, Chapter 1, "Welcome Comrade Li," discusses the sharply polarized responses to the first semi-official visit to Japan since 1949 by China's Minister of Health Li Dequan in 1954. Chapter 2, "Mao's Mushroom Clouds," turns to Japanese reactions to China's detonation of atomic bombs in 1964, 1965, and 1966. Chapter 3, "Red Guards Whirlwind," depicts the repercussions among ordinary Japanese of China's radical movement by the Red Guards. Chapter 4, "Rediscovering the Continent," captures the excitement, expectations, and dismay in Japanese observations when they could again visit or reside in China after the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in the 1970s. The book's "Epilogue" ends with the unusual outpouring of commentary in Japan upon Chinese leader Mao Zedong's death in 1976 and wraps up with recapitulation on some of the outstanding themes.
Deploying a wide range of source materials outside the official archives, That Distant Country Next Door opens a large window on the Sino-Japanese relations that otherwise remains shut in the standard treatment of state-to-state relations. Attentive to the immediate context of popular expressions, Esselstrom uses more than a dozen public opinion polls to establish a general reference point for the different opinions made through news commentaries, opinion [End Page 35] pages in newspapers and magazines, essays by leading sinologists and professionals, as well as cartoons and comic books. He aims to be inclusive of divergent political dispositions generating the positive and negative views, as well as the ambivalent. By emphasizing what "everyday Japanese" thought, he pays particular attention to comic books and editorial cartoons in newspapers or manga magazines. His pleasure in deciphering the meanings of these widely popular readings among the salarymen, read during their long hours in riding the commuter trains, was contagious. Not all cartoons discussed are reproduced in the book. But the subtle, sometimes pungent, messages circulating between the artists and their readers leap off the pages through Esselstrom's narration. The Chinese Red Guard phase of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1968), for example, had triggered criticism and ridicules among writers and comical artists for its excessive violence. The Red Guards' rebellion against Chinese leadership, nonetheless, inspired speculations on the possibility of salarymen rebellion against the inequality in Japan's corporate world. In one comical story, "Salaryman Red Guards" revolted against their company president by replacing his office telephone with a carrier pigeon, his cushy desk chair with a pickle barrel, his Rolls Royce with bamboo stilts, his lovely young secretary with a seventy-year-old hag, all in an attempt to eliminate his extravagance (p. 112). Of course...