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Reviewed by:
  • Engaging the Other: "Japan" and Its Alter Egos, 1550–1850 by Ronald P. Toby
  • Adam Clulow (bio)
Engaging the Other: "Japan" and Its Alter Egos, 1550–1850. By Ronald P. Toby. Brill, Leiden, 2019. xl, 393 pages. €138.00, cloth; €138.00, E-book.

For the readers of this journal, Ronald P. Toby and his work require little introduction. In 1977, Toby provided a first preview of his groundbreaking reassessment of the closed country or sakoku in an article published in the Journal of Japanese Studies.1 In 1984, he followed this up with a monograph, State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu, which became an instant classic.2 Pushing back against Eurocentric frameworks that saw Japan as isolated because it was isolated from Europe, Toby showed how the Tokugawa bakufu deliberately constructed an international order that served to entrench its own legitimacy and power at home. Through a meticulous analysis of diplomatic correspondence and a series of carefully staged embassies designed to project a Japan-centered vision of the international environment, Toby showed how Japan remained closely engaged with states in East Asia, most notably Korea and the Ryukyu kingdom, long after the advent of Tokugawa maritime [End Page 197] restrictions. Toby was not alone in making a case for a reevaluation of sakoku and he joined a cohort of innovative scholars including Tashiro Kazui and Arano Yasunori who were making similar arguments in English and Japanese. Nonetheless, State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan stood out in 1984, and continues to impress today, for the clarity of its writing and the strength of its argument, which demolished decades of old assumptions, leaving little of the sakoku edifice still standing.

Toby's latest monograph, Engaging the Other: "Japan" and Its Alter Egos, 1550–1850, returns us to the same period but it is a very different kind of work. Fascinating and thought-provoking, this is a book that must be understood on the terms it lays out for itself. Engaging the Other is a collection of chapters, six extremely weighty, one very short, that were published by Toby between 1994 and 2002.3 Crucially, only two of these appeared in English, the rest in Japanese, and Toby, a scholar equally at home in English- and Japanese-language academic publishing, has provided his own translations and updates.

Together these chapters explore the period from what Toby calls the "Iberian irruption" when the familiar trinity of sangoku, that is Japan, China, and India, splintered forever into a world of "myriad countries" (bankoku) to the onset of the Meiji period. The focus is on the relationship between Japan's "imagined community" and the "proximate Others"—that is China but especially Korea (p. 4). The book is thus concerned with "representation of the excluded other, the not-Japan and not Japanese," across a globalized early modern period after Japan first came into contact with a range of new groups (p. 328).

One of the reasons State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan is such a pleasure not only to read but also to teach with in the classroom is its powerful and persuasive argument that courses through each page, challenging even the most skeptical of readers to resist or be swept along. Engaging the Other looks very different and Toby is clear that the book is not built around "a single line of narrative and argument" taking the reader inevitably "to a conclusion that resolves a single informing hypothesis" (p. 7). Instead, the chapters set out to make individual "soundings in the shifting shoals of identity and difference," providing an assessment that is often "preliminary, speculative, and suggestive" and which leaves much to the reader (p. 113). This is a book that gives much but which makes no attempt to dictate, offering instead multiple case studies "that may be steered in many different directions" (p. 7).

In this stated ambition, the book succeeds brilliantly, probing deeply and with often startling results in Japan's many engagements with the closer or proximate Other. At the same time, for others like me who have read and [End Page 198] reread State and Diplomacy in Early...