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  • Postwar American Studies in Asia and Its Prehistory:George Kerr and Taiwan as an American Frontier
  • Yukari Yoshihara (bio)

The military-intellectual complex made Taiwan a "frontier" of the Cold War and of American studies.1 As Chih-ming Wang points out, the American Studies Association of the Republic of Taiwan was established at the same time as the US's severing of diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1978.2 I place American studies in Taiwan in a longer historical perspective since the 1930s, by looking at the career of George H. Kerr. For him, Taiwan had been "a frontier area" of the Empire of Japan;3 during the Cold War, it was "a maritime frontier" and "the westernmost point on the Western Pacific rim" where two frontiers [American and Chinese] meet."

Now remembered as the author of Formosa Betrayed (1965), Kerr (1911–1992) was an American scholar of Asian culture and diplomat, who taught in Taipei (1937–39) during the Japanese occupation and witnessed the February 28 Incident (1947), Taiwanese people's uprising against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), which claimed, by a conservative estimate, twenty thousand Taiwanese lives. Kerr's Formosa Betrayed is regarded as the most authoritative book written in English on the incident. He is also known for his book on Taiwan's struggle for home rule under Japanese colonization.4

It is less known, however, that it was Kerr who initiated the Stanford–Tokyo University American Studies Seminars (1950–56; ST seminars hereafter), the first of the institutionalized American studies in East Asia: he drew the first proposal for it in May 1947, just a few months after the February 28 Incident in Taiwan. Institutionalizing American studies in East Asia had a clear political agenda to prevent the anticipated surge in anti-American sentiments in Japan after the end of occupation in 1952. ST seminars relayed American studies programs to other parts of Asia, including Taiwan. Kerr's imperialistic view of postwar East Asia, in which Taiwan was regarded as a part of the American "frontier," was the basis of the American studies project in East Asia. The promotion of American studies in East Asia was, to borrow Takeshi Matsuda's phrase, "a weapon in the cultural Cold War."5 [End Page 349]

Kerr repeatedly compares Taiwan to the American frontier as in his talk "Formosa—an American Frontier Today," in which he declares that "Formosa is on our frontiers so long as we have serious interest in the Western Pacific." His very much America-centered view of geopolitics and history, though benevolent, is as evident as his views on aboriginal people of Taiwan are paternalistically orientalist when he writes that his support for the Taiyal tribesmen strengthened "belief in the godlike benevolence and authority of the American military organization."6 His concept of American studies in East Asia was, to borrow Christina Klein's phrase, a part of Cold War orientalism.7 The expansion of US power and American studies's ties to Cold War "frontiers" in East Asia are deep and troubling.

Kerr's early academic career since the 1930s was deeply involved in cultural diplomacy between the US and the Empire of Japan, of which Taiwan was a "frontier." In 1935, while still an MA student of oriental history at the University of Hawai'i, he encountered Masamichi Rōyama (1895–1980), professor of Tokyo Imperial University, later to be an influential politician. The encounter was a few years after the Manchurian Incident (1931) and Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations (1933), when Japan had become politically isolated. Government-funded cultural diplomacy was a part of Japanese propaganda at the time of Japan's political isolation and military aggression. Rōyama was on his governmental mission trip to the US as a cultural ambassador to explain Japan's position in international affairs. On Rōyama's advice and encouragement, Kerr decided to study in Japan.

Kerr spent five years in the Empire of Japan when liberalism was dying away under totalitarian militarism. He studied Japanese cultural history in Tokyo (1935–37), at the time of the February 26 Incident in 1936 (an attempted military coup d'état, which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 349-354
Launched on MUSE
2021-06-28
Open Access
No
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