Japanese Imperialism, Eurocentrism, and the Academy

(26 May 2013)

An acquaintance recently asked if I had heard of anti-Japan protests in China.

I responded with this: “Japanese Imperialism.”

I didn’t know anything about this particular page. I just typed “Japanese imperialism” in Google, because anti-Japan sentiment in China (and other parts of East Asia) stem from a bloody history of imperialism. This was one of the results on the first page. It’s from a university, so I presumed it would be a good resource. It turns out out to be an outline of Japanese imperialism, provided by the professor, Dr. Xiaoqing (Diana) Chen-Lin, for her Fall 2012 HIST-G369 Modern Japan history course.

For the most part, it is a good resource. There are some nice tidbits here. I’m not contesting that.
What got my attention, however, is, quite ironically, how loaded it is with imperialist language (and ergo imperialist thought).

We have talked about the varied changes in Japanese society, economy, and politics, including the introduction of Western values of civilization and enlightenment, industrialization, abolition of feudalism and establishment of a centralized, constitutional government. On the other hand, we have also mentioned the conservative backlashes at the introduction of liberal values regarding political participation, women’s status, individualism and other Western liberal values.

UGH *shudders* excuse me for a second… *vomits*

The West brought “enlightenment” and “civilization” to Asia? Are you kidding? Are you kidding me right now?

It gets worse. Toward the end:

Imperial expansion the last chance to win Western respect and ensure security and survival as a nation, and even bring civilization to other countries in Asia.

WUUUUUT?!?!?! “BRING CIVILIZATION”?!?!?!

Enola Gay really must’ve BROUGHT CIVILIZATION to Japan.

What are real “Western values”? Dropping “civilization and enlightenment” on countries in the form of BOMBS. Those are Western values.

Ridiculous passage. Sounds like an apology for imperialism, if you ask me.
This is the kind of thing that Western universities teach in their Japanese history classes. smh smh smh smh smh…

I’m merely posting this as a reminder that, even in (especially in) the study of non-European cultures in the Academy, we should be careful of imperialist, colonialist, and capitalist propaganda. Eurocentrism is easy to spot. But imperialist thought goes very, very deep in the Academy (as in everything (EVERYTHING) in Western culture).

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing good about these notes (a metonymy for the course, which is in turn a metonymy for the university program, which is in turn a metonymy for the Academy).
In the latter quote above, it is probably true that “imperial expansion” was a way (I’m not sure about the “last chance,” but, given the barbarism of the Euro-American empires, I’ll certainly concede it as a possibility) of “ensur[ing] security and survival as a nation.”
Moreover, Dr. Chen-Lin notes

Japan’s expansion was, similar to other changes taking place, the result of emulation of and conflict with the Western countries.

That is to say, Japan was adopting Western imperialism. Japan was “emulating” Western countries, learning imperialist conquest from them, and practicing it (perhaps for its survival, as implied in the just-mentioned quote).
And, the best of all

it [Japan] rose to imperial status after facing colonization by the West.

i.e., again, Japan learned its imperialism from the West.

So, yes, we certainly shouldn’t (and can’t) write off everything in this kind of Eurocentric scholarship. Just be skeptical.