Faye Yuan Kleeman. In Transit: The Formation of the Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2014. 320 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3860-7.
Reviewed by Naoko Kato (Simon Fraser University)
Published on H-Diplo (October, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Life Stories and Intercultural Flows in the Japanese Colonial Empire
Faye Yuan Kleeman’s In Transit: The Formation of the Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere is a welcome addition to scholarship that focuses on personal lives of those who moved between the metropole and the colonies of Japan. Much of the scholarship on the Japanese Empire has focused on the question of how Japan was able to mobilize its population to support total war. Hence, the tendency has been to rely on institutional history, and the result has been a large number of top-down macro-histories (for example, Louise Young’s Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism ). In contrast, Kleeman brings to life the individual and the popular through a multidisciplinary and multi-textual approach.
Unlike macro-narratives that place individuals under themes or categories, the basic organization of the book is structured as a compilation of life histories. Kleeman painstakingly contextualizes her subjects’ stories and analyzes their lives, using movement of people, flow of cultural knowledge, and circulation and transmission of art and culture as her three aspects of cultural exchange. The book is divided into three parts, each with two chapters. The two chapters are paired up intentionally to represent two thematically connected characters who complement or juxtapose each other. For instance, part 1 discusses conflicts between traditionalism and modernity (Miyazaki Tōten and Kawahara Misako); part 2 is on the body (cross-cultural political marriages of Nashimoto Masako and Saga Hiroko) and female subjectivity (gender and ethnic cross-dressing of Kawashima Yoshiko and Ri Kōran); and part 3 is on boundary crossing through literature (Masugi Shizue and Sakaguchi Reiko) and body language (modern dance of Choi Seunghee and Tsai Juiyueh). Hence, Kleeman covers self-narratives and fiction as the object of her analysis, and includes body language, which is not mediated by verbal language. The human body, in particular the bodies of modern dancers, becomes the target of Kleeman’s analysis. She treats not only Japanese figures with ambiguous identities but also Koreans and Taiwanese who cross national boundaries as well as gender boundaries.
Kleeman’s initial question begins with, “how did ordinary people understand and react to the Japanese Empire?” (p. vii). She states that her main interest is in discovering how common people came to accept the ideology of Japanese imperialism. Kleeman’s conclusion is that it was not ideologies of the state that persuaded people to participate in the imperial enterprise. Rather, it was the desire to better one’s social standing, the pleasure of discovering the outside world, and romantic imaginations that led people into the narrative of empire. She comes to this conclusion only because she tackles this question through analyzing personal and human interactions. She achieves this through the use of autobiographies, biographies, newspaper and popular magazine articles, memoirs, and epistolary exchanges in reconstructing her life stories.
Kleeman’s choice of life stories is key. She has chosen individuals who intensely experienced the three cultural aspects of cultural exchange. Her protagonists were instrumental to the creation of an East Asian cultural sphere or a contact zone, created as a result of the circulation of knowledge, culture, and people between the metropole and the colonies. Kleeman asserts that their stories are of “common people” when set against the grand narratives of regional geopolitics. In some ways, Kleeman does not provide answers to her central question of how “ordinary” people understood and reacted to the Japanese Empire. Her chosen characters, as she admits, diverged from the norm in many respects. For instance, in part 1, she includes Pan-Asianist Tōten and educator Misako, who, she concludes, looked East rather than West in discerning an alternative modernity for Japan. This approach diverged from the standard narrative that emphasized Meiji intellectuals’ embracing of Western models for modern Japan. Moreover, many were remarkable and legendary individuals who were royalties or celebrities of their times.
Nevertheless, by focusing on individual lives, Kleeman’s narrative of their lives clearly provides a different view of the Japanese Empire than a macro-history approach. In analyzing each individual, Kleeman explores complex issues, such as identity, transculturation, gender, class, and ethnicity. In particular, her approach allows for an exploration of how individuals negotiated between the national agenda and personal interest, as well as how the public and private intersected. For instance, in chapter 5, Kleeman illustrates, through Sakaguchi Reiko’s narrative, the contradictions in the colonial assimilation policy, revolving around issues of miscegenation.
Kleeman has chosen numerous illustrious characters who deserve the attention that she provides and who have gone largely unnoticed in the historical record. Kleeman gives ample attention to women; one of her aims for this project is to explore modern female biographies and autobiographies and to contextualize women’s stories. Even if we were to simply read Kleeman’s book as a collection of biographies, the rich life stories she presents are valuable in and of themselves. Her narrative is personal, allowing readers to gain a deep understanding of the doubts and the dilemmas that her characters lived through. Readers of this book will come away with a more nuanced and complex understanding of the Japanese imperial project.
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Naoko Kato. Review of Kleeman, Faye Yuan, In Transit: The Formation of the Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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