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HISTORY TEXTBOOKS AND THE WARS IN ASIA: Divided Memories. Routledge Contemporary Asia Series, 31. Edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Daniel C. Sneider. London; New York: Routledge, 2011. xv, 294 pp. (Illus.) US$148.00, cloth. ISBN 978-0-415-60303-4.
Ever since the first controversy over Japanese history textbooks in 1982, national education has been a thorny issue in East Asia. Countless conferences, papers and books have addressed this topic. The edited volume by Gi-Wook Shin and Daniel Schneider is yet another addition to this expanding literature. What are its contributions?
In the first section, the reader is presented with 70 pages of translated excerpts from fourteen major history textbooks currently used in the high school curriculum in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. The excerpts are organized around eight themes that are particularly controversial: 1. the Nanjing Massacre; 2. atomic bombing; 3. origins of the Korean War; 4. Pearl Harbor; 5. forced labour; 6. the Manchurian Incident; 7. economic development under Japanese rule; and 8. the Tokyo war crimes tribunal. Thus, for the first time in English, one can sample how high school students are being educated on these issues in the five countries. The direct juxtaposition of the content immediately reveals major differences both in style and in the national narratives that each state tries to promote. This is not surprising to those who study the region, but the comparison offers a good first-hand account of the lingering problems in interpreting World War Two events in East Asia. As such it could be a useful springboard for classroom discussion for courses on this area. It would have helped, however, if a more detailed introduction to the textbooks had been included (24). Knowing what market shares they occupy, at what stage in the high school curriculum are they employed, and what topics they cover (including the total page count) would provide for a better understanding of their role in national education. It would also make it easier to follow the subsequent essays, of which six directly analyze and compare their content.
The volume’s main thesis is based on the notion that every nation-state subscribes to its own master narrative and that efforts to produce a joint transnational history in East Asia are not politically feasible and have not been very successful. In this regard this volume differs from the previous literature, which dedicated much time to pondering how to harmonize the contentious memories in the region and what lessons could be drawn from the European experience for this purpose. The editors of this book, by contrast, argue that to bridge the divides among various national narratives, one has to acknowledge their parallel existence and try to understand how and why they were formed. This is expected to lead to greater self-awareness and an increase in mutual understanding. Some of the essays in the volume attempt to do exactly this. For example, Michael Hsiao’s examination of Taiwanese and South Korean textbooks convincingly shows that the more positive portrayals of Japanese colonial legacies in Taiwan stems from objectively different experiences during the colonial as well as pre-colonial period (the latter is not commonly stressed in the literature). Furthermore, to explain the more palatable nationalist bias in the Korean coverage, Hsiao points out the institutional constraints in South Korea’s textbook production, which is subject to much greater official scrutiny.
Several authors in this volume describe the content of Japanese history textbooks as a bland assortment of facts and charts that avoids moral judgments and lacks a strong overarching narrative. Hiroshi Mitani also attributes this outcome to the institutional environment of textbook production. In order to succeed, textbook writers need to follow the conservative guidelines set by the Ministry of Education. Additionally, they must meet the needs of school teachers who demand books that will prepare their students for university entrance examinations based on dry fact testing. Other authors, such as Peter Duus and Haruo Tohmatsu, situate this issue in a broader historical context. They suggest that the content of Japanese schoolbooks reflects Japan’s position as an aggressor and loser in the war, as well as the continuing divisions among the Japanese public over how to interpret the past. Moreover, both authors point out that history education in East Asia continues to be used for building and enhancing of nation-state identities. This is particularly evident in present-day China, Korea and Taiwan, where the content of national education is found to be more politicized and patriotic.
Of the remaining essays in the volume, the most interesting is Daniel Chirot’s concluding chapter, which brings the whole debate into a direct comparison with Europe. Chirot shows that sincere reflection on the Holocaust has not been a smooth process and that denials of complicity on the part of European countries other than Germany endured long after the war. The implication for East Asia is that there is nothing exceptional about Japan’s difficulties to fully face up to its past, nor should Chinese or Korean reluctance to investigate their own collaboration be surprising.
The above-mentioned essays do a fine job of comparing and analyzing the current predicaments in history education in East Asia. Unfortunately, the authors rarely engage each other’s arguments. This is a common problem in edited volumes. But in this case, where the authors reach varying conclusions despite often using the same source material, greater dialogue among the contributors would have significantly improved the analytical power and overall consistency of the book. Moreover, a greater exchange with the existing research would have sharpened the theses as some of the topics are discussed at length in the literature. Despite these criticisms, the volume has considerable merits. It is rare to find a book that tackles the problems of history education in East Asia in such a comprehensive manner. Moreover, the editors manage to assemble a team of pundits who represent each of the discussed nations, and several of them play a critical role in textbook production there. As such, the volume is important for scholars who are interested in this field. It should be received as a welcome addition to the existing scholarship.
Ivo Plsek, University of California, Berkeley, USA
As a topic of critical inquiry, race remains an enigma despite the existence of a substantial and constantly growing literature on the topic. The problem, as scholars have repeatedly noted, is that while ideologies of race frequently posit their categories as timeless and unchanging, the actual contents of those categories vary greatly across different times and places. Race, in other words, is highly context-dependent, yet its logic also possesses a degree of continuity. The contributors to this volume grapple with this predicament by showing how the ever-shifting meanings of race are implicated in other axes of social formation including class, gender, nationality, sexuality, religion, caste, ethnicity, and language. Together, they demonstrate why critical race studies must constantly attend to multiple intersections while tracking the role of the body and its related discourses. The essays in the volume take up these questions by examining literary and cinematic texts from the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and various diasporic Asian sites.
In his introduction, Robbie B.H. Goh sketches out this complex theoretical and political terrain. He begins by noting that racial thinking permeates modern societies even though overt racism has been declining worldwide during the postwar period (although not without significant exceptions). In East, Southeast and South Asia, race is inextricably connected with colonialism and its postcolonial nation-state inheritors: “in the poly-ethnic make-up of Asia, continually stirred by colonial policy, nationalist agendas and the movements of people, race in many cases persists as a primal basis of a difference that is of sufficient force to lead to discrimination, factionalism, violence and even separatist struggles” (10-11). At the same time, race in Asia has become intertwined with other forms of social difference including class, gender, religion, language and ethnicity. Goh suggests that like global capital, contemporary manifestations of race are marked by “flexibility” (a term he borrows from the ground-breaking work of Aihwa Ong). He goes further by arguing that shifts in racial meaning take place through the ongoing discarding of certain characteristics, a fraught process he terms (after Kristeva) abjection. In the process, “a racial essence is retained and insisted upon, even as transnational capital and the movement of peoples necessitate creative re-constructions of that racial identity” (17). By rendering these processes immediate and apprehensible, literary and cultural production offer invaluable insights into the ongoing (re)formations of race.
While the range of locations, genres, and languages covered by Narrating Race give it a richly comparative dimension, it needs to be said that the individual chapters are somewhat uneven in addressing the issues laid out in Goh’s introduction. Some of the essays focus almost singularly on their texts of interest without drawing out the theoretical implications of their analyses in a sustained manner, resulting in a somewhat cursory engagement with larger questions of race and modernity. Such unevenness is perhaps unavoidable in this kind of collection, but at their best, the critical interventions collected here track the flexibility of racialization with remarkable erudition, nuance and insight.
To take just one example, Caroline S. Hau offers a fascinating discussion of recent mainstream Filipino films that feature ethnic Chinese characters. Rooted in the specific history of race relations in the Philippines, these films endeavour to make sense of the rise of China as a regional power as well as the global success of Asian popular culture industries. Hau notes that during the Marcos era, the government sought to integrate the Chinese population into Filipino society as part of an overall strategy of expanding trade relations with other Asian countries including China. These impulses have continued into the present and prompt the resignification of racial codes stemming from the Philippines’ long colonial history. In Mano Po (dir. Joel Lamangan, 2002), for instance, Chinese Filipinos are integrated into the category of the mestizo, a move that marks a departure from the conventional association of the term with whiteness. By doing so, the film offers “a Chineseness that … enables the Chinese Filipino to be safely Filipinized without curtailing its ability to mediate the external sources of social power created by the expanding Chinese regional and global economy” (136). Mano Po reflects the relatively peripheral position of the Philippines within the global capitalist order. Within this context, its portrayal of mestizo hybridity effectively reinforces ethnic categories such as Chinese even while reconfiguring the racial matrixes in which Chineseness becomes legible in Filipino culture.
Analyses such as this indicate the tremendous potential of the critical approach taken by Narrating Race. Read together, the essays make a convincing case for critical race studies as a powerful lens through which to comprehend postcolonial legacies in contemporary Asian cultural production while demonstrating how culture in turn reconfigures the very grounds in which race is rendered meaningful.
Christopher Lee, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
China and Inner Asia
CHINA’S EMERGING MIDDLE CLASS: Beyond Economic Transformation. Cheng Li, editor. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2010. xviii, 396 pp. (Tables, graphs.) US$34.95, paper. ISBN: 978-0-8157-0405-8.
While rising disposable incomes in China may be confined to a relatively small proportion of the population, they generate excitement in scholarly circles and in the business press. Speculation on the economic and political impact of this growing force of consumers is central to the “China rising” story. This book provides a comprehensive overview of recent research on the emerging “middle class” in China, bringing together work by scholars inside and outside China on the subject. The volume is based on a program of research by the Brookings Institution that culminated in a conference in 2009.
As the book’s editor Cheng Li points out in two chapters surveying the field in general and the work of Chinese scholars in particular, sociologists in China have been at the forefront of identifying and studying class groupings they identify as “middle class.” The level of interest can be gauged by the fact that over 100 scholarly books had been published on the subject in Chinese by 2010. By contrast, many academics outside the PRC are still cautious about using the term “middle class” in reference to mainland China, not least because of its association with the class structure of liberal capitalist economies. In contrast to assumptions that the middle class would spearhead demands for democratization and liberalization, some Chinese scholars have argued that it could be a stabilizing force for society and economy. Their normative claims have been incorporated in different ways into official policy, as building a middle class has become an explicit aim of the Communist Party, evident in former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” doctrine, for example.
The level of scholarly interest in the middle class in China has not resulted in consensus on definitions. Studies based on large-scale census and survey research come up with different conceptions of what constitutes “the middle class,” its size and varying predictions about its potential for developing the sense of historical mission seen as crucial to its political role elsewhere. Definitions based on income and consumption, favoured by government and policy makers, point to a much smaller proportion of the population than those based on occupation, generally adopted by sociologists. Li Chunling, one of the scholars who has spearheaded this latter approach and presents her findings in this volume, cautions that aggregate figures conceal a great deal of variation, and qualitative research is needed to contextualize the numbers. Furthermore, Chinese scholars have also pointed out that “middle class” remains an aspirational category as much as a reality. For example, Lu Hanlong’s chapter explores the particular dynamics of the middle class as an ideological project in the China context. He shows how the state’s objective of achieving “xiaokang” (moderate prosperity) involves encouraging competitive materialism, while the continued existence of a state distribution system that limits equal access to political and economic resources perpetuates inequalities in various dimensions. In a chapter that situates China’s reform process in the context of globalization, Zhou Xiaohong and Qin Chen argue that the role of the state in facilitating the rise of a consumerist middle class is central to understanding its character as a “vanguard” in consumption and a “rearguard” in politics (85).
Parts 2 and 3 of the book focus on Chinese debates and definitional issues, while part 4 contains chapters on housing and education, both key components in the formation of a middle class. Part 6 looks at particular occupational groups and their political attitudes, including lawyers and entrepreneurs. Chapters in part 1 and part 2 situate these developments in comparative perspective, setting the research on the middle class in the context of global and regional trends. A chapter by Homi Kharas and Geoffrey Gertz argues that the rise of income and consumption levels in China is part of a global expansion that is bringing a sizable proportion of the world’s population into the middle class. Increasing consumption among this group is, they assert, key to prosperity both in China and elsewhere, optimistically asserting that middle-class demands for a cleaner environment will mitigate the potential damage of such trends.
Two chapters that provide regional comparative perspective, Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao’s on the Asia-Pacific and Han Sang-Jin’s comparing activism in South Korea and China, show that homogeneity in middle-income groups should not be assumed. Fractions of the middle classes in Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines formed alliances with other class forces to push for democratization. Hsiao points out that claims about the political conservatism of the middle class in mainland China may be as much a political project as based on a realistic assessment of opinions and potential for action, highlighting the situational and contingent character of the emergence of radical segments among middle-income groups. Han’s analysis is similar, emphasizing that “there seems no compelling reason to believe that the sociopolitical attitudes and practical capacities for action are divided by such objective variables as occupation or income” (265).
The situational character of attitudes is demonstrated in Luigi Tomba’s fascinating chapter comparing the “housing effect” in three different parts of China, Beijing, Shenyang and Guangdong. His research shows the varying outcomes of local housing policies on the relationship of middle-income groups to the local state and to local elites. He concludes, “The social distinctions that characterize the emergence of China’s middle class are … a complex construction involving the agency of governments, private actors, and economic communities” in which housing has been a central factor (212). While such a complex view militates against overall (and overly neat) judgments about the state of “the middle class,” accounts that bring in both the local and the transnational are needed if analysis of the impact of the changes occurring in China are to avoid falling back into implicit modernization theory. The emergence of a “middle class” is simultaneously a story about local political economies, local and national political projects, and local, national and global imaginaries. Some parts of this book take on these elements, but overall it tends toward a “methodological nationalism” that is not always the most effective approach to illuminating its subject matter, in the view of this reader.
Sophia Woodman, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
Anita Chan assembles a diverse and uniquely qualified contingent of China hands to produce an edited volume that takes a 360-degree look at Walmart’s impact on Chinese society. This is no trivial issue. One of the world’s largest companies, Walmart sources 70 percent of its products from China, and became in 2004 China’s sixth-largest export market (4). Given that Walmart’s influence rivals that of even large nations, this account is timely and even overdue. By examining a range of Walmart business practices—production, retail and unionization each command several chapters—the authors compile a detailed and persuasive account of Walmart’s mainly negative effects on China.
Four chapters depict and compare conditions in factories in southeast China that supply Walmart. In his incisive overview of the dramatic shift of Walmart’s manufacturing to China, Nelson Lichtenstein argues convincingly that Walmart’s manufacturing system has harmed workers and others in both China and the US, as well as jeopardized the economic futures of both countries. Xue Hong leverages impressive access to Chinese factories to document how Walmart’s pressure to slash prices gets passed on to Chinese manufacturers and ultimately to ordinary workers. The network of formal and informal subcontractors engaged in the production process creates a system that is difficult to penetrate and monitor. Yu Xiaomin and Pun Ngai compare two toy factories that manufacture for Walmart, concluding that the self-policing and punishment-based monitoring systems established in the first factory proved ineffective. Ironically, the second factory, smaller and unmonitored, offered better conditions in order to attract workers. Anita Chan and Kaxton Siu themselves endure grueling conditions to interview factory workers in garment and toy factories. They document unexpected and even irrational outcomes that emerge in part from differing compensation systems, such as the fact that higher-skilled garment workers experience worse conditions and receive lower pay than their lower-skill counterparts in toy factories, and that overtime hours are generally compensated with lower hourly wages.
Four chapters focus on Walmart retail stores. David J. Davies provides an overview, concluding that the centralized procedures within the company create structures that restrict local managers’ discretion and overall role, creating relationships between store managers and workers that are more complex than exploiter versus exploited. Further, he draws parallels between Walmart’s corporate culture as it is literally and figuratively translated to stores in China, and distinctively Chinese, and even Maoist-style, motifs. Two chapters, one by David J. Davies and Taylor Seeman, and one by Scott E. Myers and Anita Chan, contextualize translated substantial excerpts from a higher-level store manager’s diary and a lower-level manager’s blog, respectively. Together, they form a nuanced description of different layers of management in Walmart stores. In perhaps the most theoretically grounded chapter, Eileen M. Otis’ Chinese research assistant embeds herself as a cashier in a Kunming-based Walmart store. Contrary to the expectations of most researchers who focus on affective control of service workers, Otis concludes that technology and Walmart customers themselves are used to control and discipline workers like cashiers. Further, the primarily rural workers that serve as outsourced sales staff on this store’s floor enjoyed more autonomy and better earning potentials than even the primarily urban-based cashiers, not to mention their counterparts toiling in Walmart factories.
In the first of three chapters on the unionization of Walmart stores in China, Anita Chan focuses on why and how the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China’s peak association for labour, demanded that Walmart stores unionize, and why Walmart, which has fiercely resisted unionization throughout the world, capitulated. In some ways, this is not especially puzzling: China’s leaders fear organizations outside its control, and Walmart, despite its power, needs China more than China needs the company. Despite this, Chan demonstrated that Walmart was able to subvert the AFTCU’s victories to its own needs. While the ACFTU resorts to the long-disused tactic of grassroots organizing, it soon shifts to a top-down process that is easily coopted by Walmart’s managers. Moreover, the collective agreement signed centrally both heavily favours Walmart’s interests and undermines local efforts to organize meaningfully. While some of Chan’s evidence suggests that these victories might strengthen reformers within the ACFTU, the preponderance of it appears to support more pessimistic conclusions. Jonathan Unger, Diana Beaumont, and Anita Chan’s comparisons between unions in stores in Shenzhen and Beijing provide further reason to doubt the unions’ ability to defend workers’ rights. Despite unionization, stores in Shenzhen set a base pay that is lower than China’s legally mandated minimum, pressure workers to volunteer for unpaid overtime, and extensively employ non-unionized causal workers. Moreover, despite being organized around rhetorical support for workers rights, unions in Walmart superstores in Beijing ultimately played a role limited primarily to organizing social activities. Even here, the company often grabs the credit. Katie Quan, in the final chapter, compares organized resistance to Walmart in the US and China. She offers informed advice for resistance movements in both countries and calls for more research from Chinese academics. Overall, while she echoes other collaborators in striking a hopeful tone, Quan’s observations about organized resistance to Walmart in China are also largely discouraging.
While there is some overlap and repetition between chapters (perhaps necessary if parts of the book are to be used independently for teaching), the volume as a whole is remarkably well edited, and lacks the unevenness that sometimes plagues edited volumes. Somewhat more worryingly, the lack of access researchers faced (despite their Herculean efforts) particularly to Walmart factories constrains their ability to obtain large samples, which could cast some doubt on sometimes starkly phrased conclusions. That said, if Walmart management feels misrepresented by this volume, it might have only itself to blame—providing more genuine access would almost certainly help ensure that its point of view is considered. These minor issues aside, this remarkable volume will be of interest to a range of professionals—from China hands to labour relations experts, from academics to activists—and will also be useful in whole or in part to teaching university students at all levels.
John A. Donaldson, Singapore Management University, Singapore
JAPAN AS A ‘NORMAL COUNTRY’?: A Nation in Search of Its Place in the World. Japan and Global Society. Edited by Yoshihide Soeya, Masayuki Tadokoro, and David A. Welch. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. viii, 211 pp. (Figures.) C$24.95, paper. ISBN 978-1-4426-1140-5.
This volume tackles head-on the key contemporary debate about Japanese foreign policy: Is Japan emerging as a “normal country?” In the context of this debate the term “normal” usually means a “normal military great power” on the scale of the UK or France. Indeed, the UK has been explicitly held up as the model by a number of US Japan-hands who advocate Japan becoming the “Britain of Asia.” This volume has impressive breadth, with chapters by leading experts addressing whether Japan has any strategy, the influence of public opinion (a variable that has recently been making a comeback in the study of Japanese foreign policy), Japan as a middle power, conservative ideas about “normalcy,” and “normalcy” in the context of relations with China, Korea and Southeast Asia.
Despite these strengths, this book has a significant blind spot: it largely overlooks the distinction between defensive uses of military power for territorial defense versus offensive uses involving power projection for promoting national interests abroad. When this distinction is employed many issues that this book grapples with become far clearer. Japan is a normal power in the sense that it provides for its own territorial defense except for a nuclear umbrella, which it borrows from the US. Where Japan can be said to possibly be “abnormal” is in comparison with great powers historically, including Japan itself up to 1945, who have also projected military power offensively abroad as a tool of state policy. As the authors rightly note, however, this historical tradition is under threat outside as well as inside Japan: “in many countries, and arguably around the globe as a whole, norms governing the use of force are tightening … In this respect the rest of the world is catching up to Japanese anti-militarism, and Japan is anything but ‘abnormal’” (5). Moreover, as Yoshihide Soeya points out in his chapter, Japan’s “security profile has developed into that of a de facto middle power, rather than a great power” (91), thereby raising further doubts about the relevance of historical great power comparisons.
While the defense-offense distinction produces borderline cases (e.g., tactically offensive operations in response to an attack should probably fit into the rubric of defensive use of military power for territorial defense, but there is obviously room for debate), it nonetheless usefully helps us to locate possible “abnormality” regarding Japan’s place in the world. The key area of contention concerns deploying Japan’s military overseas, not for the sake of achieving unilateral policy goals, but in the context of United Nations peace-keeping, and even more so to support US military operations overseas.
One definition of “normalcy” that Lam Peng Er introduces in his excellent chapter on the question of normalcy as viewed from Southeast Asia raises another important angle to this question: “Japan’s ‘normalcy’ in the region hinged on its ability to disagree with the United States” (203). I have often heard a similar refrain from observers in Southeast Asia, who do not take Japan seriously as an independent power because it is too close to the US: “If you want to know what Japan’s policy is, don’t waste your time going to Tokyo, go to Washington instead.” Lam himself appears to endorse this view when he notes that “the new DPJ government’s desire for greater autonomy from the United States and for the development of an East Asian Community will be viewed by many Southeast Asians as further evidence of Japan’s becoming a ‘normal country’” (204). Given the apparent recent failure of both these policies one can only presume that Southeast Asians continue to see Japan as “abnormal.” Prominent Japanese academic experts on foreign policy sometimes state similar views, with one once telling me that as long as Japan lacks the ability to say “no” to the US it needs to maintain Article 9 as a substitute.
The chapter by David Welch usefully addresses the question of whether Japan has a foreign policy strategy, but sets such a high standard that one is left wondering whether any country, including the US, has a strategy. Although Welch rightly notes that a strategy has to be more than mere reaction to the environment, a strategy that does not take the environment into account is by definition a failure, and no convincing discussion is provided of how a strategy navigates between these two extremes. The author also should have more seriously addressed Japan’s self-proclaimed “comprehensive” security concept, or what others refer to as Japan’s mercantile realist or dual-hedge strategy. In his chapter, Jianwei Wang makes an important contribution by showing that there is a real Chinese debate about whether, and under what conditions, China should accept a militarily more “normal” Japan.
The chapter by Masayuki Tadokoro offers a refreshingly rare perspective by taking public opinion seriously as a factor for Japanese foreign policy: “in a democracy it is neither a small number of political leaders, nor media elites, but ultimately the general public that determines the direction and destiny of a country” (39). He also credibly counters the claim that “economic stagnation … has led to a ‘rightward drift’” in public opinion (58). Rather, he argues “that ‘normalization’ represents an outgrowth of postwar values and institutions” (40). Although Tadokoro offers a careful and detailed look at Japanese public opinion on security issues, he unfortunately uses a Yomiuri Shimbun question about how the constitution should be reformed (Fig. 25., 54) that is so contorted in its wording that it is doubtful that one can derive any valid inferences about public opinion from it. Additionally, for this and other questions he should have provided the reader with the full text of the question.
There are a few factual errors that mar the volume, such as the suggestion that Japan dispatched troops to Bosnia (46). Nonetheless, overall, this is a superb volume that anyone interested in today’s key debate about Japanese foreign policy must read.
Paul Midford, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
THE EVOLUTION OF JAPAN’S PARTY SYSTEM: Politics and Policy in an Era of Institutional Change. Japan and Global Society. Edited by Leonard J. Schoppa. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2011. viii, 232 pp. (Tables, figures.) C$27.95, paper. ISBN 978-1-4426-1167-2.
Japan changed its electoral system for the lower house in 1994 and thereafter great scholarly attention has been paid to how parties and politicians changed their electoral strategies. This book’s main focus is on the shift in Japan’s party system around 2000. Now with the electoral reform and the economic changes in the so-called “Lost Decade,” Japan’s party system changed to what this volume calls the “2000 System,” in which two major parties (the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ) compete on economic issues, in particular the issue of neoliberal reform vs. redistribution to the weak and poor.
The main argument throughout the volume is that regime change in Japan is an evolutionary process. Furthermore, it argues that in order to understand the process, it is essential to focus on parties’ survival strategies under the new electoral environment and policy changes. That’s why the volume is roughly divided into two parts.
Chapters in the first half thus revolve around the evolutionary process in the party system after the 1990s. Schoppa’s chapter nicely explains the disappearance of the old leftists (the Japan Socialist Party, JSP). With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bubble economy, the main issue dimension shifted from diplomacy/security to the economy, giving rise to a new opposition party (DPJ) focused on neoliberal reform. Reed’s chapter describes the LDP’s failure to adapt to the new electoral environment. The party simply continued its same old practice of “if you win, you are LDP,” only tarnishing the image of a cohesive, unified party. In retrospect, Koizumi was exceptional in that he excluded rebels to purify the party, while the leaders after him just followed the pre-Koizumi logic. Weiner’s chapter focuses on the evolution of the DPJ as a credible challenger against the dominant LDP. In contrast to the conventional wisdom, he suggests that the DPJ has been able to spread its supporters beyond urban areas, while gradually dissociating itself from the old leftists. Martin’s chapter argues that, after the end of the Cold War, diplomacy/security reemerged as a central issue in electoral competition. Her model shows more hawkish voters are now more likely to vote for the LDP.
The second half focuses on various policy issues. Maclachlan’s chapter looks at the issue of privatization and compares three different outcomes (JNR, NTT, and post office). She argues that when opposing groups were divided and when elites were united, the results were radical reform. Koizumi skillfully used new institutions—the expanded cabinet office and the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (CEFP)—to undermine the opposition and unite the ruling elites, while in the end of the chapter she admits Koizumi’s reform was just temporary. Toyoda’s chapter focuses on how Koizumi eliminated and merged government financial institutions that played significant roles in distributing cheap loans to traditional LDP supporters. Similar to Maclachlan’s chapter, Toyoda also looks at the cabinet office and the CEFP and describes how Koizumi overrode opposing interests. Miura’s chapter analyzes why the labour market was deregulated after the late 1990s. She argues that globalization and the Lost Decade gave a strong impetus for managers to implement neoliberal reform in human resources, namely by hiring more temporary dispatched workers to cut costs.
I believe there are three major contributions made by this volume. First, to my knowledge, this edited volume is one of the first attempts to shed light on the gradual but steady process toward the new party system, which ultimately resulted in the very first government turnover through electoral means in sixty years since 1955. Although there is a large body of literature on the electoral reform and its consequences, up-to-date analysis on how the LDP lost and, in particular, how the DPJ took power is very limited. This very timely volume offers extremely valuable information on the latest developments in Japan’s political economy from many different perspectives. Second, I would like to draw attention to the fact that this is not simply a book on parties. Rather, by ambitiously combining chapters on party politics and policy changes in various aspects, the volume makes one realize that party systems cannot be understood without taking into account policy platforms that parties advocate. Third, chapters in this volume offer very interesting future prospects about Japan’s party politics. For example, Reed in his chapter argues that any party should require more than one defeat to restructure its organization, like the New Labour in the UK. Of course, how many years the LDP will need to purify its members and position itself as a credible alternative to the DPJ is an open question, but political scientists, practitioners, or anyone interested in Japan should find this volume thought-provoking.
Let me conclude this review by pointing to some problems with the book. First, I feel the volume could have benefited from a better editorial structure. Specifically, there is no overarching thesis uniting the different chapters. The main argument—it’s an evolutionary process—sounds a little too broad, as, arguably, anything can be evolutionary and no clear-cut theoretical predictions can be made out of it. Second, therefore, chapters look a little disunited. Some of the chapters on party politics do not really talk about how parties changed policy/ideological positioning: For example, one question that was never answered is why the LDP was so successful in winning after 1994 even though it continued to cater to the same old issues. Similarly, the chapters on policy changes do not really incorporate the idea of evolving party politics. It is rather plausible to me that the neoliberal reform by Koizumi was part of the response to the emerging opposition (DPJ).
Kuniaki Nemoto, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
UNDERSTANDING INDIA’S NEW POLITICAL ECONOMY: A Great Transformation? Edited by Sanjay Ruparelia, Sanjay Reddy, John Harriss, and Stuart Corbridge. London and New York: Routledge, 2011. xv, 272 pp. (Tables, graphs.) US$150.00, cloth. ISBN 978-0-415-59810-1.
This volume, the outcome of a workshop at Columbia University, is centered on a question of crucial importance for understanding India’s political economy since the 1990s: What are the relationships between the three key developments of this period, the process of neoliberal reform (known in India as “liberalization”), the rise of Hindu nationalism and the powerful emergence of lower-caste democratic mobilizations? The concise introduction by Stuart Corbridge, John Harriss, Sanjay Ruparelia and Sanjay Reddy begins by ambitiously stating that “only a synthetic account—one that seeks to explain the casual relationships between these central transformations through a coordinated intellectual conversation—can help to capture the dynamics of India’s new political economy in their totality” (1). They ask whether these three transformations together constitute what Karl Polanyi termed a “Great Transformation” (The Great Transformation: The Political And Economic Origins of Our Times, Beacon Press, 1948).
The first essay by Partha Chatterjee is an important theorization of the relationship between his well-known conceptualization of a “political society” of mass politics in opposition to a liberal, elite-inhabited “civil society” and economic liberalization. While, as the introduction points out, this conceptualization has been criticized and it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw empirical boundaries between these spheres in practice, this remains an important theoretical intervention since it makes a compelling case that much of India’s political life cannot be understood by mainstream democratic theory that neglects the realities of political society. Here, Chatterjee argues that “civil society” is linked with corporate capital and processes of accumulation by dispossession, while political society is connected to the informal economy and negotiating access to resources provided by the state to blunt the dislocating impact of this dispossession.
This chapter is followed by analyses of how liberalization is playing out in specific arenas. Nandini Gooptu insightfully examines how neoliberal reforms are attempting to transform Indian cities into centers of entrepreneurship and investment, resulting in polarization between a middle class revolting against the democratic mobilizations of the poor by attempting to exercise hegemony over urban spaces and the mass of people working in the informal sector who cannot be banished because of their political clout and indispensability within the urban economy. Rob Jenkins’ excellent study of Special Economic Zones examines this project to create unbridled spaces of corporate capital free from the constraints of India’s tumultuous democracy, but which are ultimately unable to free themselves from political pressures and growing popular protest (demonstrating the inability of “civil society” to separate itself from “political society”). Stuart Corbridge, in opposition to the view that federalism has promoted liberalization by generating competition among states for investment, shows the ways in which this logic has failed in eastern India. Not only have governments in places like Bihar (from 1990 to 2005) marginalized development-oriented governance as a political issue in favour of a politics of lower-caste empowerment, but the reform period has seen the deterioration of state institutions and the spread of a Maoist movement. Arjan Jaydev, Sripad Motiram and Vamsi Vakulabharanam offer a quantitative study of wealth disparities in India (as opposed to the more usual income disparities), documenting the rise of a new middle class that, while comprising 10 percent of the population, commands 50 percent of the nation’s wealth, while Vakulabharanam and Motiram document the regional variation of agrarian distress and the creation of “hunger amidst plenty” in much of the Indian countryside.
How has liberalization impacted forms of political action and participation? John Harriss’s contribution is a broad examination of social policy in post-reform India, showing the hollowness of government rhetoric to be pursuing “growth with compassion and justice” but also the recent emergence of rights-based social movements that hold promise, even if they are limited by their middle-class activist base. Niraja Gopal Jayal’s perceptive examination of citizenship regimes documents the transition from the Nehruvian ideal of citizenship (although it should be pointed out that for most Indians this was always only an ideal) to very new forms of citizenship according to the three transformations highlighted in the introduction. And Patrick Heller optimistically argues that democratic decentralization is slowly producing “a potentially very significant expansion of the political opportunity structure” (162).
The remaining essays focus on developments within the realm of party politics. Radhika Desai, in the only contribution focusing on Hindu nationalism, argues that Hindu nationalism and the project of economic liberalization were intertwined much earlier than is generally assumed, as early as the post-green revolution period. Sanjay Ruparelia focuses on “Third Force” coalitions that have periodically emerged to contest the two major electoral coalitions at the national level, arguing that, despite their inability to remain a viable political alternative, they still managed surprising policy achievements. James Manor’s interesting essay challenges popular images of former and current prime ministers Narasimha Rao and Monmohan Singh as neoliberals, arguing that they were driven by events, not ideas and that the Congress Party, again contrary to popular perception, has reformed itself significantly in recent years. In the final essay, Achin Vanaik compellingly argues that changes in India’s foreign policy are the result of a profound neoliberal shift amongst governing elites that transcends party difference, ending the Nehruvian dream of non-alignment and Asian unity.
While one volume cannot be expected to cover everything, particularly when its scope is already so large, there is a surprising lack of attention to the upsurge of lower-caste politics in the 1990s that Corbridge and Harriss’s earlier work, Reinventing India: Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and Popular Democracy (2000 Cambridge: Polity Press) persuasively argued was the driving force of both economic liberalization and Hindu nationalism. Chatterjee’s theoretical intervention, and, in fact, many of the contributions, would benefit from deeper reflection of the ways in which liberalization was what Corbridge and Harriss provocatively termed an “elite revolt” reacting to the democratic ascendency of lower castes. There is also little dialogue between contributions. For instance, Polanyi’s seminal concept of a “double movement” presented in the introduction (and Harriss’s essay) could also have been profitably reflected on by many of the authors. But this provides readers with the opportunity to make their own analytical connections between a rich selection of essays that will prove to be an important resource for understanding the rapidly changing political economy of contemporary India.
Jeffrey Witsoe, Union College, Schenectady, USA
ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF SOUTH ASIAN POLITICS: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Edited by Paul R. Brass. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2010. xvi, 464 pp. (Tables.) US$200.00, cloth. ISBN 978-0-415-43429-4.
What’s not to like in a handbook of South Asian politics edited by someone as respected as Paul Brass and containing contributions from a further 28 of the best-informed scholars of their time?
The price, for one thing, is not to like. US $200. Albeit for 464 pages and more than 300,000 words. But who are the likely purchasers of this book? Probably a hundred libraries worldwide? Two hundred if the publishers get lucky.
And that’s what’s also not to like: the sense that this book is a cog in a business plan that contributes usefully to the bottom line of a corporation but less so to the dissemination of knowledge. You persuade a group of fine scholars to volunteer their efforts (inquiries suggest that no one got a fee); the publisher gives the contributions a basic edit, typesets the material, puts a cover round it and moves on to the next item on the assembly line. The result is an unwieldy, unfriendly volume, set in forbidding two-column tombstones. And as a “handbook of South Asian politics,” it harbours another disappointment: it does not have a single map. (Good maps need to be drawn. That takes time, skill, editorial interest—and costs money).
The essays in this collection would have worked well on a website where they could have been readily consulted, suitably illustrated and easily updated. That, of course, would have required a suitable website and the editorial efficiency that the publishers contributed to the project. There is no doubt about the Routledge ability to keep the product coming off the line. Routledge is the Modern-Times factory of publishing, with scholars playing the role of Charles Chaplin.
This sort of collection cries out to find a place with a university e-press where it could be easily available, readily updated and financed on a print-on-demand basis or a fee-for-download of individual chapters. A compendium like this one would have attracted attention to such an e-press and provided a widely available global tool.
The table of contents reads like the starting line-up of an All-South-Asia team of scholars. Stephen Cohen on the militaries of the South Asian countries; Sumanta Banerjee on radical political movements; the Rudolphs on federalism; Paula Newberg on the judicial system in Pakistan; Javed Burki on Pakistan’s political economy; a remarkably helpful 10-page account of the Sri Lankan civil war by Jayadeva Uyangoda; Stuart Corbridge on “development”; and John Harriss on political structures and change in India. All these and 19 more.
Not surprisingly, some pieces are more rewarding, and clearly took more effort, than others. Jan Bremen’s “Political Economy of Agrarian Change in India” is an absorbing account of his own journey through 40 years of research and engagement with Gujarat. It’s one of the most readable pieces in the book, though it does not necessarily perform for a “handbook” what one might expect, either from the title of the book or the title of the essay.
Since elections and politics are crucial to a number of the essays, should a “handbook” not have a consolidated table (or two or three) in which recent elections in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal are brought together so that users get a sense of things like frequency, turnout, number of seats contested and other basic information? For example, buried deep in a chapter on Bangladesh is the striking titbit that the 2008 Bangladesh elections, which were judged to be admirably free and fair, drew a turnout of 87 percent of the eligible voters (112)? This fragment of information is an indication that some good things have happened in Bangladesh in the twenty-first century. Indian elections do well to draw 60 percent of voters to the polling booths. For a “handbook,” it would have made sense to have this sort of data compiled in quick-to-assimilate form, where readers could take in such notable contrasts.
There are other moments of tantalizing idiosyncrasy. A contributor on Sri Lanka, for example, refers to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as “a fascistic-terrorist outfit,” and the editor adds an asterisk to tell readers that he “does not agree with this designation for the Tamil Tigers” (338, 345). The editor doesn’t say how he would characterize the LTTE, though he no doubt has a thought-out position that many readers would be keen to learn.
The four essays on the judiciaries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are especially welcome in that justice and the courts are often alluded to but seldom treated in detail, particularly in ways that examine their everyday functioning. Shylashri Shankar’s essay on the Indian judiciary tempers anyone’s tendency to be excessively enthusiastic about the virtues of India’s hyperactive Supreme Court. “Judicial intrusion,” she writes, “may be well motivated,” but excessive workload, a lack of power to enforce rulings and the “stop-gap nature” of many of the court’s “solutions” may “overwhelm the judiciary” (174).
This collection cried out for a digital format. It should be sitting on a website where diplomats, students, businesspeople and travellers could find it and get at it—by all means, for a fee—whenever they felt the need and whenever Google led them to it. As it is, these essays will languish on the shelves of well-endowed libraries when they should be helping the world better understand a fast-changing South Asia.
Robin Jeffrey, National University of Singapore, Singapore
ACEH: History, Politics and Culture. Edited by Arndt Graf, Susanne Schröter and Edwin Wieringa. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010. xvii, 386 pp. (Col. illus.) US$59.90, paper. ISBN 978-981-4279-12-3.
Due to a protracted separatist conflict that haunted Aceh province for almost three decades until the signing of a peace agreement in 2005, balanced discussions of Acehnese politics and society have been scarce. This volume, which comprises a total of 17 chapters, seeks to amend this situation. It targets three audiences in particular: foreign aid and reconstruction workers, Acehnese interested in international scholarly approaches to Aceh, and international students interested in a “scholarly introduction into a variety of aspects of Acehnese history, politics and culture” (x).
The book is subdivided into four parts. The first part, “History,” deals with particular aspects of the Aceh Sultanate, the Dutch colonial war, and the transition from colonialism to independent Indonesia. Sher Banu A.L. Khan provides an interesting account of the succession of Acehnese queens in the seventeenth century, which convincingly contests the idea that these were relatively “weak” rulers. Anthony Reid, in his chapter on Acehnese diplomacy and the “Turkish connection,” successfully challenges the still prevalent view that Aceh in the nineteenth century was an “isolated” place. Subsequent contributions by Antje Missbach, on the Aceh War and the role of the Dutch orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, and Fritz Schulz, on the revolution and the Darul Islam rebellion, extend the narrative to the 1960s.
Part 2, “Contemporary Economy and Politics,” starts with contributions by Nazamuddin, Agussabti and Syamsuddin Mahmud (on economic modernization), and Manfred Rist (on the relationship between economic development and the conflict). Both chapters point out the tensions between economic modernization and the “traditional” makeup of Acehnese society. How these tensions played out on the ground, however, and how they relate to conflicts and contestations taking place within Acehnese society, remains unclear. This part of the book is completed with chapters by Patrick Ziegenhain and Damien Kingsbury, respectively, on the separatist conflict and the Helsinki peace talks. While these chapters are descriptive rather than analytical in nature, they do introduce the reader to the separatist conflict and give a valuable insider’s perspective on the Helsinki talks that finally led to the peace agreement.
The two remaining parts deal with religion and culture. Susanne Schröter offers a good introduction, in which she reminds the readers that, while Aceh is widely known as “orthodox” or “staunchly Islamic,” in fact it is far from homogeneous. Instead, the region comprises a variety of ethnic groups, and many different religious and cultural modes of identification. Driving this point home, Werner Krauss and Wolfgang Marschall contribute discussions of, respectively, the history and current status of the Syattariyya Sufi brotherhood in Aceh and some of the cultural particularities of the island of Nias. Unfortunately, much of the nuance reached here is undone by two articles written by Hasan Basri, one dealing with the historical position in society of the ulama (religious scholars), and the other with the regional implementation of Shari’a law since 2002. The implementation of an Islamic penal code, and the connection of this process to a historical trajectory of scholarly debate, inter-elite struggle and the evolution of the postcolonial state is a highly complex and contentious subject matter. Yet, these two chapters are largely limited to the reproduction of tenacious myths (for example, that of an Acehnese “Golden Age,” in which Islam was still held high), leading to a biased, and in my view actually rather dubious, argument for the need to strengthen normative Islam in order to deal with past tragedies.
The chapters by Arndt Graf and Edwin Wieringa are somewhat similar in approach. While Graf investigates an August 2005 sample of “letters to the editor” in the largest local newspaper Serambi Indonesia, Wieringa directs attention to Islamic interpretations in Indonesian tsunami poetry. Both authors make the claim that, at least to a certain extent, these writings may be viewed as reflecting the Acehnese vox populi. Graf asks how the traumatic impact of the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 peace talks affected public opinion. However, I found the empirical data in this chapter to be somewhat thin in relation to the conclusion, which connects religious concerns about public morality to the complaints in these letters about corruption and failing government services. Wieringa’s piece is interesting, as it contextualizes (and thereby usefully de-essentializes) religious explanations for the tsunami in the (apparently quite extensive) Indonesian tradition of disaster poetry. Finally, there are two chapters that deal with art, both of them in relation to the post-conflict, post-tsunami reconstruction process. Bethany J. Collier’s chapter discusses musical initiatives for collecting aid resources. Centre stage is taken, however, by Kenneth George’s chapter about the painter Abdul Djalil Pirous (born in West Aceh in 1932). Beautiful reproductions of his colourful work illustrate the struggle of an artist who became detached from Aceh in his youth, returned to his cultural roots in the 1970s and 1980s, and, his past compromised by the New Order politics of regulating and deploying artistic expressions, ended up in a complex reengagement with his place of birth after the fall of Suharto in 1998.
Making available knowledge about Aceh in a way that integrates the complexly related fields of history, culture, economy and politics is a laudable enterprise. However, while some articles are certainly of high scholarly value, the overall quality of this volume is disappointing. The book lacks analytical coherence, depth and sophistication, and is riddled with disturbing mistakes, such as situating the Istiqlal mosque in Banda Aceh instead of in Jakarta (127), or confusing the Islamic terms jihad and syahid (186). Some chapters contain grotesque simplifications, such as Manfred Rist’s attempt to reduce the separatist conflict solely to economic deprivation. Overall, the book pays only limited attention to the complex dynamics that have taken place within Acehnese society in recent decades. As a result, there is a structural overemphasis on the perceived conflict between “Aceh” and the “world outside.” These points of criticism notwithstanding, I believe that those who are interested in Aceh, its history and culture in particular, will find plenty of reason to consult this volume carefully.
David Kloos, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Australasia and the Pacific
MANAGING MODERNITY IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC. Edited by Mary Patterson & Martha Macintyre. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011. 326 pp. (Figures, maps.) A$34.95, paper. ISBN 978-0-7022-3900-7.
This is an edited volume containing contributions from anthropologists on various aspects of modernity in Pacific Island countries, mostly focusing on capitalism. All but one of the nine chapters are based on ethnographic material. The subjects covered include: the influence of libertarian ideas on the Nagriamel movement in Vanuatu; Papua New Guinean women’s negotiation of the cash economy over recent decades; a comparison of the role of community in Solomon Islander villagers’ ways of relating to the Church versus relating to logging companies; individualism and Christianity in Fiji; fast money schemes in Papua New Guinea; gambling in the Cook Islands; development and the Personal Viability movement in Papua New Guinea; and international financial services in Vanuatu. Chapter 1, by Richard Sutcliffe, is a reflective piece on the roles of secularism, rationalism and magic in Western modernity.
The central theme of the book is a two-sided question about presumptions of irrationality and religious/cultic/magical approaches in Pacific Islander modernities, and flipside presumptions about the rationality and secularism of Western modernities. There is a long history through colonialism, modernization theory and developmentalism of preconceiving Pacific Islanders as unsophisticated in their dealings with the modern world, and capitalism in particular, with Westerners as the significant Other in this image. This theme is addressed by some authors, such as Sutcliffe, by showing that Western modernity is not as secular and rational as it is usually assumed to be, but should be understood as being normatively secularist and rationalist, and concomitantly derisive of approaches perceived to be non-secular or irrational. Western modernity has in fact always been shot through with magico-religious elements and remains so. The Comaroff’s discussion of millennial capitalism and the role of enchantment in it is one of the theoretical threads drawn upon at several points in the book. This part of the preconception, questioning the extent to which Western modernity is actually like the image presented vis-à-vis Pacific Islanders, is also discussed in the editor’s introduction and mentioned by several other authors.
The bulk of the book then deals with the other side of the preconception, about Pacific Islanders’ ways of managing modernity. The close inspection enabled by the ethnographic method shows that Pacific Islanders’ approaches to modernity are as sophisticated as anyone else’s, including in terms of magico-religious aspects. Many of the chapters point out that phenomena often portrayed as irrational may indeed be rational in people’s specific circumstances.
Kalissa Alexeyeff’s chapter shows that in the context of large-scale redundancies in the public service as a result of neoliberal policy changes in the Cook Islands, spending large proportions of time and income in “housie” gambling may be seen as a reasonable thing to do. Opportunities for formal work or other forms of more conventional “productive” activity are so limited as to not offer much of a solution, and housie games also offer unemployed people a way to continue their sociality, including through public gifting. Alexeyeff refers to Susan Strange’s prescient work on casino capitalism, as do several other of the authors, to show that contemporary global capitalism is in any case a form of gambling, and to challenge dominant perceptions of engaging in world markets as an easily accessible way to improve people’s quality of life. For many Pacific Islanders, participating fruitfully in world markets is not an achievable option. The casino nature of contemporary financial capitalism, moreover, means no one has the power to control or even always accurately predict the movements of those markets. Even if Pacific Island governments were to comply with all donor recommendations for “good governance,” it is far from clear that their opportunities to gain more of what they want from modernity would improve. The authors argue that some of what may appear to be irrational economic behaviour arises from this situation in which more conventionally rational choices (gain employment, run a business) are not feasible. Gregory Rawlings’ ethnography of the financial services sector in Vanuatu underlines the precariousness of attempts to gain benefits from these global flows.
The idea of Melanesian cultures as distinguished by dividual, relational senses of personhood versus possessive individualism is another theoretical thread running through several of the chapters, including the introduction, Debra McDougall’s chapter, Martha Macintyre’s chapter and Nick Bainton’s chapter. Problems are pointed out in assumptions underlying some arguments of utter incommensurability between these two senses of personhood. One is that modern capitalism need not be predicated on possessive individualism; plenty of varieties of capitalism around the world in societies not noted for their individualism attest to that. Another is that in contemporary Melanesia dividuality and individuality frequently coexist in people’s senses of self. Martha Macintyre points out that for increasing numbers of people in Papua New Guinea, who live most of their lives in urban settings, the cash economy looms much larger than the rural non-capitalist economy, and this is changing social relations in all sorts of ways, although not necessarily making them possessive individuals.
In sum, the book is a useful read for anyone working on the anthropology of modernity and capitalism, of Pacific Island peoples, or on development in this region. It is well priced to be readily accessible.
Kate Barclay, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
SUMMONING THE POWERS BEYOND: Traditional Religions in Micronesia. By Jay Dobbin with Francis X. Hezel. Honolulu: University of Hawai̔i Press, 2011. 286 pp. (Tables, figures.) US$55.00, cloth. ISBN 978-0-8248-3203-2.
In the early 1970s a solitary, peripatetic Jehovah’s Witness missionary occasionally wandered through Awak, the Pohnpei village where I was living and working. Having learned that I did my graduate studies in New York City, where he had trained at his sect’s headquarters, he would sometimes stop to chat. One day, in what seemed to be a moment of exhausted resignation, he unburdened himself to me: He’d been unable to make any progress converting Pohnpeians, he said. His evangelical approach depended upon offering to prospective converts a vision of redemption that would save them from much suffering in their lives after death. But life on Pohnpei, he had concluded, was so pleasant that the island’s people imagined a largely bucolic afterlife and hence had no interest at all in his wares. He didn’t see how he could continue trying to put the fear of God into them, he lamented, and in fact I never saw him again.
I recount this tale because the late Jay Dobbin’s able survey of Micronesian religion quite emphatically bears this fellow’s story out. Calling attention to the absence of, among other things, cannibalism, ritual sacrifices of living creatures, prolonged fasts and other forms of ritual denial, and witchcraft (which he distinguishes from sorcery), Dobbin speaks of the islands’ traditional or indigenous beliefs and practices as “gentle religions.”
I think it is accurate to call the religions of Micronesia religions of life, inasmuch as they are focused on the practicalities and necessities of daily living. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the elaborate ritual for good crops and therapies associated with spirit-given powers to heal and cure. The distribution and sharing in the bounty of good food was also part and parcel of many religious rituals. Religious ritual certainly reinforced the belief that the proper response to bounty is distribution, not accumulation (220).
His book is, I believe, the first full-length consideration of Micronesia’s religions in nearly a century, a task not undertaken since James Frazer’s little-known or -remembered volume 3 of The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead in 1924. Though Francis Hezel’s contributions to the work are acknowledged on the title page, they are not clearly spelled out, but knowledgeable readers will see them everywhere in both the range of sources put to use and the facility with which relevant comparisons among islands are continually made.
Employing a self-consciously functionalist approach to religion, Dobbin (like Hezel, a Catholic priest) examines a specific set of categories: cosmology, spirits, religious leaders, taboos, change and rituals. He works back and forth between the two basic approaches scholars have almost always taken in discussing anything having to do with the category “Micronesia,” either recognizing significant differences among the different islands and island groups or emphasizing the similarities and continuities among them. The book is organized by region, with separate chapters devoted to Chuuk and the Central Carolines atolls speaking Chuukic dialects, Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshalls, Yap, Palau, and Kiribati and Nauru.
Woven throughout the book are several recurring themes and topics that should be of particular interest to specialists in either Micronesia or the history of the Austronesian-speaking peoples. One of these has to do with matters of cosmological organization. While there are of course local variations, most Micronesians shared a notion of the earth as multi-leveled and dome-shaped. This in turn entails careful consideration of the east-west tugs between the mythical locales “Kachau” and “Yap,” sometimes identified with the islands of Kosrae and Yap; influences and movements within the realm between these two poles has brought region-wide cultural and political changes.
Another concerns the essences of supernatural beings. A trio of self-generated “gods” were widely recognized. Ancestral and clan spirits were more numerous and could be accessed via spirit mediums in order to gain ritual and technical knowledge, cure sickness, and supplicate the gods through their connections to them. Navigational knowledge and bountiful breadfruit harvests were particularly sought after.
My only criticism here has to do with what strikes me as a rather uncritical reliance on the scholarship produced during the German occupation of Micronesia, which needs to be treated with special care, I think. German ethnological theory, which had previously given birth to the liberal Boasian paradigm that shaped most English-speaking twentieth-century anthropology, was undergoing some radical shifts at exactly the same time as the Wilhelmine Reich was plunging into blue-water imperialism, changes that mirrored and to some extent drove the social, political and cultural upheavals that led to the worst abuses of German racial thought and practice. In particular, the work of Erdland in the Marshalls and Hambruch on Pohnpei must be viewed more skeptically (Petersen, G. “Hambruch’s Colonial Narrative: Pohnpei, German Culture Theory, and Hamburg Expedition Ethnography of 1908–10,” Journal of Pacific History 42 (3): 317-330, 2007).
While this work will appeal mostly to specialists, I heartily concur with what Dobbin describes as his motivation for writing it. “I see one after another Micronesian state or republic trying to ground its teaching and its textbooks in its own cultural heritage” (221). Because religion is such an important part of contemporary society, it would behoove Micronesians and their leaders to “appreciate a bit more deeply an important aspect of their traditional culture, one that permeated everything else” (221).
Glenn Petersen, City University of New York, New York, USA
Documentary Film Review
GIRL MODEL [FILM]. Directed, produced and edited by David Redmond and Ashley Sabin; consulting producers, Marcy Garriott, Robert Garriot. Brooklyn, NY: Carnivalesquefilms, 2011. 1 videodisc (77 min.) US$250.00. http://carnivalesquefilms.com.
In Girl Model, filmmakers David Redmond and Ashley Sabin tell the story of a 13-year-old aspiring model Nadja Vall, who travelled from her Siberian hometown to Japan hoping to launch her modeling career. They portray the unregulated modeling industry as morally corrupt and exploitative of young girls. In Japan’s modeling industry, the demand for young, tall, blond girls has brought numerous Eastern Europeans to Tokyo. Oftentimes, these girls return to their hometowns with little modeling experience and find themselves in debt to modeling agencies. Some of them are also known to have entered the underground world of child prostitution.
The film begins with a Japanese-sponsored modeling contest in rural Siberia where Nadja was selected to work in Japan. Nadja then travelled unaccompanied to Tokyo but no one showed up at the Narita Airport to pick her up. Despite much frustration and fear (as might be expected from a teenage girl traveling outside of her country for the first time), she managed to navigate her way into a small flat in Tokyo, which she shared with another aspiring model from Russia. For her to legally enter Japan with a work visa, Japan’s immigration control laws stipulated that the modeling agency must provide her with two jobs and US$8,000. Nadja’s contract restricted her not only from travelling, swimming and being out in the sun, but also from growing. That is, the size of her waist, hips, and bust must remain the same—an unrealistic expectation for a 13-year-old girl. Moreover, the contract, which the employer could change from one day to another, was written in Japanese and English, both languages that she did not understand. Unaware that her living expenses would be deducted from her paycheck, Nadja returned home with a debt of US$2,000, after her modeling career did not materialize in Japan. This debt may have resulted in Nadja being sent later on to Taiwan and South Korea.
Interestingly, it was Ashley (a former model) who approached the filmmakers with the idea for this documentary. She clearly provided Redmond and Sabin with amazing access to people behind the modeling industry. Redmond and Sabin do not portray Ashley and her friends, who see themselves as saviors of young girls, in a positive light. Instead, the filmmakers depict them as people who shamelessly lie to naive girls and their families about the money and glamour that await in Japan’s fashion capital. Once Ashley identified the girls and made their travel arrangements, she returned to her lonely Connecticut home. This portrayal has come under criticism—interestingly, not from Ashley but from Nadja and her family. After all, Nadja, who is now 17 years old, is being represented by a St. Petersburg’s modeling agency: not a story of failure.
Personally, I enjoyed the contrasting views of “beauty,” as cleverly explored through the eyes of Ashley, the Japanese people and Nadja. For Ashley, she sees beauty strictly in terms of proportions/appearance (i.e., tall, skinny, barely pubescent, blond), as demanded by Japanese modeling agencies. The Japanese, in turn, view youth as “something innocent” (a temporary state) and therefore beautiful. For Nadja, “external beauty reflects inner virtue and intelligence” (a permanent state). This philosophical/cultural difference on aesthetics is marvelously described by the subjects themselves.
More substantively, this documentary requires better contextualization and tighter editing of the narratives. The film appears to be a patchwork of interpretations or self-reflections from key players in the modeling business and lacks in-depth research into the subject matter. Perhaps this is a consequence of the idea for the film not originating with the filmmakers. As a result, the audience is left to put the pieces together themselves. Those without much knowledge of Japan, Siberia and the modeling industry will only see the exploitative nature of the modeling industry that preys on young girls from Eastern Europe. They will miss out on Japan’s larger problem of child pornography (that feeds the multi-billion dollar manga industry) and child prostitution, Russia’s recent demographic changes and economic challenges, and cultural differences of exoticism within the modeling industry across the world.
The film could also use further editing. In giving voice to each actor involved in the Japanese modeling business, the filmmakers have included long, unnecessary scenes that add little to their story (e.g., Ashley’s collection of photographs of body sections). The long scenes/narratives, which often slow down the tempo of the film, could have been an effective way to get the audience to reflect or contemplate on the scene. Without much contextualization, however, the audience has little to reflect on.
Apichai W. Shipper, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA