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World War I and the triumph of a new Japan

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Reviewed title: Dickinson, F.R. 2013. World War I and the Triumph of a New Japan, 1919-1930, Cambridge University Press, Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare, ISBN: 9781107544970

Reviewed by Natsuko Akagawa

 

Forming part of the Cambridge University Press’s series, ‘Studies in the social and cultural history of modern warfare’, this provocatively titled book represents an important contribution to a study of twentieth century Japan and of the internationalism that emerged in the aftermath of World War One. The ‘New Japan’ of the title was the projection of a democratic, internationalist-oriented world power that dominant players in Japan aspired to in the period between 1919 and 1930. The study challenges a still dominant Eurocentric discourse that ‘accentuates the centrality of the World War One in the history of the Twentieth Century’ in which interbellum Japan becomes merely the prelude to that war. It does so by carefully sifting through the historical evidence and by looking at events in their context. This is then, as the author claims, an example of ‘new political history […] that understands politics as a complex negotiation among a wide range of political actors’ (p.9). The outcome, in the author’s words, has been to provide a stark contrast to ‘the orthodox vision of interwar Japan’ (p. 11). Dickinson posits an interpretation of Japanese history in this period as equivalent to, and a continuation of, the achievements of the Meiji reforms. Running as a repetitive refrain through the entire book is the comparison between the impact of World War One and the arrival of Commodore Perry in the previous century: “If the arrival of Perry had persuaded many ‘that life had been dark and closed’, the Great War inspired a new vision of passing darkness’’(p. 30).

The evidence for the book’s argument is presented in six chapters each of which traces a specific aspect of the New Japan under the headings of Internationalisation, Democracy, Disarmament, World Power, Culture of Peace and a discussion of the prime ministership of Hamaguchi Osachi, as the pinnacle of the New Japan. These discrete but interlinked studies are introduced by two contextualising introductory chapters, the first locating Japan’s role in and the impact of, World War One; the second outlining the structural foundations upon which a New Japan was premised. Fundamental to the building of a New Japan was its embrace of the Wilsonian principles of democratic government, free trade, internationalism and disarmament which its Japanese promoters ‘understood [...] to be the new standard of civilized living’ (p. 34). Post-war national renovation was everywhere in evidence: in the economy, in imperial governance, in urbanisation, in party politics, and in an expanding public sphere supported by a vibrant print and other media.

This book is styled throughout as an argument, each step of which is summarised by an end of chapter synopsis. While at times becoming somewhat overbearing, it drives home the fundamental point of the book that this period of Japan’s history has been misunderstood. Dickinson for instance questions the conventional interpretation of Japan’s response to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, (chapter 3) arguing instead that it welcomed the new internationalism it fostered, in particular – in this period at least – the creation of the League of Nations and the new emphasis on international conferences. Typical of Dickenson’s forensic style is his treatment, contra Nish (1993) of the much discussed 1928 Kellogg-Brand Pact:

The history of the ‘anti-war’ treaty is not a story of the Japanese ‘struggle’ with internationalism that ultimately fails.  It highlights rather, Japan’s increasingly tight integration into the new interwar regime of internationalism […] to which Japan committed at the Paris Peace Conference […] [and which was] further affirmation of a clear global trajectory (p. 76).

Where the evidence is less clear-cut, Dickinson is keen to emphasise a positive trend. Thus in discussing the growth of democracy in Japan (chapter 4) the author recognises that ‘It took several more years of course [from 1919 to 1925] before all males over twenty years of age obtained the right to vote in Imperial Japan’ (p. 89).

It is perhaps in relation to Japan’s imperialism that Dickinson’s revisionism will attract most comment. After World War One, the author argues there was a retraction of Japan’s military presence, at least in China and Siberia, and a ‘new kindness’ in the growing civilian character of Japan’s territories (p.132), even in Korea. Here again Dickinson urges readers to question ‘orthodox histories’ by considering developments in their contemporary context. Thus, while recognising that

Any discussion of colonial reform must, of course acknowledge the subjugation endemic to all colonial regimes […] the record of the war in the 1930s has turned the spotlight on abuses to the seclusion of all else. From the vantage point of 1919, transformation in the structure of empire was real (p. 133).

This book, chronicles the history of Japan in the 1920s ‘through the culture of peace’ (p. 150) providing a refreshingly positive perspective on Japanese history in this period. Nevertheless it could be argued that this is achieved by leaving unexamined the impact of the subsequent growth of militarism and aggressive imperialism and the nations’ withdrawal from international intercourse on Japanese society and politics upon which he accuses the existing literature of being fixated. In a sense, then, this is only half a book, although an imagined second half will be addressed in a subsequent study (p. 196). Dickinson admits that the study is intentionally limited to the brief period in order to not allow it to be overwhelmed by the history that follows but also to allow us to see how this period formed the basis of the modern and internationally-focussed post-World War Two Japan. This tantalising suggestion is briefly sketched in the final section of the book, and while this too must await further research, it suggests that this can be seen as a third new beginning in the construction of the modern Japan.

 

Natsuko Akagawa, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (natsuko.akagawa@uwa.edu.au)

 

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