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Placing Empire (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Kate McDonald. 2017.
Placing Empire: Travel and the Social Imagination in Imperial Japan
Oakland: University of California Press
ISBN 9780520293915

Director Shimizu Hiroshi’s 1936 film Arigato-san (Mr. Thank-you) centers on the story of a teenage girl and the bus driver who conducts her from her impoverished rural home on the Izu Peninsula to the train that will carry her to an uncertain and ominous future in the city. Taking place almost entirely in and around the bus, whose passengers reflect the breadth of rural society at the time, the film stretches to encompass the broad and rich dynamics of imperial Japan. In one scene, the riders encounter a group of Korean laborers, recognizable by their white robes, walking in a line toward Shinshū, Nagano to take up work. A young woman from the group approaches the driver, nicknamed Mr. Thank-you, to ask him to care for her father’s grave, explaining that she had wanted after finishing the most recent construction to ‘wear a kimono and see what it’s like to ride on your bus’ but that she has to move away even before she has had a chance to use the road she helped to build. Mr. Thank-you agrees to care for the site and then offers her a ride to the station, but as the camera moves its focus from the two conversing figures to the line of white robes trudging up the road, she declines, saying, ‘I’ll walk with the others. I’ll stay with them.’[i]

This portrayal of a Korean woman in Arigato-san presents us with an enigmatic image of exclusion, inclusion, and conflicting desires to contest, supersede, and retain the strictures of nationhood. In Placing Empire: Travel and the Social Imagination in Imperial Japan, Kate McDonald digs deeply into those paradoxes of nationhood and imperial belonging to explore what she terms ‘the spatial politics of empire’ (p. 1), the means by which policymakers, opinion leaders, colonizers, and the colonized inscribed difference and effected inclusion in Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan during the first decades of the 20th century (p. 14). The Korean laborers of Shimizu’s film do not themselves make an appearance in McDonald’s work, but their countrymen and countrywomen do, among other colonized peoples, colonial boosters, and imperial tourists who traveled in the region and recorded their impressions, articulated ideologies, or set policy and established the infrastructure for travel.

Although she begins her reading of the imperial period with the formal absorption of Hokkaido in 1868, McDonald’s main focus is on movement within the Japanese empire after the acquisition of Taiwan in 1895. Her travelers move laterally across the imperial territories: naichijin (内地人 Japanese residents from the main islands) tour the ‘new territories’ recently absorbed into the empire, colonized peoples from those places make the journey to the metropole or to elsewhere among imperial lands. McDonald’s thesis rests on a periodization that sees two phases of these imperial travels. The first she terms the period of ‘the geography of civilization’ (p. 15), during which imperial travel was structured to promote ‘the production and reproduction of Japanese national subjects who had emotional bonds to colonized land’ (p. 32). Those ‘subjects’ were often naichijin in a position to experience the empire through direct observation of its territories but, McDonald points out, the first group among them in fact traveled to the metropole: a ‘group of thirteen indigenous leaders from Taiwan’ were brought to Tokyo in 1897 in hope that they would be awed by the ‘abundance, knowledge, and peacefulness’ of metropolitan Japan (p. 42). In this era, emphasis was put on ‘naturalizing the territorial nation-state’ by setting colonized lands within the larger frame of the empire, using guidebooks and travel itineraries ‘to construct a social imaginary of the nation that was inseparable from its spatial imaginary’ (p. 48). The distinctiveness of locality was overlooked in this period, in favor of a perspective that viewed territories themselves as holding the potential to be lifted up by the civilizing forces of the metropole.

With the arrival of the second generation of imperial travelers after the end of World War I, McDonald argues, the empire experienced a shift away from the civilizing mission and toward a ‘geography of cultural pluralism’ (p. 16) based in what she terms ‘local color tourism’ (p. 103). The Japanese empire, in crisis in the face of resistance from critics of the imperial order, was re-presented as ‘a variegated space of diverse and commensurable cultural regions and a national body composed of multiple ethnic nations’ (p. 105). This is the era of Arigato-san, a time in which filmgoers in the metropole would easily recognize the Korean workers as exotic but dutiful subordinates in the production of empire, even as the filmmakers’ sympathy for those workers threatens to destabilize their position within ethnic hierarchies.

The great strength of McDonald’s work here is in her wealth of primary source material. Drawing on memoirs, diaries, travelogues, guidebooks, literary fiction, and other records, she brings to us the voices of members of school trips to Korea and Manchuria from Hiroshima and Tokyo, naichijin travelers in the areas of Taiwan’s interior allocated by government to the island’s indigenous population, and officials representing the colonial governments-general to investigate conditions or to enforce policy. McDonald supplements that primary documentation with extensive reference to a broad selection of secondary sources that address spatiality, regionalism, and empire, linguistic nationalism, geographical imaginaries, and observational tourism relevant to the time of her study. In this regard, McDonald’s work echoes Imperial Japan at Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire’s 2,600th Anniversary, in which Kenneth J. Ruoff argues for the importance of scholarly discussion of ‘the political overtones of imperial heritage tourism in wartime Japan’, such as was represented by the many events connected to the 1940 celebration.[ii] Ruoff’s work has the advantage of a focus on a single moment, one orchestrated by a defined group of actors. McDonald surpasses that earlier work in utilizing a much greater diversity of primary voices and drawing from them engaging and illuminating interpretations that capture a wide variety of perspectives over a longer time span.

Ultimately, however, while we learn from the voices in McDonald’s book quite a lot about the on-the-ground experiences of travelers in each of these eras, that rootedness in first-person experiences, even with the more abstract descriptive work that sets the contexts for them, is not matched by a clear view of the motivations, conscious and not, that were fueling changes in discourse, planning, or policy. The position of the Korean woman in Arigato-san brings to the foreground countervailing influences of desire, and mentions of desire and affect as energizers of decisions large and small appear often in McDonald’s book. We encounter in the text or in the notes citations of works by Dean MacCannell on the modern tourist (p. 35), Wolfgang Schivelbusch on modern travel experiences (p. 196, note 6), and Marilyn Ivy on what she terms the ‘national-cultural imaginary’ (p. 48), among many similar works, but these authors’ incisive conceptualizations of the forces driving cultural change are largely underused, to the detriment of an analytical view of the profound ruptures that mark this period. Yet desire, among other forces, runs stealthily throughout McDonald’s discussion: desire for the exotic and the erotic, for belonging, and for identity built explicitly on opposition to forms of inclusion consonant with imperial and hegemonic power. In Placing Empire, McDonald offers readers a rich tapestry of policies and practices, emotions and ideologies, that forms a dynamic portrait of the Japanese empire in motion. It remains for the reader to discern the why’s and what-for’s of that capacious movement.


[i] Liner notes written by Michael Koresky to accompany the Criterion Collection release of Arigato-san tell us that the film crew, in the midst of an already unscripted film shoot, happened upon the group of Korean laborers and worked them into the film. Their presence, along with that of a family of traveling entertainers also unable to enter the bus, highlight the inclusion/exclusion dynamic that frames the story. Mr. Thank-You (Arigato-San), directed by Shimizu Hiroshi (Criterion Collection, 1936/2009), dvd.
[ii] Kenneth J. Ruoff, Imperial Japan at Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire's 2,600th Anniversary, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010, 25.

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