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Discourses of an unknown place

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The second volume of a series titled ‘Regional Spaces, Cultures and Identities of East Asia,’ Tōhoku: Japan’s Constructed Outland presents a richly detailed 120-year historical trajectory of thought and opinion that outlines the development of a Tōhoku discourse. Although beginning with travellers’ accounts of the area from the late 1700s, the main body of work presents descriptive accounts of media clippings, policy statements and opinionated commentary on the region, from within the region, over the period 1870-1910: an archive of sentiments regarding Tōhoku as its, and Japan’s, Meiji-period history unfolded. The twists and turns through time, as portrayed in the six chronological chapters, yield what apparently came somewhat unexpected to the book’s historian and author, as the conclusion begins with an admission of surprise at the diversity of interpretations of Tōhoku. Viewed as uncivilized in the early years of the Meiji period by some, the vastness of the area, comprising the whole of northern Honshu, has also been perceived, and projected, as a rich frontier flush with potential. This contradictory view of the area was confounded by a sense of double consciousness on the part of Tōhoku residents themselves: a sense of inferiority as locals throughout the area held an image of their region as being a resource rich internal colony in the 1870s and 1880s on the one hand, countered by a latent notion of superiority as some realized the potential for Tōhoku’s emergence as a global transportation center from the 1890s through to 1910 on the other.

Understanding the value of a place
Tōhoku’s potential on this basis was never realized over this period, as Japan urbanized and developed elsewhere, and its potential may be seen as un(der)realized today, a contemporary lament that is particularly acute as the region works to both adjust to the reality of the Heisei Mergers and recover from the devastation of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. However, Kawanishi’s takeaway arguments, while grounded in Tōhoku’s complicated reality, are more academic, primarily in assertions regarding the importance of historical place-based research that provides for an understanding of otherwise under-noticed places as complex and connected and worthy of reconstruction on a narrative specific to that place. Thus, specific to the book’s theme, Tōhoku should neither be conceptualized “as a homogeneous society with a unified historical world and social space,” (p. 153) nor be seen as devoid of connections, either within Japan and with other countries, as Tōhoku’s connections are those “which can be glimpsed (only) from the histories of each area within Tōhoku” (p. 153). Understanding Tōhoku thus requires making distinctions both chronological and geographical, such that the rich diversity in the six Tōhoku prefectures in place and over time can be discerned. From these diverse narratives, the “complex and subdivided historical worlds of Tōhoku need to be (can be) reconstructed on the basis of autonomous and particularly regional theories, instead of being dictated by ‘Japanese history’” (p. 154). It is only from here that one can move from an ‘imagined narrative’ to one that ensures new historical awareness and new regional discourses.

Understanding the value of the book
Translated from Japanese, what Kawanishi offers in Tōhoku in terms of theoretical insight and informed conclusions surely represented cutting edge interpretation to Japanese readers in the original, but have been offered elsewhere in academia, whether in emerging arguments in the trajectory of Area Studies as a disciplinary endeavour or in conclusions to specific research on other ‘places’ of the world, as well as in recent works on Japanese regionalism, and even in his chapter in Tsugaru: Regional Identity on Japan’s Northern Periphery (University of Otago Press, 2005). That is not, however, to imply that Tōhoku: Japan’s Constructed Outland is without merit or that the journey one takes in reading the book to come to conclusions articulated elsewhere is a wasted effort. Indeed, while I see a contribution in making these arguments in the case for Tōhoku, I also see the work as making contributions in other areas, as being important both in furthering (re-)interpretations of Japanese Studies and in the propagation of diverse but compelling research methodologies.
Reading the book for me was like making a time slip to the past, where I could imagine myself able to ‘see’ local (rural vis-a-vis Tokyo) Japanese society through a real time reading of its policy proclamations, magazine articles, and newspaper editorials. I was able to ‘read’ excerpts from the Aizu and Akita Shōnen Zasshi magazines, as well as the Akita Aomori Hakodate Shinpō and the Akita Nippō newspapers, along with approximately 40 other ‘local’ publications, from throughout Japan but especially from deep within Tōhoku. The use of quoted material from these sources provided insight not just into the opinions of the day, but also provided the flavour of the opinions as expressed in the original at that time, evident in the translated texts where dutifully presented. I could also delve into the origins, motives and viewpoints of a range of associations of the day; among the better known, the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement, but also lesser known groups based in Tōhoku such as the Society of Godly Light and the Society of Perfect Morality, as well as the Tōhoku Self-Rule Party and the Tōhoku Seven Provinces Liberal Party. I found myself privy to the thoughts and opinions of over 90-odd leaders, the national and local elites who founded the newspapers, organized the groups and pushed the policies that both determined and described the issues and trends of their time and place. The section on Hirosaki-native Kuga Katsunan (1857-1907) contributes to other work on the Meiji-era journalist, while further contextualizing his passion for Tōhoku’s “special position in the narrative of Japan” (p. 129). In terms of a research methodology, the use of local media as source, along with detailed quotations, followed by the informed interpretation by Kawanishi that accompanies each step through time, yields, as I alluded to above, a journey through views of the Meiji trajectory of Tōhoku. Sometimes the pattern became repetitive and routine, but the method and what it reveals provides the building blocks necessary to ‘see’ the transition of views of Tōhoku, starting as ‘wasteland,’ before yielding to an emerging ‘burning sense of spirit’ and ‘youth taking a stand’ ‘in the evolution (I might prefer ‘emergence’) of a discourse,’ and onto ‘Tōhoku nationalism’ before closing by offering the future of a ‘Tōhoku discourse.’
To conclude, while the broadest theoretical and disciplinary arguments of Tōhoku: Japan’s Constructed Outland have been made elsewhere, it is meaningful to see them reaffirmed, emerging in a much-needed and highly detailed view of an under-researched geographical block of Japan. And while it is important that Tōhoku: Japan’s Constructed Outland has provided for that confirmation, more important in my opinion is the view of Tōhoku through this period of Japan’s history that the work provides, a view provided by a methodology that is of value to anyone conducting historical or regional research on ‘a place.’ Going forward, as researchers, both of the trajectory of the history of Japan as well as the tensions of its contemporary circumstance, seek to see ‘places in context,’ the discourse of Tōhoku as detailed and articulated in Tōhoku: Japan’s Constructed Outland will provide one guide for how to proceed.

Reviewed by Anthony S. Rausch, Hirosaki University, Japan (

Rausch, A.S. 2016. A review of Hidemichi Kawanishi (transl. Nanyan Guo and Raquel Hill). 2016. Tōhoku: Japan’s Constructed Outland, posted online on 7 June 2016:


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