Occasional Paper No. 34 (August 2005)
About Area Studies and Japan
A Dialogue Between Chalmers Johnson and Hidenori Ijiri

From September 4-7, 2004, Professor Hidori Ijiri of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (Gaigo Daigaku) and Naoya Yamazaki, a Ph.D. student there, visited San Diego, California, and conducted several interviews with Chalmers Johnson. Ijiri is the author of Gendai Amerika chishikijin to Chugoku (Contemporary American Intellectuals and China) (Tokyo: Minerva Shobo, 1992) and many other books. Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute. The traveling of Ijiri and Yamazaki to San Diego became possible under the auspicies of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies 21st COE program: Center for Documentation & Area-Transcultural Studies. The following is an edited transcript of these conversations.

IJIRI: We in Japan place area studies somewhere between international relations and comparative studies. In the beginning, area studies were regarded as the study of an enemy.

JOHNSON: No question. The original impetus for area studies came from national security considerations and wartime.

IJIRI: Then, probably in the 60's or 70's, you had a big expansion of area studies during the Vietnam War and after. And, in the United States, you still have many different kinds of conferences about Asia or China.

JOHNSON: There are several things to say about this, including the fact that today, in America, an increased politicization of ethnicity makes area studies more controversial. Russian studies are also in terrible trouble. The moment the Soviet Union collapsed any number of famous political scientists said, "I'm now a historian."

IJIRI: Our university [Gaigo Daigaku] has a project to collect historical materials, especially in Afro-Asian studies, in a non-exploitative manner, which meant that in the past, when we had money, we bought historical, expensive stuff, and brought it back to Japan. But today, according to the people who run this project, this is simply not possible because the United States and other big powers have acquired most of the sources. One question they have concerns whether digitalization and sharing of materials is possible.

Our university is seeking to become a kind of historical materials hub. Our project as a whole is divided into five or six groups. One is the indigenous materials group. A second one is the printed materials group. Because of developments in printing in the 70's, reprinting of materials has become possible. Then there is the oral archives group. Still another one is the visual material archives group. And finally, we have the 21st century area-and-culture studies group, to which I belong, and I am charged with writing something about the development or history of area studies in the United States.

In Japan, of course, we have the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto. We also have the history of our own development of area studies, which somewhat parallels its development in the United States. But I would like to ask you what kind of situation we have now in East Asian area studies in the United States? And what about the future?

JOHNSON: In the case of the history of area studies in America, I think the first roots were probably the Christian missionaries. That is to say, the study of difficult foreign languages and cultures that were not readily familiar to people with a Western European-type education were undertaken by Christian missionaries. For example, in the case China, the merchants did not care much about learning Chinese. They did not need to; they were there to make money. The only people who needed to know Chinese were the Christian missionaries because they could not proselytize without knowing the language. Even to this day, some of the most important dictionaries were done under the auspices of Presbyterian missionary board: for example, Mathews' Chinese-English dictionary. The translations of the Confucian classics were done by James Legge, who was a prominent missionary.

This is also true of the western study of Japan. The absolutely standard Japanese -English Kanji dictionary is Nelson's. Nelson was a prominent missionary in Japan in the early part of the 20th century. Generally speaking, these efforts did not have much impact on the universities. Some missionaries, when they returned from China or Japan or Africa, got university positions. But it was usually more a matter of welfare for the missionaries. The universities did not really believe in it, they did not see the need for it, they did not pursue it very well. Latin America may be an exception here, because of the fact that, after all, a very large part of the United States was conquered from Mexico and we've had a long involvement with Latin America. So there was, in history departments at any rate, always a reputable area of Hispanic-American history and the study of the Spanish language. But generally speaking, Chinese and Japanese studies in American universities were almost non-existent until the Second World War.

There is no doubt that the funding for area studies, which brought many people into it, came about as a result of the needs of wartime; and in the case of Japan in particular, the U.S. government established powerful and influential schools to teach the Japanese language. These were intended to train battlefield translators who would go with the troops into places like Okinawa and interrogate Japanese prisoners of war and also read documents and do that kind of analysis. Some of the most famous translators of Japanese literature, such as Edward Seidensticker, learned their Japanese at the University of Michigan or the University of Colorado during the World War II, and it clearly changed their lives. Because of their fluency in the language they became interested in Japanese culture and began to read Heian texts and things of this sort.

What we mean by area studies, however, it seems to me, is simply empirical, inductive research about other cultures. Not research that is theoretically driven but driven by knowledge of the culture and a proficiency in the language. In that sense, it is more in the classical anthropological mode of trying to understand a culture that is alien to you by personally, inductively getting inside of it, reading the main classics in the field, being able to talk with fellow scholars in the area, and in some cases, doing field research in a particular topic for which your research may very well have theoretical implications. But such research was not driven by a theoretical issue at first. My own research on the Ministry of International Trade Industry is essentially empirically driven. My question was how did Japan industrialize after the war so rapidly and so successfully. This, however, led to a theoretical argument that Japan constitutes a different kind of capitalism, a kind of state-driven but genuine market economy in which people are responding to market signals but in which most of the fundamental choices for the economy are being made by a pilot bureaucracy determining what would be useful to the society.

There were some extremely influential works that came out of World War II that probably were more theoretically driven than empirical. I am thinking here, for example, of Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword . Many people in the United States and in China and elsewhere in the world were shocked by the brutal behavior of Japanese troops in the territories they occupied. At the same time Benedict interviewed a large number of American missionaries -- people like Edwin Reischauer's father, and people who had been born and raised in Japan, who all testified that the Japanese were the sweetest, pleasantest, least brutal people on earth. Therefore there seemed to be a real contradiction. How does one explain every empirical report that says these people are highly civilized, carefully controlled, and have a highly cultured society, and yet their troops behave abroad in a barbaric manner.

Well, there are many specialists on the Japanese military who could explain this simply in terms of the traditions of the imperial army without invoking either Japanese culture or race. I remember Ishida Takeshi saying to me once that he could never hear the word Tennoheika (the emperor of Japan) without cringing because when he was in the army during the war, every time he heard the word Tennnoheika, it meant he was about to be smacked by some sergeant. I thought to myself that was a pretty good explanation for brutality by the Japanese military right there. I believe that today many of us would challenge Benedict's book because it was too theoretically driven. Her famous distinction between a shame and guilt cultures simply does not hold up. We know that actually there is a lot of guilt in Japanese society and American society invokes shame all the time.

To get back to area studies, the great explosion of American area studies during the war is when we get the foundations of Japanese and Chinese studies. They continued afterward because we had trained very effectively a large coterie of people who had been given excellent instruction by native speakers. Many of them, like Seidensticker and Ritchie, went on to make their careers in interpreting Japanese culture to the West.

The other great explosion was in Russian studies as the Cold War developed. It became almost the leader of area studies. Again the emphasis was on Russian language training, which was a great boom to students of classical Russian history and literature. But the emphasis was on the Soviet Union and Soviet Communism, just as in the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley, of which I was the chairman at one time. We created this center to study not China but Communist China. We taught Chinese but it was modern guo yu ; we did not teach classical Chinese. The department of Oriental languages, which was quite well established by then, was deeply opposed to us because we were not really creating a Chinese studies that was rooted in Chinese civilization. Well, I agree in a sense that in many ways we were too much driven by Cold War considerations and the belief that we needed to   "know the enemy" and we regarded China as an enemy.

Even so, I would say that the effect of virtually all of these area studies programs was to train people who in some sense liked their area and its people. I think it is very difficult to do area studies on a foreign culture that you truly dislike. Now that's not entirely true. One of the peculiar things about Soviet Studies was the tremendous influence of Polish exiles. These were people who truly disliked the Russians because of their domination of Poland so many times in the past and during the Cold War.

During the Cold War I think area studies had excellent intellectual foundations but there is no doubt that the funding was coming from the Ford Foundation and organizations indirectly supported by the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency. In the 1960s, there was a major reaction against this and there was also a reaction in Japanese studies among younger specialists on Japan, of which certainly the leading figure today is John Dower, who went on to win the Pulitzer prize for his study of occupied Japan. Dower, together with people like Maruyama Masao in Japan and others, attacked the postwar school of American Japanology that emphasized Japan as a case of successful "modernization," a view associated with people like Reischauer and Marius Jansen. Those opposed charged that these people were rewriting the history of Japan's development to make it a safely house-broken ally of the United States. Reischauer may have some things right, but he has to leave out the history of 1931 to 1945. I agree with Maruyama that there is no way to say that the history of militarism in Japan is not a legitimate subject. It is a legitimate part of Japanese history and it leads us back to think that the possible paths from the Meiji era were multiple. They led to the Taisho democracy of the 1920's but they also led to the ideology of emperor worship and an exceptionalism that the military exploited in the name of fascism.

On the other hand, I think Reischauer had it right in one sense. Maruyama says there was no democracy in Japan at all until the Americans arrived in 1945. That is implausible on the surface. Unless you want to argue that Japan's democracy is totally spurious, we have no reason to believe that the Americans introduced democracy. We have every reason to believe that democracy was already there; its roots had been planted back in the first diet in 1890 and certainly in the Taisho era, and all that MacArthur did was to remove the obstacles of militarism and allow indigenous forces to democratize the country.

Another major theme of criticism of area studies at the moment is associated with the name of Professor Edward Said, who just recently died. His most famous book is called Orientalism . Said's argument is that Westerners defined the Islamic world in a way that was pleasing to them but that denigrated the culture. We have, for example, Mozart's opera, Abduction from the Seraglio , about dangerous Turks who are sexually driven to capture Western women. Or Rossini's Italiana in Algeri . I think Said is certainly right, but at the same time I don't think he is willing to appreciate the importance of "orientalism" in also instilling an idea of the East that is actually quite attractive, for example, the great Russian ballet , La Bayadere . Similarly we have a large genre of artistic work about East Asia that fits Said's stereotype: Puccini's Madam Butterfly or Turandot. You may say that obviously Western stereotypes and Western values are here imposed upon Japanese or Chinese society. At the same time Puccini evokes many elements of Asian culture that I do not believe are entirely deleterious or ideological.

However, Said offers us a wealth of evidence, particularly from French and English sources, of attitudes toward the Middle East that suggest racism. I believe this is also an important element in America's relations with East Asia today and is not sufficiently covered. That is to say, the American public does not fully understand the intimidating conditions created by the American military, particularly for women, in a place like Okinawa. One of the classic postwar films in the United States about Okinawa was Teahouse of the August Moon with Marlon Brando playing an Okinawan! To go back and look at that film today just makes one wince if you're an American. So this awareness of cultural bias is today very influential in American universities, particularly in anthropology, although not in economics or political science. But in cultural studies there is an extreme sensitivity to the dangers of what has come to be called orientalism after Said's work.

The more serious challenge to area studies -- one that I have been deeply involved in fighting against and that has affected above all my own field of political science -- is the influence of mathematical economics. The charge is that area studies are un-theoretical, that they do not partake of grand systems of theory. Moreover it is argued that the amount of time spent learning a language like Chinese or Japanese is a waste of time. , According to this fad, what a good scholar needs is an education in abstract theory. If he understands theory he can study any place. He can go into East Africa or he can go into Iraq. That's one of the reasons why today there is a fascinating contrast with WWII, when the United States did at least recognize that we didn't know much about Japan. We recognized that in order to prosecute that war we needed a lot more people who read Japanese. We have been essentially blind in the Middle East.

Today, political science departments have very elaborate models, often mathematical, and formal ones from which you can supposedly deduce outcomes. Now, there are a lot of different ways to explain how this came about, but I believe the Nobel Prizes are partly responsible. They are so prestigious that they dominate faculty clubs and research institutes and they drive all fundamental research toward what might be called Nobel Prize science. Thus, in my opinion, one of the things that ruined economics as a field was the decision to give a Nobel Prize in economics. Economics used to be an empirical social science in which the scholar was interested in how people made a living, full employment, the labor movement. Today, economics is a form of applied mathematics in which economic relationships are expressed as simultaneous equations. It includes no institutions, doesn't apply to any society on earth, and I think it's ultimately worthless as well as misleading.

Nonetheless, the Nobel Prize in economics created a great deal of jealousy in political science. What happened in political science was, I believe, an attempt erroneously to duplicate what had occurred in economics. What happened in economics was to take the American economy as a model and then mathematize it and reify it as the way all economies ought to be. Rational choice theory is the attempt to do something like that with American democracy. A political science Ph.D. today has been increasingly defined in terms of an ability in rational choice theory, game theory, the manipulation of economic models, and the formal creation of models in which the mode of analysis is deductive rather than inductive. Today I would have to say that area studies is a hard thing to pursue in an American university. In fact, I would say to someone who was really convinced he wanted to do area studies, you should do it covertly and you should be very careful about what you say until you get tenure. When you get tenure then you have the opportunity to define your own research interests and you take your chances. It could mean that you'll never get promoted to full professor no matter how famous you become.

Now, what is happening today in 2004, is an ever so slight reaction to all of this, above all because of the Iraq War. We discovered when we invaded Iraq, claiming we were going to make it democratic, that we had only four people in the U.S. Army who read Arabic fluently and who know something about Arab traditions. Our military in Iraq has been for all intents and purposes culturally blind. So right now there is a huge demand in universities for Ph.D.'s in Arabic or in Pashto or in South Asian languages. But this again raises the national interest issue.

IJIRI: When I was your student at Berkeley in the early 1980s, you kept telling us that we   should know the difference between theorists and area specialists. And yet today there are many theorists who know almost nothing about various countries even though they feel very free to theorize about them. Joseph Nye, for instance, is a theorist who initially did not pay attention to Korea that much. And he just discovered North Korea because of the Kim Jong Il and nuclear power. What you kept telling us was that we really had to understand what is going on in the area.

JOHNSON: In my own career I always did empirical research but then felt the need to turn that empirical research into something more generalizable. Thus in my first book I called it Peasant Nationalism,  not Chinese peasant nationalism. And I have a chapter comparing it with the Yugoslav civil war during the WWII in the context of the Nazi invasion. It still interests me because with the collapse and break-up of Yugoslavia, my theory has been overturned: nationalism did not hold Yugoslavia together. It may have been created in wartime Yugoslavia, overcoming Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian identity. But with the death of Tito, it broke up and blew apart. I do not think that will happen in China. I once asked John Fairbank when he went back to China after the war and the revolution what had struck him most, and he said "the acceptance of the citizen role. You travel around China today and people say 'I am Chinese.' In the 1930's they would more likely have given you their family name or they would have given you the name of the province they lived in."

IJIRI: But going back to a conference we had at Gaigo Daigaku regarding the issue of area studies, some professors insisted that it is very important always to bear in mind the concept of "otherness." We are not the same thing as the people we are studying.

JOHNSON: That is interesting because otherness is certainly at the very heart of Edward Said's critique. Said is saying that what orientalism teaches a young Frenchman or a young Englishman is that the Chinese and the Japanese are genuinely others. Said wants to argue that this is not an empathic understanding of culture. This is not the way to get inside and see alternative ways of solving common human social problems. And this raises the interesting problem of whether there are insights from the inside that are not available to outsiders. For example, in feminist studies. There is no reason why men should not study problems of gender, but they're crazy if they don't listen to women because they assuredly have insights from the inside. But does this mean you should restrict area studies to people who are exiles from that area? Surely not.

IJIRI: I think of what Nagai Yonosuke always kept telling us: that we needed a detached attachment to what we were studying.

JOHNSON: Let me just add something here that I think it is very important. One of the great values of area studies as a discipline for young people in the university is that ultimately it forces them to learn more about their own society. I totally agree with the idea of Nagai that you must put yourself into this other society that you are trying to understand. But in the process you begin to see yourself as separated from your own society and no longer simply as a servant of political power.

IJIRI: I think one of the great things about Berkeley was that Berkeley was very strong in comparative politics. And in political science in the U.S. as a whole I think comparative politics is much stronger than international relations, and comparative politics is more closely linked to area studies. In Japan comparative politics is not well developed whereas international relations is a big field and a famous field. I think my colleagues in the university don't really want even to use the term "area studies."

JOHNSON: What do they use instead? Do they call themselves theorists, or international relations theorists, or professors of comparative politics?

IJIRI: Some are historians so they call themselves historical area specialists.

JOHNSON: I see. So they would not call themselves professors of comparative politics?

IJIRI: No, because they are not political scientists. Some call themselves specialists on international society.

JOHNSON: I don't know what an international society is. If I heard that I would think, "Oh, a U.N. specialist." At the same time I cannot think of anything that would be more logical in Japan today than a good China center that brought together the diverse perspectives of economics, politics, history, literature, and language training and that was post-communist. I mean, communism in China today is dead. The party is not dead, of course, but China needs to be studied and dealt with by Japan as a powerful neighbor in East Asia. Similarly, let me ask you, are there any centers in Japan of Korean studies? Koreans are under the impression, and I agree with them, that whether Japanese like Korea or not, they do good research on the country and think Korea is an important place to study.

IJIRI: Before we stop, do you have any suggestions for the people in the various faculties in Japan who want to just get into an area without necessarily using area studies? What kind of development do you see in the future of area studies?

JOHNSON: Well, I have tried to answer this question in an abstract way for young Americans who have gone to Japan on the JET program (the Ministry of Education's program to put native speakers of English in high schools as language teachers) and who then come back and wonder how they should pursue their interest in Japan. My argument to them has been that if you want a job as an academic, you have a problem. You would probably be wiser, in my view, to think of some other career from which to observe the very complex world we live in. The two best known of such careers are as a diplomat or as a journalist. Neither is easy, and there is no guarantee of success. But you must understand that universities today are also very complex, big, often quite nasty and ruthless institutions. Now, if you decide you want to work in a university anyway, then I would say that generally speaking history departments offer the greatest flexibility today, the least rigidity about what they are studying, and the most likely to recognize creativity even if it is not something they totally approve of. You are also likely to have quite good students in history departments, but at the same time this is not a growth field; it's not easy for a young Ph.D. historian to get a job unless he's just a genius.

I always want to say to people who have an academic calling that the secret weapon of American academic life is the small liberal arts college. These are places that offer good courses, and where faculties are judged more on their teaching than on their research because that is what is going to attract students. Perhaps in Japan places like Doshisha come closest to what I have in mind. But if you work at places like that you probably have to resign yourself to not making much money.

IJIRI: Do you think the same thing could be said of the Japanese system -- that is, Japanese academic society?

JOHNSON: Well, I am not as well informed about Japanese academic life as I used to be. Most of the people I knew have, like me, retired. But I have the feeling that the problems in Japan are probably similar to what they are in the United States. There is still a lot of prestige associated with being a professor at a big, important university but there is also a lot of frustration about whether these universities are performing a useful function. The fascinating thing about places like Berkeley and Harvard -- and Todai -- is that they attract extremely good graduate students who are often smarter than the faculty. I remember at Berkeley students used to work very hard to get admitted and sometimes they would come to me and say, "I'm disappointed because I haven't met any great professors." And I'd say, "You are fool. The best course offered here is called lunch. Get to know your fellow graduate students." And of course that is what students do at Tokyo University. Those who are admitted at the same time will become life-long friends and they are going to be smart as hell.

IJIRI: What about being an area specialist in Japan today, because Japanese intellectuals are also very much interested in rational choice and so forth.

JOHNSON: Obviously Japan is going to see China very differently from the way we do. But one of the things that I think typifies the area specialist is that you have to be independent. If I have one criticism of Japanese universities in my own field, it is their bad tendency to emulate the United States in looking for intellectual trends. They don't think in terms of what works or what makes sense but only in terms of what they are doing at Harvard or Berkeley. But good Japanese area specialists -- people working on North Korea today, for example -- are independent of their own government and of intellectual trends, and they are devoting themselves exactly and precisely to what they think is true. Such people get information where they can and they are not going to let anything stand in their way.

I urge Japanese area specialists to collect information and choose significant topics. I would think you have every advantage in Japan today because Japan is so clearly, if slowly, emerging from the Cold War structure. It may have profited enormously from the Cold War, but I believe that the old Japanese-American relationship is coming to an end, if for no other reason than that it is economically unstable. Japan finances the United States' trade deficits in order to maintain market access in the United States. But the truth of the matter is, the American market is being replaced by huge global markets, and Japan will not be reliant on the American market for too much longer, particularly since it is so adjacent to China.

IJIRI: China has a bright future in terms of the field of study, but what will become of Japan?

JOHNSON: Well, you see that's why I think Japan needs new and improved area specialists to show how Japan can offer complimentary leadership with China. I find it fascinating to see the number of Chinese students who have come to Japan to study. They enjoy studying in Japan, and they often become very good linguists, but I do not think the Japanese treat them very well. I think Japan ought to be much more receptive to young Chinese because although the Chinese may not like Japan they do admire what the Japanese have achieved during the postwar period. I think one of the greatest opportunities for Japanese universities is to come up with programs that truly welcome Chinese students who want access to modern intellectual thought as well as modern science. This is something perfectly logical for the Japanese to do.

The Singaporians are also trying to figure out a niche for themselves in dealing with China. They've decided that the biomedical field is one area because the Chinese would like to have access, education, and products in molecular biology, modern pharmaceuticals, and things like that. But I have to say that the Japanese pharmaceutical industry is light years more highly developed than that of Singapore. Moreover, there are a lot of rich people in China today who have health problems, and this is an upscale specialty in which it is going to take China a long, long time to ever catch up to Japan. So I think the sky is the limit today on how China evolves. As for how its international relations in East Asia develop, so far I am fairly impressed with the growing power they are getting but how cautious they are in using it. I also think Japanese area studies are wide open to figuring out what kind of political system Japan will develop once the LDP monopoly is finally broken.

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