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Japanese Literature of the 19th and 20th Century: Historical Accounts and Personal Insights, Essay Example

Pages: 7

Words: 2028

Essay

The history of many parts of East Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries was marked by wars and invasions, both between various East Asian nations and from outside Western nations. It is impossible to examine this history without making an effort to understand the role that cultural and social traditions played in the way that the conquerors and the conquered shaped the course of development tin East Asia. The Japanese invade and occupied China twice, and also invaded and occupied parts of Korea, as did the Americans and the Soviets at different times. Through various works of literature written by East Asian writers who lived through the history of their nations it is possible to gain some insight into how the cultures and traditions of nations such as Japan, Korea, and China influenced the manner in which they struggled through the challenges of war and occupation, and eventually began to enter the modern industrial age that was reshaping not just the Western world, but countries across the globe.

In the book Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood, author Richard E. Kim opens his story with a discussion of the concept of Han, specifically the idea of Korean Han, which he feels has a special meaning independent of other uses of the term in other Asian cultures. Kim describes Han as being something that is hard to define, but that is tied to a deeply-felt sense of doom, or of an inevitable fate that is likely to be unpleasant. It is this idea of Korean Han that made the Korean people “pliant before foreign powers and domination,” and it is this same concept of Han that Kim came to despise. In his book, he further examines the history of Korea and his experiences living through many of the nation’s challenges, while also exploring how the Korean mindset, in his view, made the people of that country ripe for exploitation and domination.

In the opening paragraphs of his book, Kim describes what it was like to be questioned and harassed by Japanese policemen as he was a young boy traveling with his family. The police were concerned with where his family was going and why, and asked to see his papers. Even after seeing the papers they demanded that his father explain where he was going, almost as if to see if his story would match up with what the papers said. It is easy to see, by reading Kim’s description of this event, what it must have been like to grow up under such occupation. Even though it was cold and brutal, it was also the only life that the young Kim knew. As Kim describes how his father bowed to the pressures of the Japanese police, the idea of Korean Han is reinforced; his father seems “pliant before foreign power” just as Kim describes in the book’s preface.

A similar sense of what it was like to deal with invasion and occupation can be found in the book A Daughter of Han. This book tells the story of Ning Lao T’ai t’ai, as told to Ida Pruitt. Ning’s story traces from her very early childhood all the way through to old age, and during that time Ning witnessed an incredible amount of brutality and faced enormous challenges. Her story makes it possible to understand what occupation looked like from the perspective of someone who was at the lowest end of the social and economic scales. In the book, she recounts two different occasions when her country was attacked. On each occasion Ning learned about the invasions only when they reached the area in which she lived. She did not realize anything was happening until the Japanese warships were entering the nearby harbor or until she heard the sound of Japanese cannons in the distance. Through these stories, the reader can gain some insight into what the cultural and social circumstances were like for Ning and many of her contemporaries. By the 19th century technology was reshaping much of the western world, but Ning was still living much as she had all her life, and as her ancestors had before her.

Where the central figure in A Daughter of Han was a lowly one, who lived mostly in poverty, the Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi tells the story of a man who was an important figure in Japanese history and who was involved in the period where Japan was making the transition from a its earlier cultural and social traditions to a more modern Western-influenced way of life. Yukichi was known for many things, including his work as a writer and newspaper editor. One of his most important contributions to Japanese history, however, was as a translator. Yukichi translated many Western works of literature into his native language. Because of the many cultural differences between Japan and the Western world, it was necessary for Yukichi to find ways to translate Western writing in a way that could be understood by his own people. He was credited for developing a unique writing style that served to make his translations useful culturally and even politically.

The 19th century saw many changes throughout East Asia, especially as the influence of the West began to have an effect. Yukichi’s translations were particularly important because they helped the Japanese develop an understanding of Western culture. This imposed understanding made it easier for the Japanese to assimilate components of Western culture, and also to develop a modernized cultural and social identity that would help place them at a more even level with the West, even if that level was not entirely even. It was helpful for Yukichi that he spent some of his lie traveling in other parts of the world, and developed an understanding of other cultures. His writing and ideas were well-respected among many parts of Japanese society, and he helped bring Japan into the modern world.

In the book Confucius Lives Next Door, author T.R. Reid offers a different perspective on life in East Asia. Reid hails from the U.S., and having spent time in East Asia his views can offer insight into the differences between East and West, and how the cultural and social traditions in the East shaped the development of East Asian nations as they left behind centuries of tradition and entered the modern age. It is interesting to chart the progression of the social and cultural evolution in East Asia; in the 19th century, much of the history of East Asia is marked by the direct and indirect influences of the Western world. By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, many parts of East Asia have modernized in ways that outstrip the West, and countries such as Japan and China, after adopting many of the economic and political customs of the West, have grown to become powerful international players on the world stage.

In Yukichi’s autobiography, there is a chapter entitled “I Return to Anti-Foreign Japan.” In this chapter, Yukichi describes what it was like for him when he went back to Japan after traveling to other countries such as the U.S. and parts of Europe. In a sense, Yukichi was experiencing culture shock, but it was his own culture that was shocking. Because he had for so long been involved in dealing with the culture of the Western world, both in his travels and in his work as a writer and translator, Yukichi had developed an understanding of the world beyond the borders of his own country that many of his fellow countrymen did not share, and could not even comprehend. Until relatively recently (in his time) much of East Asia had been isolated from Western culture, and the events of the 19th and then the 20th century brought rapid changes to the region. It was not always easy for the people of East Asia to adopt new ideas from Western culture, and there were many prejudices and cultural differences that stood as enormous impediments for such assimilation. The situation was, of course, compounded by the fact that the Western approach to dealing with other cultures was often built on a foundation of colonialism, where the cultural and social constructs of the West were more or less forced on the people of the regions and nations they colonized. Even those areas that were not outright dominated or taken over by the West often had aspects of Western culture forced upon them, and there was enormous and significant tension in the relationships between parts of the Western world and some of the nations of East Asia.

Yukichi describes the situation he faced upon returning to Japan as an “age of Expel-the-Foreigners.” There were members of Japanese society at the time who believed- and rightly so, in some cases- that the West was primarily interested in the countries in the region of East Asia in terms of how the resources of those countries could be exploited. The divide between East and West in this time was further aggravated by the enormous gap between the cultural and social traditions of the two regions. A number of various individuals and factions in Japan organized protests of different types against the influence of Western interests; in some cases the opposition to the West actually turned violent. Yukichi himself had close friends and associates who were attacked or assassinated by anti-Western interests, and he describes in his book how surprised he was by the strength and passion of these opposition forces he encountered upon returning to his native country.

Historian and author R. Keith Schoppa offers a different and broader perspective on the history of East Asia in his book East Asia: identities and change in the modern world. The other books discussed in this paper are largely written either by someone who lived through the period of history they write about, or who related stories from their life to others who then committed them to paper. The subtitle of Schoppa’s book, 1700-Present makes it clear that Schoppa’s interests lie in recounting the larger history of the region over the last several centuries. While his approach does not rely on personal anecdotes and insights in the manner of the other books discussed herein, Schoppa’s historical account of the region of East Asia helps readers understand just how significant the cultural divides were between West and East when a period of consistent and intense interaction between the two regions began.

In many ways the nations of East Asia were not just contending with the influence of Western culture as they struggled to modernize and otherwise catch up with the rapidly-changing world outside the borders of their nations. There were also significant cultural traditions and social customs that sometimes impeded interaction between the nations of East Asia, and at other times actually served to aid the efforts of outside forces bent on domination. Kim’s discussion of Korean Han, for example, shows that the people of Korea were, in a very real sense, easy targets for Japanese invaders. What is most notable about the changes seen in the region of East Asia over the last two centuries, however, is not the way that the cultural differences between East and West made it difficult for the West to dominate the region; more significant is the fact that, despite the cultural and social differences between the two regions, the nations of East Asia have, for the most part, adopted and assimilated those aspects of Western culture they feel are valuable and useful, and have grown the region into a powerhouse that can compete head-on with the other nations of the world.

References

Fukuzawa, Y., & Kiyooka, E. (2007). The autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Kim, R. E. (1998). lost names: Scenes from a Korean boyhood. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Ning, L. T., & Pruitt, I. (1967). A daughter of Han: the autobiography of a Chinese working woman (2nd ed.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Reid, T. R. (1999). Confucius lives next door: What living in the East teaches us about living in the West. New York, NY: Random House.

Schoppa, R. K. (2008). East Asia: Identities and change in the modern world, 1700-present. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Schoppa, R. K. (2008). East Asia: Identities and change in the modern world, 1700-present. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

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