Madeline Y. Hsu is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her works include Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration Between the United States and South China, 1882–1943 (Stanford University Press, 2000) and The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2015). Professor Hsu was a 2016 recipient of an OAH/JAAS Japan Residency.
Fifty years ago, in the heady 1960s, American studies scholars in Japan organized the Japan Association for American Studies (JAAS). Twenty years ago, a formal residency program for U.S. historians began. I arrived in Japan at the conjuncture of these two anniversaries. It was an illuminating experience that provided a revealing window into views of the United States from the western end of the Pacific..
As a Fellow of the OAH-Japan Residencies Program, I participated in JAAS’ annual conference along with American Studies researchers invited from South Korea, the United States, and Switzerland to reflect on the field, and plenary sessions featuring multiple generations of past and present leaders of the organization.
World War II and the U.S. occupation are foundational to the development of American Studies in Japan. The most senior scholars described their earliest exposure to Americans and the United States as taking place when the dominance of U.S. power was at its most stark and decisive in framing the conditions of alliance and collaboration that prevail today. These conditions shaped their early preoccupation with American culture and civilization, which many pursued by studying abroad in the United States. Several generations of scholars have followed in their footsteps, with some pursuing interdisciplinary training but also in disciplines such as history, political science, literature, musicology, anthropology, and sociology. Many still study in the United States, although the field is now sufficiently institutionalized so that Japanese scholars can study for MA and PhD degrees at several well-regarded institutions in Japan. Overall, I found the Japanese community of American Studies scholars had much higher levels of English-language abilities than American counterparts in the languages of their respective area studies.
The relationships and influence established in mid-twentieth century continue to resonate profoundly in the early twenty-first. Many Japanese colleagues were deeply concerned by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent reinterpretation of the national constitution, which was developed during the occupation under the controlling authority of General Douglas MacArthur, in order to increase Japan’s military forces. Even undergraduate students were riveted by the U.S. presidential campaigns, particularly widespread media reporting of promises by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, to disrupt longstanding protocols of international relations and trade that have anchored several decades of highly effective U.S.-Japan cooperation.
Under such conditions of unbalanced, but nonetheless mutual, influence and imbrication at many levels, how do Japanese scholars conceptualize and situate a Japan-centric version of American Studies? Unsurprisingly, many of the research projects explore familiar terrain as suggested by these graduate student presentations: “You’re my Pin-Up Girl!”: Gender, Race, and Revisiting the Forgotten Narrative of Mary Lou Williams through the Perceptions of her Fan Base” [Masayoshi Yamada, Doshisha University] and “Lyndon Johnson’s Public Diplomacy toward Africa and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State, 1964-69” [Shunsuke Okuda, Kyoto University].
As might be anticipated, Asian American, and particularly Japanese American, topics are popular. As a specialist in migration and transnationalism, I was most inspired by projects that scrutinize the diasporic implications of Japan’s pre-1945 empire, which position the United States, various Pacific islands, and other parts of the North and South American continents as colonial peripheries. In de-centering the United States, the mobilities of ethnic Japanese and their circulations of trade, knowledge, organizational networks, and political influence reveal intriguing comparisons.
For example, “cowboy” singer Katsuhiko Haida adapted U.S. country music forms, including yodeling, for Japanese consumers during the 1930s and World War II. The Hawaiian-born singing star’s family returned to Japan to escape U.S. discrimination and Haida’s songs and career reflect his orientation toward a Japan-dominated world (Mari Nagatomi, Doshisha University).
Another example comes from Tomoe Moriya (Hannan University), who researches Buddhist missionaries who proselytized in Hawaii and San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century among both Japanese and white Americans, on whose behalf they published English-language newspapers.
Expanding systems of trade, migration, and exchanges served as the sinews of empire for Japan, as it had for the United States, Great Britain, France, and other European empires as shown in the scholarship of Mariko Iijima (Sophia University) and Eiichiro Azuma (University of Pennsylvania). They trace the agency of businessmen and entrepreneurs who linked outposts of the Japanese empire, such as Hawaii and Taiwan, by establishing networks of sugar and pineapple plantations linked through the distribution of technology, capital, and labor and transnational systems for production, marketing, and consumption..
These historical resonances in scholarship reflect the mutually constitutive programs and priorities that permeate Japanese and U.S. academic collaborations. Such exchanges foster long-standing, ongoing conversations regarding mutual interests that enable the systematic cultivation of shared projects that have, over the past seven decades, enabled the United States and Japan to emerge from wartime opponents and imposed conditions of peace to become closely, even inextricably, entwined allies.
This successful evolution from enemies to friends signals the effectiveness of programs for scholarly exchanges and circulations in staving off destructive wars and conflict.