Japan’s Northeast: Regionalism & Nationalism


A review of Tōhoku as Postwar Thought: Regionalism, Nationalism, and Culturalism in Japan’s Northeast, by Nathan Hopson.

Since the disaster on March 11, 2011, the Tōhoku (northeast) region of Japan has received worldwide attention as one of the places most affected by an earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear incident. Yet this catastrophe has also invigorated intellectual concerns about Tōhoku as an “area” with a specific history in Japan. For example, it is symbolic that the Reconstruction Design Council for the Great East Japan Earthquake, an advisory panel set up by the Japanese government in the immediate aftermath of the event, included intellectuals known for their study of Tōhoku’s history, such as Akasaka Norio (1953-) and Umehara Takeshi (1925-). Building on a case in which the narrative of reconstruction and the academic discourse of Tōhoku became intertwined, Nathan Hopson’s 2012 dissertation provides us with a timely overview of the development of Tōhoku studies from the end of World War II to the present. Among Anglophone literature on Japan, Hopson’s work is the first broad survey of Tōhoku studies. Yet Hopson’s dissertation is also particularly significant because it analyzes the development of Tōhoku studies as part of a history of knowledge production that bears an ambivalent relationship with Japanese national history. By pointing out the resemblance of Tōhoku studies to postcolonial literature, Hopson examines the discourses of Tōhoku studies in the framework of a “regional identity movement” (p. 12) in response to Japanese nationalism or colonialism.

The main objects of analysis in Hopson’s research are the works of Takahashi Tomio (1921-), an Iwate native and pioneer historian of ancient Tōhoku. Takahashi was an influential figure in the postwar rise of Tōhoku studies. Focusing on Takahashi’s works, Hopson carefully traces the development of Tōhoku studies by examining various theoretical influences and scholarly interactions among intellectuals. Thus, Hopson connects the emergence of postwar Tōhoku studies to their current condition.

Hopson’s dissertation comprises five chapters and can be broadly divided into three parts. In the first two chapters, the author explains how Takahashi’s study of Tōhoku as an object of analysis manifested as “postwar thought” in the sense that his perspective was influenced by his reflections on the imperial war and the complex feeling associated with it. The third and fourth chapters turn to the historiography of Hiraizumi, a city in the Iwate prefecture well known for its prosperity in the twelfth century, and chronologically trace the development of the historiography’s interpretive framework. In the last chapter, Hopson addresses the confluence of Tōhoku studies with the new vision of Japanese national identity that has developed since the 1980s.

Chapter 1, “Tōhoku as Postwar Thought,” first examines Takahashi’s early postwar works in terms of contemporary Marxist historiography. Hopson particularly engages the perspective of Marxist historians such as Ishimoda Shō, who focused on minzoku (nation) as a subject of revolution. Hopson traces in Ishimoda’s perspective the effect of the Japanese nation’s victimization by the state. In Hopson’s view, this victimization exonerated common people from feeling of war guilt. He schematizes this as a minzoku vs. kokka (state) dichotomy. Also influenced by Ishimoda’s approach, Takahashi nonetheless sought new value in the culture and history of Tōhoku instead of in the Japanese nation. Hopson defines Takahashi’s practice as a combination of “the nearly universal goal of mitigating war guilt with an antagonism for not just the state but also the nation” (p. 39). Second, this chapter shows how Takahashi shaped the field of Tōhoku studies by spearheading the movement of the “deracialization of Emishi” (p. 57). Prior to 1945, Emishi (the ancient name for people living in the Tōhoku region) were closely associated with the Ainu people. Yet Takahashi defined Emishi as a cultural and political category and made it possible to examine the contingent nature of this important subject group in ancient Tōhoku history.

Chapter 2 deals with how Takahashi tried to reinstate the value of Tōhoku in Japanese national history, and Hopson particularly focuses on how Takahashi aggressively employed models from world history. Takahashi was initially interested in Arnold Toynbee’s challenge-response model through which he understood the Emishi-Japan relationship as an analogy of Germanic tribes’ relation to the Roman Empire. Yet, in the 1970s, Takahashi discovered Fredrick Turner’s American frontier thesis as a more useful framework for Tōhoku studies because it emphasizes the role of periphery vis-à-vis the center. Just as Turner’s thesis claims that the frontier determines the character of the United States, Takahashi ascribes to Tōhoku as a frontier of ancient Japanese “colonization” an indispensable value for Japanese history.

In his analysis of the historiography of Hiraizumi in chapters 3 and 4, Hopson broadly divides its development into four stages. The first stage begins with the 1950 exhumation of the Fujiwara lords’ bodies, which natural scientists used to disprove the identity of the Fujiwara clan and the Ainu people. This section lays out the longstanding debate of whether Hiraizumi is merely a cultural imitation of the center or a cultural innovator, although in this time period historians tended to subordinate its achievement to the influence of the dominant Japanese culture. Yet since the publication of Takahashi’s Ōshū Fujiwara-shi yondai in 1958, the first book of his Hiraizumi trilogy, the independent or autonomous status of Hiraizumi in relation to the Japanese state has become the dominant view. Furthermore, Takahashi emphasized the hybrid nature of the Hiraizumi people as a mix of Japanese and Emishi blood. Thus, Hopson writes, “Tōhoku held out promise for an alternative national history” (p. 131). In the third stage, beginning in the 1970s, Takahashi’s scholarly influence slowly waned because of the critiques of rival scholars who argued for a more dependent status for Hiraizumi. The final stage begins with the excavations of Yanagi no Gosho in Hiraizumi from the late 1980s. In this research, archaeology played a more important role than history and found traces of a transnational flow of culture and goods. This transnational network became an agenda item when the government nominated Hiraizumi as a World Heritage property in the 1990s. Nonetheless, Hopson reveals that the government’s intervention in this research via the nomination divorced Hiraizumi studies from larger intellectual trends in Tōhoku studies.

In chapter 5, Hopson returns to his analysis of the mainstream discourse of Tōhoku studies since the 1980s. In particular, he addresses the intervention of Umehara Takeshi’s neoculturalism as an important turning point in Tōhoku studies. Umehara, who inverted the traditional Yayoi-Jōmon hierarchy and regarded the culture of the Jōmon period as the basis of Japanese culture, found in Tōhoku an authentic home of the pre-Yayoi culture. Umehara became interested in Takahashi’s vision of Tōhoku and they held a symposium together in the 1980s. Umehara discussed Tōhoku in terms of the authenticity of Japanese history and presented a new “vision of Japanese culture as a Jōmon-Yayoi hybrid with Jōmon at its base” (p. 198). Hopson thus concludes that Umehara’s Japanese culturalism synthesized Takahashi’s Tōhoku studies with a reevaluation of the Jōmon culture.

In the afterword, with regard to the present situation of Tōhoku studies, Hopson introduces the work of recent leading scholar Akasaka Norio and briefly analyzes his arguments. Thus, Hopson establishes the continuity of Umehara’s perspectives, which aim to rewrite national history by defining Tōhoku as a hybrid of the north and south.

Hopson’s dissertation leaves open future possibilities for Tōhoku studies because it shows us both the potential of and the problems with such discussions, particularly in terms of their closeness to nationalized history. As a pioneering intellectual history of Tōhoku studies, this work sets the stage for scholarly discussions of heterogeneity and unevenness in Japan. Given the current overflow of discourse on Tōhoku, this dissertation helps us to critically reflect on the functions and meaning of such dialogues. In this regard, this work is a timely and well-crafted intervention in Japanese historiography with wider contemporary political relevance.

Noriaki Hoshino
Department of History
Cornell University

Primary Sources

Writings of Takahashi Tomio, Umehara Takeshi, and Akasaka Norio

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2012. 259 pp. Primary Advisor: Frederick R. Dickinson.


Image: http://is.gd/StmtdA.

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