We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Japan’s Imperial Underworlds: Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire, published by Cambridge University Press. The book’s author is David Ambaras, an Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University.
Japan’s Imperial Underworlds uses vivid accounts of encounters between Chinese and Japanese people living at the margins of empire to elucidate Sino-Japanese relations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each chapter explores mobility in East Asia through the histories of often ignored categories of people, including trafficked children, peddlers, ‘abducted’ women and a female pirate. These stories reveal the shared experiences of the border populations of Japan and China and show how they fundamentally shaped the territorial boundaries that defined Japan’s imperial world and continue to inform present-day views of China. From Meiji-era treaty ports to the Taiwan Strait, South China, and French Indochina, the movements of people in marginal locations not only destabilized the state’s policing of geographical borders and social boundaries, but also stimulated fantasies of furthering imperial power.
We thank Dr. Ambaras, an alumnus of Columbia College who earned his PhD from Princeton University, for taking the time to discuss his new book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
After publishing your first book Bad Youth, which was about juvenile delinquency in modern Japan, what led to you to explore the experiences of the border populations of Japan and China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
I didn’t come to the borderlands or border populations immediately. Rather, as I was finishing up Bad Youth, I understood that I had written a book about modern disciplinary power that colonized and reconfigured the spaces of everyday life, but that I had neglected developments in the colonial sphere, and that I needed to think about how Japan operated as a broader imperial social formation. This concern led me to first to explore sources relating to social welfare, marginality, and transgression in the colonies, especially Taiwan, and eventually to discover a wide range of sources revealing the movements of marginal people across the Japanese empire and the East Asian region in ways that complicated our understandings of the character of empire itself. Identifying the connections across these sources and stories permitted me to imagine a coherent monograph, informed in particular by my reading in geography, mobilities studies, and border studies.
What are some of larger questions that have driven your research and teaching and how do they relate to Japan’s Imperial Underworlds?
Marginality and transgression have always been key themes in my work. The margins give shape to the center or core, while transgression creates borders and boundaries. Rather than look from the center out, I prefer to reflect on the productive nature of the edge. As Edward Casey writes, “The most important arena of action is not in the center of the stage but at the periphery—or better, peripheries, as there is always more than one kind of edge in a given circumstance. Rather than being the zone in which human action gives out or comes to an end, the boundary is precisely where it intensifies: where it comes to happen in the most effective or significant sense.”* My interest in questions of social regulation or social control has increasingly come to focus on the significance of spatial control, and contests over space and place. This was already evident in Bad Youth, in which what I called the politics of everyday life entailed conflicts over slums and other urban districts, schools, households, factories, and reformatories. In Japan’s Imperial Underworlds, I make the spatial question more explicit and theorize it more carefully, particularly with respect to the constitution and contestation of borders. Similarly, while Bad Youth discussed imperialism in terms of a state-centered set of agendas or projects of national advancement, in Japan’s Imperial Underworlds I take the spatiality of empire, and the instabilities of that spatial formation, as my central topic. And in all of my work, I examine the ways in which not only official discourse but also sensationalist media have shaped the social order – the ways in which the gendered, classed, and racialized borders of identities emerge in the interplay between news/story and reader.
How did you choose to structure this book? What kinds of individuals and stories did you focus on?
I structure the book as a series of connected microhistories that begin in the treaty ports of Meiji Japan and wind up in the South China Sea in the 1930s. The first examines the transfer of children born to Japanese parents into the custody of Chinese in the treaty ports or on the Chinese mainland, through transactions that the Japanese state viewed as illegal but which Japanese and Chinese participants often understood to be legitimate or necessary forms of exchange. In addition to considering the ways in which authorities sought to police this traffic, I investigate the rumors and folklore that circulated in relation to these transactions in children, and the ways in which these stories were eventually mobilized for the purposes of imperialist expansion. The second microhistory treats the movement of peddlers from Fuqing County, Fujian Province, to Japan, and the movement of their Japanese wives with them back to Fuqing and its environs in the early twentieth century. This is a history of marriage migration, but it came to be depicted as the abduction and enslavement of Japanese women by rapacious Chinese men, and these depictions called forth official efforts to “rescue” the women and restore Japan’s patriarchal national honor. The records of these “rescue” missions, needless to say, reveal a much more complex reality. In my third microhistory, I follow one of these women, Nakamura Sueko, from her childhood in Hokkaidō to her elopement with and eventual separation from her first Chinese husband and her re-emergence as the co-leader of a gang of Fujianese pirate-revolutionaries in the 1930s. By tracing her story, I am able to provide a new view of the turbulent borderland of the Taiwan Strait, where the Republic of China, the Japanese colonial empire, and older social formations intersected, in a period of rising conflict. The fourth microhistory traces the personal and literary itineraries of Andō Sakan, a colonial journalist and travel and adventure writer who specialized in stories of Chinese pirates, Japanese overseas sex workers, and other Japanese at the far reaches of imperial space. Andō’s writings, I argue, reflected profound anxieties about Japan’s relationship to China and the unstable borders of Japaneseness in spaces not under Japanese territorial control. The epilogue traces the ongoing effects of these histories on Sino-Japanese relations into the present.
In both Bad Youth and this book you connect many individual life stories with wider historical developments. What are some of the advantages and challenges in drawing together micro- and macro- histories?
One of the great things about micro-histories is that they give us the opportunity to tell stories, which are fundamental to what we do as historians and humanists, and which fulfill a deep social need for connection with the past. Scaling down helps us reflect closely on questions of agency and contingency. But we can’t simply limit ourselves to telling neat stories. The challenge is always to be sure to scale up, to keep the larger frames in mind while evoking the rich details and immediate concerns of the micro-level actors. I don’t think we can (or need to) assume the representativeness or typicality of the micro-level subjects we study, but we should nonetheless always endeavor to show how the micro and macro connect and inform each other. The recent development of global microhistories has been extremely valuable for showing these kinds of connections. It’s also important not to assume the meaning of any scale, however: “global” can mean different things to different groups, as can “local.” One has to keep these different kinds of imagined spaces and relationships in view.
From what kinds of sources and archives did you draw to write Japan’s Imperial Underworlds?
I started by spending a lot of time reading the Japanese press in colonial Taiwan, which struck me as having been studied far less than Korea or Manchuria. I then found myself, somewhat serendipitously, drawn into the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, which I realized was an incredible resource for doing the social history of the Japanese empire, because many of the dossiers I examined contained detailed reports on individuals, often submitted by Home Ministry officials, that were not available elsewhere. I combined these sources with other materials from metropolitan archives, the metropolitan press, and a range of other publications, including cheap literature of the kind that no one today remembers or has considered worthy of examination, but which is quite revealing about the mentalities of the imperialist era. I was also able to find rare sources in various libraries in Taiwan, and supplemented these materials with sources from the Chinese press, from French Indochina, as well as from US and British diplomatic records. Finally, I was extremely fortunate to encounter, totally by chance via Facebook, the nephew of Chen Changlin, Nakamura Sueko’s pirate husband, who kindly shared with me his family’s history and permitted me to understand both Nakamura’s life and the history of the Taiwan Strait in important new ways. This last experience taught me how crucial it is for us as scholars to think beyond the strictures of traditional archives in pursuing global histories; it also reminded me about the importance of luck and coincidence in doing research.
What research findings especially surprised you or challenged your previous understandings of Japan’s history?
Working on this project really drove home to me the understanding that the traditional narrative of “China declining and Japan rising” simply fails to capture the dynamics of modern history in East Asia, particularly when we look at that history from the ground (or sea) up as opposed to from the top down or the center out. From this perspective, I was struck by the ways in which Chinese migrant and commercial networks extended into the remotest parts of the Japanese archipelago during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the kinds of intimate connections that the extension of these networks engendered. What also struck me was the degree to which, even after Japan’s victory in the 1894–95 Sino-Japanese War led to a surge of rhetoric about Japanese national superiority and Chinese inferiority, both official and popular views of China and the Chinese revealed a lingering, primordial anxiety that reproduced stories and tropes first seen almost a millennium earlier. These deep mental structures may also be shaping the virulent Sinophobia that has emerged in Japan in reaction to geopolitical and economic developments since the 1990s. On another note, writing this book has prompted me to rethink my understandings of Japanese history by attending more to the ways in which different spaces and times of empire can produce very different kinds of imaginative geographies and subjectivities. For example, Andō Sakan’s vision of the fragility of the Japanese empire was profoundly influenced by his experience of travel in the South China Sea in the early 1920s, and thus conjures up a sensibility and geopolitical agenda that is quite different from the romantic Meiji visions of empire centered on imagined South Sea islands or those centered on Manchuria with which we are most familiar.
Could you tell us briefly about your current research project(s)?
Much of my time is currently devoted to a digital project, Bodies and Structures: Deep-mapping the Spaces of East Asian History (http://scalar.chass.ncsu.edu/bodies-and-structures), that my colleague Kate McDonald (History, UC Santa Barbara) and I are co-editing. In addition, I’m working on a couple of articles using materials that I wasn’t able to include in Japan’s Imperial Underworlds. I’m also in the early stages of a larger study of maritime space and the different scales of “Japanese” history in the modern era.
*Edward S. Casey, “Boundary, Place, and Event in the Spatiality of History.” Rethinking History 11, no.4 (2007): 508.