Japan in Worldwide Speculation on China

“China between Historical Knowledge and International Politics: With Special Reference to Prewar Japan’s View Exemplified by Naitō Konan and Yoshino Sakuzō” (Northeast Asian Studies, No.28) is an extension of my previous studies, and greatly benefited from a visit to the Center for Northeast Asian Studies at Tohoku University, from December 2022 to February 2023.

Receiving a BA in Business Administration from National Taiwan University, a MA in Comparative and General Literature from Edinburgh University, Britain, and a PhD in Cultural Interaction Studies from Kansai University, Japan, my research focuses on the (trans)formation of Asian thought in modern times. My recent publications address both national and transnational contexts, such as the intellectual interaction between East and West unfolding around the Indian poet-thinker Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), pan-Asianism and its variations, the influence of Confucianism on Japan’s modernization, China discourse in transdisciplinary perspective, and so forth. The essay under discussion naturally belongs to the last category, but it shares many concerns with the aforementioned fields.

The rise or resurgence of China is one of the most significant global events in recent decades. While this phenomenon has been drawing much attention, articulation, and speculation, most works of so-called China discourse are indeed portraying very different images of China, and a major split of view occurs between social scientists and humanities scholars. I first dealt with this issue in a 2021 article, delving into how different emphases—the political and economic capacities of contemporary China on the one hand, and the history and culture of traditional China on the other—give rise to different predictions about China’s future, and mutual understanding between the two is still to be enhanced (see “China Discourse from the Late Twentieth Century: A Dialogue between International Relations and History” [Chinese original: 20世紀晚期以降的中國論述:國關與歷史的對話], in Journal of Social Sciences and Philosophy, 33:4 [December, 2021]: 701- 736). This article reveals the disparity of goals and methods between international relations and historical studies, but in the process of writing I strongly felt the need to draw Japanese cases into discussion, which led to the current essay.

Given the crucial role that Japan has been playing in modern East Asia, as well as its long tradition of studying China, my argument is that an examination of Japan’s view of China serves to complement both China-centered and West-centered discourses. Focusing on the early part of the twentieth century, the essay features Naitō Konan (1866-1934) and Yoshino Sakuzō (1878-1933) to show not only the richness of their characterizations of China, but also how historical knowledge and international politics interacted with each other in a specific context. Despite or perhaps because of their nearly diametrical views of China, the works of Naitō and Yoshino remind us of the complexity that the “China issue” involves, which defies oversimplification. It is true that in prewar Japan, very few scholars could detach their Chinese studies from realpolitik considerations, but that is a problem facing the contemporary world as well. Viewed in this tolerant way, prewar Japan provides an extraordinary case for us to see how traditional Chinese learning, modern Western scholarship, Japanese national interests, regional cooperation and conflict, and tense international relations all combined together.

However, as Japan has entered a new historical phase since the end of World War II, a separate essay exploring the postwar Japanese view of China is required, which should deal with a completely different combination of political, economic, cultural, and ideological considerations.

(Yu-Ting Lee Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of National Development, National Taiwan University)