Meghan Warner Mettler is an assistant professor of history at Upper Iowa University. She is the author of How to Reach Japan by Subway: America’s Fascination with Japanese Culture, 1945-1965 (June 2018).
Japan Once Underwent A Makeover. Can Other Asian Countries?
Any American who has been paying at least cursory attention to the news lately is well aware of the breakneck pace of stories emerging from the current executive branch. And on no subject has the White House seemed to whiplash more quickly than American relations with Asia, specifically on China and North Korea. At one point China is killing U.S. jobs with unfair trade practices. The next moment the U.S. is striking deals to help to bail out Chinese companies. Meanwhile, “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un appears to have morphed into a generally decent guy willing to negotiate with the U.S. and its allies. The sudden change of tone can be dizzying to say the least.
However, President Trump is far from the only American leader to take an ambivalent view toward Asian nations (he just seems to be switching positions faster than most.) Over the course of the past 150 years, Americans have depicted Asians as hopelessly backward and slightly ahead of our time, as threats to the American way of life and bulwarks of democracy, as job-stealing undesirable immigrants and model minorities. This varied nature of these portrayals is not simply due to the diversity of actual countries and cultures in the region; in fact they have applied to different nations interchangeably. For instance, in the early 1940s Americans viewed Nazi-allied Japan as a threat to civilization itself, which the Chinese were helping Allied forces defend, while a mere decade later, Japan was standing fast to prevent the Pacific from turning into a “communist lake” under Chinese influence.
The root cause of Asia’s seemingly two-faced nature lies in America’s elastic assumptions about the region, regrettably grounded in racist stereotypes. Caucasians have long thought of “Orientals” as stoic, spiritual, hard working, and possessed of a rich cultural tradition, characteristics which could all carry positive or negative connotations given the right circumstances. Stoicism can be interpreted as a sign of quiet strength or unhealthy repression, spirituality can encourage moral uprightness or fanaticism, hard work can follow a Protestant ethic or threaten unfair competition when taken to an extreme, and tradition can yield ancient wisdom as well as backward stubbornness.
My own work focuses on the biggest about face in U.S. foreign policy arguably with any nation anywhere, the aforementioned transformation of Japan from enemy to ally following World War II. The extent of this quick change was not only impressive in its speed, but also its depth. Along with official U.S. policy that in 1947 declared a recent enemy to be a crucial ally in the struggle against global communism, the hearts and minds of the American public were largely changed as well, accepting Japan as a land of warm and friendly people with fascinating traditions. So, if such a quick change happened once for Japan, could it again for China, or even North Korea?
There were several reasons why Japan’s rapid image makeover played out as well as it did. Firstly, spokespeople for the U.S. government spoke in terms that separated Japan’s wartime government from the populace at large. A group of militarists had seized control of the once democratic nation, they claimed, leading Japan’s hapless citizens headlong into an ill-advised international conflict. But once they were removed and tried as war criminals, the nation seemed a lot easier to forgive for its recent transgressions. The second factor lies in that elastic nature of Asian stereotypes. The U.S. government, along with sympathetic private institutions, promoted Japanese culture to the American people in keeping with a positive image of a gentle and nonthreatening nation. Examples of Japanese culture like ikebana flower arranging, haiku poetry, sho-in architecture, tea ceremony, bonsai cultivation, and Zen Buddhism were presented as examples of a culture that had valued serenity, spiritualism, and honest craftsmanship since time immemorial. All of this, of course, was in contrast to the inhuman self-denial and fanatical devotion Japanese culture thought to embody during the war years. In short, Americans held the same general sense of what Japan was like, but gave it a completely different interpretation.
It is certainly possible that a similar formula could be applied elsewhere. The groundwork is already laid for China. In addition to consuming tons of Chinese-inspired cuisine, Americans admire the complex and seemingly sedate nature of Confucian philosophy or the grace and power of Chinese martial arts, while others try acupuncture as a viable alternative to Western medical treatments. Korean imports admittedly have less of a presence. Americans are probably more familiar with modern day South Korean exports like Kias, Samsungs, and Gangam Style than they are with most aspects of Korean tradition. But still, there is no reason why Americans could not learn to cultivate an appreciation for either country’s culture in a way that casts them in a more positive light.
However, it is the first item that creates a bigger sticking point when considering a dramatic switch in relations with China or North Korea. Americans would likely not have too much trouble divorcing the citizenry of either nation from their leadership. Indeed, the standard American narrative of North Korea involves a people being held captive at near-starvation living standards by a seemingly insane totalitarian regime. But the next step involves actually removing that government and replacing it with one in our own image, as the U.S. military did in Japan in 1945, something few outside of the most staunch war hawks would now advocate. As neither government seems willing to undergo drastic change any time soon, no matter how much the Trump administration’s rhetoric warms up, the fact remains that both nations’ human rights records are spotty at best, and the American people are well aware of that fact. It appears that for the time being, neither China and North Korea will be able to escape the negative pole of American ambivalence toward Asia.