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Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008


Probing the real Japan

Scholar Kenneth Pyle reveals this country's past, present . . . and future

Staff writer

Kenneth Pyle says his first memories of Japan were of watching war films when he was a child — "all the dogfights with Zero fighters and all that."

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A keen eye: Author and University of Washington academic Kenneth Pyle has spent a lifetime immersing himself in matters Japanese. Now, he is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on the country's modern history. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The 72-year-old American still keeps a close eye on Japan's military maneuverings. Now, though, he's a historian, scouring the 20th-century political landscape for hints about Japan's often inscrutable underlying goals and motivations.

Pyle is recognized in Japan and internationally as one of the leading scholars of Japanese modern history. From his base at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he is a professor, he has established a reputation for analysis that reveals the strategic thinking behind Japan's relations with the world. For example, Pyle says that Japan's disinterest in diplomacy and international involvement during the Cold War was a deliberate, long-term strategy to allow it to recover its strength after its wartime defeat and destruction.

The historian's latest book, "Japan Rising," published last year, focuses on the last decade or so, when he says Japan has been quietly preparing for a return to a period of greater diplomatic assertiveness.

Last month, Pyle made his "45th or 50th trip to Japan." That visit was to receive the prestigious Japan Foundation Award for his contribution to the dissemination and development of Japanese Studies in the United States.

With the world now in particular flux, it seemed appropriate to ask the scholar about his favorite subjects: Japan's history, its politics — and its relations with the United States.

Congratulations on receiving the Japan Foundation Award. You've devoted a large part of your life to the study of Japan, so it must be very satisfying to have that effort recognized by the Japanese government.

Oh yes. It's really fulfilling. Symbolically, too. For example, there was not only the award ceremony, but that morning my wife and I had an audience with the Emperor and Empress in the palace.

Did you have a chance to talk to them?

Yes. They were so gracious. The Emperor, Empress and my wife and I are all of the same generation, so we talked about our historical experiences and their similarities. Obviously there are a lot of differences, too. The Emperor knew I was a historian of Japan, and he began asking me about what my special interest was.

I believe that special interest was initially in the philosophy of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), but before we talk about that, can you tell me what it was that initially attracted you to Japan?

Well, in contrast to most people who get into Japanese studies, who I think initially fall in love with the culture, my first interest was in history in general. I grew up in Pennsylvania, not too far from Gettysburg (site of a murderous U.S. Civil War battle in 1863). My father was a university professor and administrator and he said "Asia is going to be important in your time."

Which year was that?

That was in the late 1950s, so it was a period when Asia was really becoming front and center. There had been the Pacific War and the Korean War and Sen. (Joseph) McCarthy was asking how we could have lost China. So, it was a time when Asia was beginning to come forward as a trouble spot, but that wasn't what my father meant. I think he meant that he thought Asia was going to rise in the way that it has. I picked up on that, and when I got to college I majored in American diplomatic history, but I began taking courses on Asia at that time. Then in graduate school, I realized this is what I wanted to work on — U.S.-Asian relations. And so I began language work.

When I was studying Japanese at school, my grandparents' generation couldn't believe I was studying the language of the enemy. What was it like for you?

Well, you know, I was really a part of what you might call the first academic generation of American specialists. Ambassador Edwin Reischauer's generation was the kids of missionaries and then after that were those who came here during the Occupation. The people I came over with, in 1961, were all on Ford Foundation scholarships. It was still extremely unusual for people to come for academic reasons to study Japan, without any family or Occupation background.

How do you think your academic background differentiated your approach to Japan in comparison with the missionary children or Occupation generations?

I think maybe we were a little bit more dispassionate and have a little bit more perspective. I sometimes had the feeling that those who were here in the Occupation and perhaps the missionary generation felt a kind of need to almost defend Japan, explain Japan, in a sympathetic way. That's not to say that we're not sympathetic, but, coming with our academic perspective, perhaps we were a little bit more dispassionate.

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You came to Japan in 1961 and studied here for three years. Were you attached to a university?

At that point, Stanford University (in Palo Alto, Calif.) was establishing a kind of branch campus here in a place called Wakeijuku up above Waseda in Tokyo. It's since become the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. They assigned me a tutor for 18 or 20 hours a week. About halfway through the second year, the center made arrangements for me to study with a professor at the University of Tokyo — Sannosuke Matsumoto. He was Masao Maruyama's successor in political philosophy at the university. Again, because it was such an early period in academic relations with Japan, he would invite me out to his house every Saturday, just alone. We would spend a whole day, mostly reading Maruyama's major works on political philosophy.

You began your studies with the Meiji Era. What drew you to that period?

Well, that period's almost unique in world history in the sense that as the first non-Western country to industrialize, Japan was trying to figure out what were the strengths of the West that needed to be adopted. How far do you go? Do you just adopt science and technology? Or do you have to have to adopt Western values? Do you have to adopt Western religion? There were no answers to all that. Yukichi Fukuzawa and the Japanese intellectuals at that point were struggling with those questions.

My own dissertation focused on the first generation of intellectuals who had gone through a completely Western style of education. I picked up on a nationalist group of young scholars. They were working on what we would call a struggle for national identity, or cultural identity: What is it about Japan that can be preserved in the midst of all this borrowing? What really is our national essence — "kokusui" was the term they used.

What other periods in Japanese history — including the ones you have witnessed in your lifetime — have you found most interesting?

I guess the most exciting thing was figuring out that Japan had a strategy during the Cold War. Japan seemed so politically uninvolved with the rest of the world, and the explanation that everybody gave was that the trauma of war, defeat, occupation and atomic bombings had given rise to pacifism and a determination not to be involved in anything international, strategic or military.

To a considerable extent, that was true of the Japanese people. But as I began to work on the postwar period and the conservatives — the conservative leadership — I began to feel that there was a strategy there, and various things that I came across led me to focus on (Prime Minister; 1946-47 and 1948-54) Shigeru Yoshida.

There was a brilliant political scientist named Yonosuke Nagai, and he sent me an unpublished paper of his in which he mentioned the "Yoshida Doctrine." It was the first time I'd come across that term. I picked up on it, and began to realize that Yoshida had a brilliant strategy. For the populace at large, yes, there was pacifism and the trauma of war, but for the conservatives and the "Yoshida school" there was a real strategy for restoring Japan's place as a great power — by concentrating on the economy.

Yoshida had this historical understanding of international relations, and the theory that sometimes you can win the war and lose the peace. You do that because the victors quite often disagree over the spoils of war, and that gives the defeated nation the chance to take advantage of that. That's what happened during the Cold War.

Yoshida took advantage of that situation. He realized that the Americans had no choice during the Cold War but to defend Japan, and so Japan could accept that defense and in a sense take advantage of it to concentrate all its energies and resources on rebuilding itself as a great economic power.


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