Japan at War

Japan’s sudden, speedy modernization after 1868 turned into a scramble for resources and influence on the Asian mainland. As foreign powers fought over the spoils of the dying Chinese empire, the Japanese became under-dogs, allies, and then rivals of the other imperial powers – first praised as the plucky ‘British of Asia’, then reviled as unwelcome upstarts and feared as savage foes.

Jonathan Clements chronicles the 80 pivotal years which set Japan on a course for world war, steered by a military clique that used assassination and coercion as political tools. He charts the evolution of a state dedicated to conquest, and the influence of military fanaticism on everything from Japanese culture to food and fashion – including the propaganda songs and anthems of a martial nation. He examines daily life in the Japanese Empire at its peak in 1940, and the grotesque colonial experiment of Manchukuo, a state funded by drug-dealing and supported by forced labor.

Looking beyond the polarized narrative of the Second World War, Clements examines the motivations and beliefs of Japan’s leaders, as well as policy decisions couched in terms of Pan-Asianism, the exclusion of the Japanese from immigration, and the effects of trade sanctions and embargos. A final chapter details the dismantling of the old order during the Allied Occupation, and its echoes in the present day.

Available now to pre-order.

When I Called You Last Night From Glasgow…

Off to Glasgow today, ready for tomorrow’s big onstage interview with Mamoru Hosoda at the Glasgow Film Theatre. This will actually be the fourth time I interview Hosoda about his film, Belle. We’ve joked about the second time being a “disappointing sequel” after his revelations about Paw Patrol, but he decided to surprise me by talking about an anime called Gunbuster, which as some of you may be aware, I am a bit of a fan of, which made the second one even better, and then he started talking about the Rolling Stones, and the third one trumped the others. But if a series of interviews were the Star Wars films, this fourth outing will be our Phantom Menace, which would make me Jar-Jar Binks.

Time Travel Footnote: So this turned out to be the first ever Q&A I’ve been involved with to get a standing ovation, but that may have had more to do with Hosoda’s first footfall in the country being in Glasgow (“the Osaka of Scotland”) rather than That Fancy Edinburgh.

Behind the Kaiju Curtain

“England the bumptious gaijin transforms into a living culture clash, not only chronicling an excruciating catalogue of faux pas, but also the oddities of Japanese PR through foreign eyes – he is, for example, comically aghast at what passes for a “special event” in Japan, where fans are expected to shell out £100 for a ‘sneak preview’ and a jigsaw. In a world where Japanese production executives are notoriously thin-skinned about absolutely everything, I almost spat out my coffee imagining how one of them might react to the revelation that the bento boxes supplied by Toho apparently all ‘suck ass,’ even if England does put such a review in the mouth of an unidentifiable crewmember.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Norman England’s new memoir of life in the rubber-monster movie business.

The Backstory of Bebop

Evangelion had effectively broken the mold for prime-time TV, and there was a scramble to make some kind of follow-up that did something different,” Clements explains. “Cowboy Bebop went for a sci-fi future without giant robots” — again, defying the conventions of science fiction anime at the time.

Over at Entertainment Weekly, I am one of the talking heads in Tyler Aquilina’s introduction to the Cowboy Bebop anime and its long history with the American mainstream.

A Short History of the Samurai

Up now on Noiser podcasts (for free!), A Short History of the Samurai, featuring that Paul McGann as the narrator, and that Jonathan Clements as the talking head. For those who want to know more, of course, there’s always my Brief History of the Samurai (which is £3.99 on the Kindle, so still a bargain).

I actually broke down for a bit while retelling the story of Dannoura, as I usually do, but they very discreetly snipped out me sobbing.

The Ethics of Affect

“Two years ago, in my review of Galbraith’s Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan, I noted that the book finished with a series of slingshot ideas, as if Galbraith had more to say, but had to bow out for now as he approached the edge of his wordcount. His new work from Stockholm University Press seems to be the first of the ‘contingent articulations’” that he promised, continuing his adventures as anime and manga’s self-appointed Danger Man, perpetually poking at the hornets’ nest in search of anthropological understanding.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Patrick W. Galbraith’s newly published anthropology of bishojo games and gamers.

Ascendance of a Bookworm

“But worst of all, worse even than the fact that her Dad is now apparently a green-haired man called Gunther, is the fact that she has found herself in a world without books.

“I know that horror. I was once a guest in someone’s home where the sole piece of visible literature, left out on the coffee table to impress visitors, was a Dan Brown novel. So, imagine finding yourself in a world where not even a Dan Brown novel is available, where despite having Swedish-Finnish names, the locals have never heard of a sauna or soap… and did I mention there were no books?”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Miya Kazuki’s novel Ascendance of a Bookworm.

Finns Find the Orient

Finland’s first Chinese restaurant opened inside the spy-infested Hotel Torni in Helsinki in 1953. With characteristic Nordic bluntness, the restaurant was called simply “China.” There, claims food historian Ritva Kylli, visitors “eagerly tasted Chinese flavours and practised how to use chopsticks.” By the end of the 1950s, some Chinese influences had crept into Finnish cooking, including restaurants with wax tablecloths, and the usual utensils of Finnish eating – plates and forks and what-have-you, haunted by the presence of a bottle of soy sauce and a jar of chili oil.

“Dishes from the Torni,” she writes, “became familiar in the Finnish home kitchen, most often chop suey, which was known to have been developed in San Francisco, and become known all around the world as a classic dish of Chinese cuisine – everywhere except China.”

Chinese food is but a sidebar in Kylli’s exhaustive Food History of Finland: From Salted Meat to Sushi [Suomen Ruokahistoria: Suolalihasta sushiin], recently published in Finnish. In it, she charts the development of a national cuisine that has been famously pilloried by other nations – most famously, according to one well-known French politician, the second-worst in the world, after British food. She takes the Finnish palate from its early, bland fumblings with rye bread and dairy products (“Our Finnish cheeses are much praised,” claimed Daniel Juslenius in the 1700s, without a shred of proof), through the introduction of Russian foodways and French bistros, the impact of Prohibition in the 1920s, wartime austerity and the turnabouts of the modern world.

As her title implies, she finishes with another oriental foodstuff, at least nominally. Finns were certainly aware of Japanese food early on – she includes a letter from a baffled diner in Hakodate in north Japan, trying to come to terms with chopsticks and drinking soup from the bowl in the 1920s. But it’s not until 1978 that Kylli uncovers an advert in a Helsinki newspaper for a place calling itself the Yokohama restaurant. Although Tylli tracks a strong upward curve in Japanese food in Finland over the next few decades, it is not really until the 2010s that sushi has become a nationwide phenomenon outside Helsinki, and not because of the Japanese, but the Chinese and the Thais.

Most of the “Japanese” restaurants in Finland are run by Chinese and Thais, ever-ready to exploit the likelihood that Finnish men are sure to stock up on rice and stodge, but Finnish women will jump at the opportunity for a sort of salad that’s also a sort of lunch. For some reason, accountants and the Finnish tax office seem to smile upon “cold” lunches as a tax-deductible expense, further incentivising a bit of fish that hasn’t actually been cooked.

Kylli’s 500-page epic history of food is meticulously referenced and wonderfully detailed, and understandably shies away from the prospect that some Finns might be their own worst enemies when it comes to gastronomy. Once in a Helsinki restaurant that would probably prefer to be unidentified, my recurring inability to remember the word in Finnish for “bowl” led me to switch into Mandarin, and for the manager to suddenly snatch away my plate.

“Oh no!” he said, “Let me make you the good stuff. The buffet’s just the crap we serve the Finns!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. A Food History of Finland: From Salted Meat to Sushi is published in Finnish by Gaudeamus.

Sanpei Shirato (1932-2021)

“I had a beggar girl set fire to herself,” he remembered, “becoming a signal beacon in order to warn the warrior who had previously saved her life. Should I only draw the beauty of her spirit? Or the ugliness of a burnt corpse? I chose not to turn away from the dead body.”

Over at All the Anime, I write an obituary for Sanpei Shirato, a key figure in the rise of the ninja, and in manga’s grittiest historical materialism.

New Audiobooks

Out now on Audible, unabridged editions of my Brief History of Khubilai Khan and Brief History of the Martial Arts. As with the earlier audiobook of my Emperor’s Feast, I insisted on doing the recording myself, because I was getting tired of narrators who couldn’t pronounce any of the words in Chinese or Japanese… or as it turns out in these two, Tibetan, Mongol and Vietnamese as well. Some proper tongue-twisters in these two, as well as my impersonation of a London taxi driver describing the exploits of the Danish karate team.