“Middle Kingdom & Empire of the Rising Sun” by June Teufel Dreyer

French political cartoon from 1904-05, Georges Bigot. At the MFA, Boston French political cartoon from 1904-05, Georges Bigot. At the MFA, Boston

Back in the 1980s, books about Japan became bestsellers worldwide, with the ascent of Japan from the ignominy and abject destruction of 1945 to the position of the #2 economy on the planet, with the #1 spot not far off in the breathless predictions of some at the time.

An early entry, Ezra Vogel’s Japan as No. 1 (1979) remains, in Japanese translation, an all-time best seller in Japan among non-fiction works by Western authors—it tells the Japanese some stories about themselves that they prefer to hear, though a number of those stories have proven laughable in the intervening years. In the 1990s, as Japan’s bubble economy burst (sort of) and the country slid sideways into zero growth and stagnation, another shedload of books about Japan, Bill Emmott’s The Sun Also Sets emblematic among them, looked at the why behind Japan’s failure to achieve the lofty dreams set for it by many of its own, and many gaijin as well.

In the 2000s, the WHO/Olympics/Expo decade for China, the publishing industry turned its attention, investment and promotional machines toward books about the Middle Kingdom. Gordon Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China (2001—we’re still waiting) gained plenty of publicity at the beginning of what some style the Asian Century. Jasper Becker’s The Chinese (2000) deserved a greater share of the recognition and has stood the test of time. (Becker also gets honorable mention for Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (1996), which the Kirkus Review called in its 1997 review, “the first serious attempt to unearth the truth of the massive human tragedy behind the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in China between 1958 and 1961.”)


Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations, Past and Present, June Teufel Dreyer (Oxford University Press, August 2016)
Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations, Past and Present, June Teufel Dreyer (Oxford University Press, August 2016)

Japan 25 years ago, China more recently—wherever the focus has been, it hasn’t ever been on both. In the 1970s, Chalmers Johnson, reviewing a scholarly work on the Japan-China relationship for The Journal of Japanese Studies, claimed, “One of the long-standing defects of Western scholarship on eastern Asia is its compartmentalization. China and Japan are usually studied in isolation from each other.” We have little recent evidence to the contrary, so June Teufel Dreyer’s Middle Kingdom & Empire of the Rising Sun, which would be a big fish in any pond, is especially so in this small pond of books on the Sino-Japanese relationship. The book begins deep in prehistory (China and Japan have been at each other’s doorsteps, and occasionally at each other’s throats, for millennia), but within 30 pages Dreyer has moved into the 19th century, and by page 80 she has moved into the postwar period. Those keenly focused on the past 70 years of Japan-China relations will find an impressive volume of information here, not just in the 300 pages covering the period, but in the more than 1,200 footnotes and 150 bibliographic entries.

Dreyer begins the second paragraph of the first page with,


The central theme of this book is that these issues [squabbles about Yasukuni visits and what they represent] are merely symptoms of an underlying problem that stretches back to the beginning of relations between the two states: the unwillingness of either China or Japan to accept the other as an equal, and the refusal of either to accept a position of inferiority to the other.


A rather tidy yet comprehensive statement of the situation—and it’s reasonable that Dreyer focuses on a sliver of the historical relationship between the two, given that a wider focus, at the level of academic depth she exhibits, would require volumes and her entire career.

In a work covering such a broad chronological, cultural and geographical topic, some elisions are inevitable. But some of Dreyer’s zeal to get on with her prodigious scholarship about the postwar period becomes evident when she asserts that “an orderly evacuation of most of the Japanese troops in China took place” following the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Rather, the repatriation of the millions of Japanese—soldiers and civilians—featured casual and organized violence, caprice and randomness on a continental scale, as should be intuitive given the size of the undertaking, and left behind tens of thousands as well. Most of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers who surrendered to the Soviets, opportunistic invaders from 9 August, were kept in the gulags for years, where 10-20% died from abuse. (It should not need be said, but the slaughter and starvation and war crimes visited upon the Chinese by the Japanese invaders were greater by at least an order of magnitude than the travesties suffered by the Japanese in the repatriation era.) And we must expect some small factual misses in most publications in this era of shrinking editorial budgets—in this case, a mis-description of the composition of Commodore Perry’s Black Ship fleet in 1853, the starting date of Taiwan’s White Terror (1947), etc.

What relevance does such a work have? Many of those who read such a dense, academically oriented work through will already know much of the history, while many of those who should know the history—policy makers and their supporters—won’t likely read such a work through, if at all. That’s unfortunate, for reasons that should be apparent to anyone who looks at a map, or a chart of global GDP. When 20% of the world’s population (90% of that in China, 10% in Japan), representing the #2 and #3 countries in GDP, are neighbors, kissing cousins and constant rivals, we should all have at least a working knowledge of their common history.

Van Fleet’s first book, Tales of Old Tokyo, a scrapbook history of the city from 1853 to 1964, was published in 2015. His second ‘book’, Quarrelling Cousins: China and Japan from Antiquity to 2022, is appearing in modules. He serves as Director, Corporate Globalization, at the Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.