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Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan's Imperialism, 1895-1945.

Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan's Imperialism, 1895-1945, by Mark Driscoll. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2010. xv, 361 pp. $89.95 US (cloth), $24.95 US (paper).

Critical theory has affected all areas of the humanities, including Asian studies. Often scholars of Asia claim that critical theory is a Western mindset that must be applied with care to area studies that do not belong to the Eurocentric tradition. Mark Driscoll's book is a very interesting use of theory applied to early modern Japan. It is an examination of the sexual aspects of Japanese imperialism in Manchuria from 1895 to 1945, namely the use of women's bodies in conjunction with Chinese slave labour and the creation of a drug-addicted colonized society that could do little to resist, in order to generate capital for the state back home. The darkness of Japanese colonial rule has never been so abundantly described, bur with a flippant tone that seems at odds with Driscoll's topics. His descriptions of Japanese colonizers as "Japanese Karate Kids" (p. 116) and "frat boys on a spring break" (p. 267) are somewhat more horrific than if stated more formally. This reviewer is frankly ambivalent as to whether Driscoll's real intent is to drive home the truth concerning Japanese war crimes, or to write a playful and entertaining theoretical study. He draws his primary evidence not from traditional political and personal documents or newspaper accounts, but rather from contemporary novels written by both Japanese and Chinese writers, who experienced life in Manchuria. Rather than examining the centres of power in Japanese imperialist history, Driscoll's aim is to examine the peripheries of Manchurian colonized society, especially those who were marginalized, through theories about the body and the subaltern in order to comprehend the economic benefits and horrors of human subjugation that afforded Japan the ability to launch Pearl Harbour in 1942.

The book is divided into three parts with eight chapters, notes, and bibliography. The first part is concerned with the historical aspects of Japan's invasion of northeast Asia and the institutionalization of sexual exploitation and illicit drugs as international political policy. In this section, Driscoll references Marxist Japanese historians who have set the tone for his own interpretation of the period, thereby confirming that even though he is using Western modes of theory, they are ones that the Japanese themselves invoke. Part two elaborates on the Japanese uses for the sexualized body as a commodity, thereby dehumanizing not only foreign populations, but even their own women for the sake of material gain. This was often done not so much by the state, but by corrupt individuals who hid behind the moving screens of colonial government. The last section consists largely of passages and summaries of contemporary literature by Chinese and Japanese fiction writers, who describe in vivid detail the degradation of women and men caught in the web of profit taking in Manchuria.

Driscoll states that his intent with this material is to elucidate elsewhere the Chinese and Korean hatred of Japan in order to create an effect similar to Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanjing (1997) ( mark_driscoll_absolute_erotic_grotesque_living_dead_undeadjapan_imperialis, April 4, 2011). There are, however, great differences between Chang and Driscoll. Driscoll does not use eyewitness accounts, nor are there many illustrations and photographs in his work, but Chang's real power was created by this deep sense of witnessing horror and injustice, which is journalistic in nature. Certainly in both there are profound descriptions of inhumanity, but Driscoll's work, rooted in history and academia, lacks the sensation of immediacy. Also victims of Japanese imperialism during the 1930's and '40's are still alive to keep the torches of justice burning, which was very important for the reception of Chang's work, but it is different with Driscoll's subject, though it remains important to know historically as it leads up to the Nanjing Massacre of 1937.

When Chang's work was published on the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre, it was met with great attention from admirers as well as detractors. Due to the timing, the publicity surrounding her book was far more sensational than Driscoll's book has attracted and its impact was quite far reaching, re-igniting old wounds that would demand apologies and monetary compensation from the Japanese government. While Chang created a straightforward journalistic work that the international public could readily access, Driscoll's is more remote, though no less sensational. Rarely are academic authors successful at affecting public opinion and in this case, as mentioned above, Driscoll's tone and style seem to be at odds with a serious condemnation of Japanese foreign policy at the turn of the last century. It reads more like an academic exercise that seeks to be "sexy," rather than being politically provocative. Certainly for anyone whose field is early modern Japan, Driscoll's work must be read and considered, but it will not likely create any public outcries, especially at this time after the earthquake, tsunamis, and problems with the nuclear reactors.

Gail Chin

University of Regina
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Author:Chin, Gail
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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