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An interview with Frederick R. Dickinson, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania1

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1Born in Tokyo and raised in Kanazawa and Kyoto, Japan, Frederick R. Dickinson teaches courses on modern Japan, East Asian diplomacy and politics and nationalism in Asia. He is the author of War and National Reinvention : Japan in the Great War, 1914 - 1919 (Harvard University Asia Center, 1999) and Taisho tenno (Taisho Emperor, Minerva Press, 2009). Currently, he is working on a study of Japanese political and cultural reconstruction following the First World War (1919-1931).

21. What is your background and how did you choose to work on the History of Japan ?

3I came to study in Japan very naturally because of course, you may know I was born in Japan ; I spent my childhood in Japan. So my involvement with Japan is basically and has been from the beginning just an exercise in self-discovery. I got into the business of History, though, relatively late. As an undergraduate I only had one History course, in fact, at the University of Notre Dame. But I applied for a Monbushô scholarship way back in the nineteen... when was that… well, I went in the middle of the 1980s, and ended up going to Kyôto University for three years. And it was at that point, at Kyoto University, that I was really introduced to the discipline of History fairly rigorously by my mentor at Kyôto University, Professor Kôsaka Masataka. So, he was really the one who turned me onto History, and basically, History, from that time on, I applied to Yale University and to the History program, and that’s basically how I got into it. So, it was fairly natural, it didn’t take much thinking on my part to get into the History of Modern Japan. I just wanted to be in Japan again, that was my first impulse.

42. To the attention of the French speaking readers, could you briefly outline the main aspects of the American historiography of modern Japan ?

5Generally, I would say that the historiography of modern Japan follows in some ways the general historiography in the United States about the discipline of History, as its practice regarding other countries. One of the main representations of that is the degree to which… you know, History used to be just the study of great men and politics and diplomacy but we’ve moved quite dramatically from that age to much more interest in social, cultural, intellectual history and moved away from the elite, discussions of elites, trying to get to the voices of the disenfranchised or the people who did not have a voice in history until now – women, minorities, or burakumin. So, those kinds of things really reflect the most sought-after histories these days in the historiography of modern Japan. Again, it reflects the steady movement over the last twenty, thirty years, generally, in history writing in the United States, moving toward grassroots history, away from elite History.

6In some ways, it’s interesting, it is spurred or inspired by the Annales School, which started doing this a long time ago, but American historians kind of picked up on that.

7And it is slowly kind of filtered down to the Japan field in a way I think is very interesting and exciting. And I do also think another trend that is very important I think, is increasing comparative History. You know, a movement steadily away from the notion of Japan as a special, exceptional entity, more discussion of Japan as reflecting in many ways the general trends, global trends of nineteenth to twentieth century history.

8I myself tried to follow that line of inquiry ; I think that is where the profession is going.

9The further we get away from the Pacific War the easier it gets to do that, because the Pacific War really is the big event in modern Japanese history that kind of sucks up all the intellectual energy. Of course after 1945, Japanese scholars, American scholars, other scholars, their only question was “Why did it happen ? ”

10All the discussion about Tokugawa history, Meiji history, Meiji revolution history, early twenty century history was focused on trying to explain “Why the Manchurian Incident ? ”

11Also I think the further we get away from the Pacific War, the less it becomes important.

12Actually I have always been interested in early twentieth century Japanese history. One of the main reasons was I was concerned about this question of “ Why the Pacific War ? ”, but the more I do it, the more I probe 1910s-1920s, the more I try to separate the history of the Second World War from my discussion of the 1920s, or 1910s.

13In other words, more and more I think historians try not to anticipate. You shouldn’t be talking about the 1910s as something inevitably going to be leading to 1931. You shouldn’t be talking about the 1920s as inevitably leading to 1931.

14I think that is the trend of the field as well, an increasingly more neutral vision of the Pacific War and it is not as large, it is not a looming presence in the historiography as it used to be, for obvious reasons.

153. You devoted an important part of your work as an historian to Taisho era. What place can be granted to this era, knowing that it is surrounded by Meiji and Shôwa eras, two huge historiography works ?

16Number one, I prefer not to talk about “ Taishô ”. Because it means nothing to anyone in France, in America, in Germany, and in Britain.

17So, again, my attempt is always to speak about Japan as part of some kind of global trend.

18So I would say, number one, no “ Taishô ”, but the question would be then, “ So why have you focused on the early twentieth century ? ”

19The reason why I have been focusing on the early twentieth century for my entire career… actually not my entire career ; when I was trained at Kyôto University, I did originally post- 1945, I was working on the US-Japan security alliance. But it just occurred to me, after that work, that you really couldn’t understand anything in twentieth century Japanese history unless you went before 1945. I just focused, from the beginning, on the First World War because I thought it was the essence of modern Japan.

20So of course the big question is, “Well, why is that the essence ? ” but I mean, that is another… Is that the next question ?

214. Why the First World War ?

22When I focus on the Great War, in large part, it is an attempt to address what is sort of surprisingly the continuing assumption about how we get to the Pacific War. As I said before, it used to be that the Pacific War is everything and you went back to 1900, 1868, even 1600 in an attempt to explain why the Manchurian Incident and ultimately the Pacific War. You have less of that these days. But still, it seems to me that when it comes to focus on early twentieth century, there is this tendency to try look at long-term trends at the very least from the Russo-Japanese War – if not even going back earlier –, to look at trends that could lead us to a kind of disaster in the 1930s.

23Part of what I try to do with the 1920s is to show the very critical important contingency in the history of modern Japan that not in 1905, not in 1914, not 1919, not 1929, was Japan inevitably destined to go into Manchuria or ultimately wage a war against the United States.

24In order to make this argument, you have to understand the place of the First World War. In other words, the First World War gives us an interesting glimpse at how Japan in the 1920s is on a very different trajectory than what it was between 1868 and 1919. And again, unless you understand the very different trajectory, you’re just going to assume that the Second War begins in 1914 or 1905 or 1868.

25I don’t think so. Because in 1919 to 1931, Japan is a very different animal. And of course you have to explain what happens in 1931, but there’s a very robust new Japan – and again, contemporaries are talking about it as a “New Japan” –, which you assume that it goes out the window in 1931, but it doesn’t. In fact, a look at the 1920s is a look at the twentieth century arriving in Japan, and you get the foundations in the 1920s of post-1945 Japan. That’s my trajectory and that’s why you have to focus on the First World War in order to get that story, to understand that there is a new century and the new century really begins here, it doesn’t begin with the Russo-Japanese War.

  • 2  Frederick Dickinson.War and National Reinvention, Japan in the Great War, 1914-1919, Cambridge, Ha (...)

265. In France, at least, the place devoted to Japan in the books about the Great War and to the Great War in the books about Japan history is minor. In War and National Reinvention2, you grant to Great War a special position. Why and what is that position ?

27Speaking to a European, I am the last one to actually say, I would not claim that Japan is suffering at all or struggling at all in a way that the European nations have struggled, of course not.

28But, I would say, as we said earlier, that the First World War is critical for the history of modern Japan just because it marks a major global transformation, and Japan is part of that globe, and already by the early twentieth century an important part of the globe. So obviously, any kind of transformation is going to affect Japan, and affects it very significantly, again not physically like it does France and Germany or Central Europe, but it does affect Japan because it represents a complete transformation.

29Most historians of the twentieth century, whether they’re French or American or British or German would say the twentieth century really begins with the First World War. Everything up to 1914 or up to 1918, 1919 is very much a reflection of the age of Empires. And you only get the new kind of development, you know, economic, political, ideological, social, cultural developments of the twentieth century from the point of the First World War onward.

30And I would say the same thing holds very true for modern Japan.

316. You wrote that while European nations were struggling for their survival, so did Japan, although its minor military toll on the Great War. Could you please explain this idea ?

32In my first book I spoke about it as a sort of a threat, I guess, because that’s from the perspective of what I call the Meiji elite, the founders of the Meiji system, who created this State very much on European models, and of course, the main thing they see with the First World War is that these European models completely lose their legitimacy because, well, “ Look what happened… Look where these models took us ”.

33For people like Yamagata Aritomo or Inoue Kaoru or members of the genrô, who are the elder statesmen, or military or bureaucratic elite, there are certain things about the new world after the First World War that were very disturbing.

34But my new emphasis, for the book I’m working on now, I would prefer not to focus on this as a threat. I prefer to focus on the transformation as actually an opportunity for a whole different type of people. People like Mizuno Hironori, maybe, but also Kato Takaaki or Hamaguchi Osachi.

35We are talking about new leaders of what has been called in the 1920s “ the New Japan ”.

36And we do have a significant transfer of power from, again, what we could call the “ Meiji elite ” to a new elite, these are basically the political party politicians, for the first time in the history of modern Japan, and all of that was very much stimulated by the First World War and it does help that the principal leader of one of the main victors, the United States, Woodrow Wilson ultimately describes this war as a war to make the world safe for democracy and he gives a certain legitimacy to political party rule that you didn’t have before, and this is a very strong foundation for a very new Japan in the 1920s.

377. In the introduction of War and National Reinvention you explain that it is while trying to understand the process of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan in 1951 that you focused your work on the Taishô era. Is the study of this era still able to throw some light on the present situation of Japan ?

38Yes, because, again, what we understand to be twentieth- and twenty-first century Japan, I think, the heart of it lies in the 1920s. It’s only at the point of World War One that Japan becomes a world power. By the Russo-Japanese War she is a regional power, by 1919 she is a world power. And Japan has been a world power since 1919. Unfortunately Japan as a world power took a very wrong turn in the 1930s- 1940s but fundamentally speaking you have Japan as a global player in the way that we know her today, first and foremost, from 1919.

39Becoming a world power had all kinds of implications for the Japanese economy, Japanese politics, Japanese society, Japanese culture, and so, again, that’s what I would say, I mean, fundamentally for the Japan we know today, if you go back before 1919, it’s a very different story. Thinking of the nineteenth century versus the twentieth century..., it’s a whole different world. I don’t think there is that much difference between the world of 1903 and of 1908, in other words, before and after the Russo-Japanese War.

40Yes, it was important that Japan become a regional power with the Russo-Japanese War, and yes, the Russo-Japanese War inspired many revolutionaries like Ho-Chi-Min, Phan Boi Chau, African-Americans in the United States, people who see an Asian empire kind of destroying a Western empire, are very influenced by this. Sun Yat-sen, also.

41It does stir up a certain kind of new spirit throughout the world but it really is not of the same caliber as we see the change of century from the nineteenth to the twentieth with the First World War. And so that is the basic thing.

42One could, again, focus on any number of things. If you see, and, Japan of course is a democracy today, the roots of that democracy go all the way back to the Meiji constitution, obviously, but more specifically they go back to the point and the only time in Japanese history when the Japanese, for themselves, created their own two-party system, essentially. So that’s the kind of political connection.

43There is also a cultural connection which is kind of ironic in that it is at the point of the First World War that the United States becomes, basically, the principal world power. The twentieth century very much is an American century, right ?

44And it’s not simply American politics and diplomacy that holds sway, but it is American culture as well. So there are many kinds of cultural factors from the United States like the modern boy, modern girl, jazz, and baseball, all that kind of stuff is flooding into Japan in the 1920s, in a way that is actually doing that globally.

45We see that kind of legacy very much also in Japan to this day. Obviously, that has a lot to do as well with the postwar US-Japan security alliance.

46But there is already kind of a precedent, with the US becoming the number one soft power globally in the 1920s. There are cultural ways in which you can go back to the 1920s, and see importance there, there are political ways that you could go back, diplomatically, you know, that is where we started, Japan does become a world power for the first time and that it remains to this day.

47Japanese economy is only at a turning point with the First World War, this is the point at which it becomes a global, major, industrial, and trade power. Not before.

48It is at that point, after 1916, basically, that the Japanese economy is transformed into something that is much more resembling what we see today.

49So there are all kinds of categories. If you go back to the First War and the immediate aftermath, you see very much what we understand Japan to be today.

  • 3  Frederick Dickinson, Taishô Tennô : ichiyaku Godaishô o yûhisu, Kyôto, Minerva Shôbo, 2009.

508. You devoted a book to Emperor Taishô (1912-19263). However it seems he was a retiring figure, who ran the country only a few. Why choosing this figure ?

51Well, for the same reason, basically, it’s to really rethink our ideas of early twentieth century Japan.

52My resurrection of him is very similar to my resurrection of 1910s and 1920s as critical and important in thinking about the history of modern Japan.

53When it comes to him, the number one thing you should keep in mind is, yes, it’s true that his actual reign is fairly short. Essentially it’s only from 1912 to 1921, when the regency is established, and he’s basically out of power, it is his son that takes over.

54But you have to understand that he’s already around and the Japanese public is aware of him long before he becomes Emperor. He is, of course, celebrated at his birth as finally a point at which the Japanese monarchy has an heir, and that will hopefully be viable and strong, and of course, if you know Japanese nineteenth century history, you know that is a very important development because the founders of the Meiji regime put the Emperor for the first time at the center of their nation-building project, and so the monarchy is very important. And if the monarchy is important, it’s got to continue.

55The moment when Yoshihito is born, in 1879, it’s a big event.

56The Meiji Emperor is 27 years old ; he’s been Emperor for 11 years by that point.

57His two earlier sons have died in infancy, before the age of one.

58And certainly, especially from the perspective of the creators of the Meiji regime, they worried about the durability of the system, just by looking at the monarchy.

59So, Yoshihito is born ; we talk about the Meiji Emperor being the first modern Emperor, but it really is the Taisho Emperor who is the first modern Emperor, because he is born in the new system, he comes up through the new system, he goes through the modern educational system.

60And in every point in time, he is really the one who is representing the new modern monarchy. It’s not Meiji. I mean, Meiji was 15 years old when he became the Emperor of the new modern nation-state. He was from Kyôto, he was born in Kyôto, grew up in Kyôto, ultimately he was buried in Kyôto. He was a Bakumatsu era Kyôto guy.

61Yoshihito is the first monarch who is a product of Tôkyô : born in Tôkyô, grew up in Tôkyô, did his job in Tôkyô, died in Tôkyô, buried in Tôkyô.

62And very much already from his birth in 1879, at every point in time he is representing for his people the essence of the Japanese modern nation-state.

63And a nice kind of benchmark other than his birth is 1900, when he gets married. And he gets married to a woman of aristocratic court background, but the wedding is a huge kind of national affair, and the model for this wedding is very much the model of European monarchies, particularly British, but also a little bit of German and others thrown in.

64And this is really the beginning of Yoshihito’s real national image forming.

65And the image is basically a man who is the symbol of early twentieth century Japan. And he is this because he is much more western in appearance than his father, he likes gadgets, he likes trains, he likes binoculars, he likes cameras, he likes the movies ; his father didn’t like that at all. He likes planes. And he goes on tours after his wedding, several tours of the country just like Meiji did in the early Meiji period. The people come to know him, and they come to know him not as some kind of weak guy but as the epitome of new early twentieth century modern Japan.

66In fact, when Taisho is coming to little villages as Crown Prince, often he’s coming at a time when the villages are just getting train service, or they’re just getting new gas or electric lights.

67So they associate the new modernity with the Emperor coming to town. So he has already that image before he becomes Emperor in 1912. Long before, they know him as that.

68That’s really the source of his strength as a symbol of this early twentieth century modernity. So that’s why I wanted to write about him and to change our notion that all he represents is infirmity.

69Obviously he is incapacitated because of mental and physical disabilities already by 1919, but his function and his service to the nation before that time is substantial, and it is a service that, again, shows a very new twentieth century Japan.

70At least he is anticipating a twentieth century Japan as he is Crown Prince.

71So that’s why I wanted to write about Taisho.

729. You are currently working on a study of Japanese political and cultural reconstruction following the First World War (1919-1931). Could you explain more specifically the main aspects of your study ?

73So as I said, the First World War is a key as marking the beginning of the twentieth century for Japan, so basically this study will attempt to demonstrate that ; to show how politically, culturally, socially, economically, diplomatically, Japan is in a very different place in the 1920s than what it was before 1919.

74Of course there have been various evaluations of the 1920s over many years, but there’s always the issue, of course, that the Manchurian Incident is happening in 1931.

75So the tendency is, again, to anticipate that, and even if you talk about a few things happening like “Okay, you have the political party cabinets”, there is always, behind that notion, the idea that there is some kind of seed of destruction embedded in the system that is going to take us to 1931.

76So what I want to try to do is to show the degree to which this new Japan, and again that is what they are calling it after the First War, this new Japan is quite robust, it is quite powerful, and it is quite strong and it is not because of its weakness that ultimately we move into something different in the 1930s ; on the contrary, it is actually because of its strength, and this strength comes from the power of the First world War and the significance of the restructuring that you see.

77Again, Japan is not really affected physically by the First World War, but the Japanese economy is, again, a whole different animal than it was before, because basically the Japanese shipping industry, arms industry, textile industry, they are taking up the slack of the European shipping, textile, and arms manufacturers, because the Europeans of course are occupied doing other things. So that has a very significant effect structurally on the Japanese economy, and that is at the foundation of very significant changes in Japanese politics, diplomacy, but also culture and society, and that is what I am actually focusing on. Again, I would say the drama is just as important, at least in term of the ideas, as rethinking going on in Europe and the United States. And I would also say that the restructuring very much to me resembles and echoes the dramatic transformation of Japan around the time of the Meiji revolution.

78Contemporaries in the 1920s talked about this as a second ishin, a second renovation, just like the first one which transformed a feudal Japan into a modern nation-state. Well, guess what, they are seeing the post First World War World and post First World War Japan as just as different from Meiji Japan as the Meiji founders saw Meiji as different from Tokugawa.

79And you see the same type of language – I mean, you have probably seen this with Mizuno Hironori. But you know, [this is] part of the process in 1868 ; first you have to say everything before 1868 was bad, dark, and decrepit and everything in the future is new, bright, and hopeful. We have got the same kind of language in 1919-1920, and you promote this language through a similar mechanism, and the mechanism that is most important is to use the Emperor. Of course, you are familiar with the Charter Oath in 1868, this is kind of the first declaration in the name of the Emperor, and we have a whole new ballgame going on in the Nineteenth century. Well guess what, there is the equivalent of a Charter Oath in 1921, a declaration by the Taishô Emperor in the aftermath of the peace, and it is essentially articulating what it is this new entity that is the new Japan in the 1920s, how different it is from before.

80So that is why I am focusing on that because I see it as just as important even more so than the first transformation in the mid-nineteenth century. Especially important if you want to understand twentieth Century Japan.

8110. In your course you get onto the matter of transnationalism in East Asia. Could you explain the main ideas of this thinking ?

82I teach courses on transnational issues and in those courses I look at scholarship that very explicitly tracks developments across national borders and beyond the nation-state.

83I would say, in terms of my own research, I am not really a transnational historian, but I guess to the extent that any kind of idea of transnational informs my own research, it is the extent to which I try to be as comparative as possible. So I am not transnational, I am comparative. I always like to look at Japan in a global context.

84And I am also always trying to bend over backwards to try to avoid the vision of Japan as being somehow exceptional or strange or destined to go into Manchuria in 1931 because of Japanese cultural aspects and things of that nature.

85That attempt to avoid being confined by a rarified notion of the Japanese state and culture, I guess that is sort of transnational thinking.

86Although technically speaking I am not focusing on items in my research that are crossing borders. I guess I am transnational in the way I try to approach the idea of Japan, that is to try not to essentialize because we are talking about this as “ Japan ”.

87Let’s see it as part of a larger world, and that is basically what I try to do and that is why focusing on the First World War and the impact of the First World War is very convenient and useful because the First World War is an experience that many people around the globe experienced, between 1914 and 1919 and afterwards, so by talking about that rather than about “ Taishô ”, you are talking about something that is very much a global development and you can compare and contrast.

88Obviously I am not saying that Japan’s experience in the First World War was the same as the French experience. Of course not. But the fact is there is a significant experience just like there is a significant experience with this particular historical event in France and in Britain and in Germany and elsewhere.

89So I guess that part is sort of transnational as well, but it is just my perspective that is, perhaps, transnational.

9011. What are, in your opinion, the most pertinent new trends for the research on the History of modern Japan ?

91Well, just speaking for myself, I am still very much wedded to the importance of the First World War.

92It seems to me that the study of the First World War with respect to Japan, there is still much more to do. In fact, I hope… it may sound crazy but I did my first English language book on the First World War, I am doing my second English language book on the First World War in the 1920s. My third English language book, I am thinking of doing on the First World War in the 1930s, it is a little bit crazy, but there is still some use to looking at the importance of the First World War in Japan.

93And this is part of a larger point that I think should be made, which is that the future of Japan studies is to see it more and more as a part of global trends. It is to get away from the notion of Japanese exceptionalism, or Japanese uniqueness.

94It is to see the creation of a party system in the 1920s or the rise of a major world economy after 1945, or whatever it is, it is to see it as a reflection and a prism in which to look at larger developments in global history. That is where it should go. I am not sure it is actually going there.

95My obsession with the First World War is pretty much related to that concern, that we should continue to be seeing Japan outside of this very closed box that is Japanese history and that tends to be only a discussion of Meiji, Taishô, Shôwa, Heisei. We should think about Japan as part of the modern world, not simply the Japanese as unique player in the modern world.

96I am in the process of writing my fourth book, an English language text on Modern Japanese history ; at this point it is called a “Global History of Modern Japan”. And the idea is very explicitly to look at developments from 1600 until the twenty-first century as a reflection of larger developments across the globe, that is the whole enterprise.

97That is the most important philosophical approach to the history of modern Japan.

98I think the most interesting stuff done on Japan is actually on the Tokugawa era, but the Meiji period has attracted a very important group of scholars.

99But I do see in the last ten or twenty years, that the 1910s and 1920s has really begun to kind of blossom, which is a good thing. And of course, increasingly there are also actual historians being trained to look at developments after 1945.

100There is a post-war history of Japan now, in the way that there was not when I originally began training as a modern Japan historian.

101One can speak of post-war history as a legitimate history. So those in general are important areas of research.

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2  Frederick Dickinson.War and National Reinvention, Japan in the Great War, 1914-1919, Cambridge, Harvard University Asia Center, 1999.

3  Frederick Dickinson, Taishô Tennô : ichiyaku Godaishô o yûhisu, Kyôto, Minerva Shôbo, 2009.

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« An interview with Frederick R. Dickinson, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania », Les Cahiers de Framespa [En ligne], 8 | 2011, mis en ligne le 04 janvier 2012, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/framespa.930

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