Japan’s Imperial Underworlds: Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire by David R. Ambaras, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, x + 298 pp., ISBN: 978-1108470117.

Author : Leng Junxiao

Japan’s Imperial Underworlds

Aiming to provide information on latest Japanese studies scholarship, we have started the new initiative of introducing recently published books on Japan on the GJS website. The introduction, similar to book review in form, is written by a student member of the GJS reading group which started in the fall 2019. The reading group consists of graduate students from the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies (GSII) and several faculty members, and meets 6-8 times a year to read and discuss one book a time. We expect to introduce 6-8 books every year. The first book discussed is Japan's Imperial Underworlds: Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire by David R. Ambaras.

Ambaras, David R. Japan's Imperial Underworlds: Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, x + 298 pp., ISBN: 978-1108470117.
Introduction: Border Agents
1 - Treaty Ports and Traffickers: Children's Bodies, Regional Markets, and the Making of National space
2 - In the Antlion’s Pit: Abduction Narratives and Marriage Migration between Japan and Fuqing
3 - Embodying the Borderland in the Taiwan Strait: Nakamura Sueko as Runaway Woman and Pirate Queen
4 - Borders in Blood, Water, and Ink: Andō Sakan's Intimate Mappings of the South China Sea
5 - Epilogue: Ruptures, Returns, and Re-openings

The power and fragility of Japanese empire are reflected by its risky jump from a precarious social quagmire into a modern utopia. We have learnt from previous scholarships about the craze of nationalist imagination that leads to an all-out participation in empire building. However, one may doubt the notion that an imperial dream is able to capture every mind in Japan, which means the all-out participation might also be an imagination generated by later scholarships. If this is the case, what are those who deviate from Japan’s imperial order? What are their understandings of Japanese empire? How would these understandings complicate the realities of Japanese empire?

In Japan’s Imperial Underworlds, Ambaras writes about different forms of intimacies that transgressed borders of China and the imperial Japan. Staged on China’s Fujian Province, Taiwan Strait and major Japanese cities, Ambaras’ book have explored life histories of trafficked children, abducted women, pirate queen and sensational writer in Japan whose entire lives are changed and shaped by their encounters with China’s vast maritime network. Chapter 1 introduces how the movements of Japanese children into Chinese territory, either by purchase or abduction, is constructed and interpreted as cross border crimes by the Japanese state and non-state actors (press). Chapter 2 illustrates trans-border marriages between Japanese women and Chinese men from Fuqing, analyzing structures and agencies leading to these people’s movements. Chapter 3 tells the life histories of Nakamura Sueko, a woman born in Hokkaidō (1909), who then had intimate relationships with Chinese men and finally became a pirate queen on Taiwan Strait. The way her experiences are interpreted and understood in the Japanese empire sheds light on “larger transformations” (115) in the 1920s-30s China and Japan. Chapter 4 talks about reporter Ando Sakan’s infotainment writings of intimate, gendered encounters taking place on the edges of the Japanese empire. The writings are able to show the tension between individuals’ struggles for more freedom and, regulations from the empire’s social codes. The Japanese empire’s spiritual condition is therefore reflected by Ando’s writings in a half real, half imagined way. In the book’s main thesis, Ambaras shows how boundaries of Japanese empire are constantly challenged by individuals’ transgressive behaviors. His narration is fresh and thrilling, because transgressors are seldom seen as leading actors in empire histories. Despite their lack of significance in many people’s eyes, transgression represents an ultimate failure of modern political technologies; it ignores borders, law punishments, territorialization of modern individuals, faith and morality dictated by the nation-states, for the pursuit of most benign human interests: love, financial security and respect. Ambaras reminds us that transgression is not a rupture in Japan’s modern society, but a continuation of life expectations that could not fit in the baby modernity brought by Meiji Japan’s ambitions. Revolutionary perspectives may chant for the emancipatory power of transgressive individuals, as their courage seems to carry a potential that can deconstruct the repressive framework of nation-states. But Ambaras is cautious enough to avoid romanticizing transgression. Transgressive behaviors and experiences, according to Ambaras, are shaped by state-centric orders (compared to which they are labeled as transgressive) in the sense that crossing borders could become a risky yet profitable business/life choice; for Chinese peddlers, entering Japanese border means better living conditions and more money, while for Japanese women who married Chinese peddlers, entering the Chinese border can bring them affinities and social status unavailable back in their homeland (102). Transgressions are also reconstructed by state-centric imaginations as peculiar entertaining products (kaiki) that encourage mass purchase, through which the mass audience are able to savor the ups and downs of marginalized societies. Not only did the kaikis remind the readers of how comfortable it is to live a life within “proper place” as proud subjects of the Japanese empire; they also carry the ambitions of the Japanese empire to intervene and expand into a volatile Sino-sphere. It is in these narrations that the “we and they” dichotomy becomes entrenched.

Ambaras further complicates the “we and they” dichotomy by tracing the tug of war between a systemic remoteness between Chinese/Japanese states and the complex intimacies that deny such remoteness. An interesting commonsense is that international relationships can be both intimate and distant, but it is rather difficult to theorize such relationships. Here, Ambaras offers a novel explanation of border and sovereignty, or modern space as a whole: “to see it as constantly under construction, constituted through relationships, network, and flows that operate across scales from the global to the regional, the national, and the local and corporeal” (13). By this approach, Ambaras bridges individual fates with those of the nation-states, explaining how the nation-state structures are transformed, through levels of state institutions, into personal choices, like the 2008 revision of Japan’s Nationality Law allows Chinese migrants to secure their “black children” (whose existence violate China’s one-child policy) in Japan through paper marriages (226); and how would personal choices challenge the domination of nation-states, like Chinese people’s increasingly positive attitudes towards Japan regardless of the patriotic education they received (234).

Collective affections also play a major role in forming the “we and they” modern identities. For Japanese empire in Sino-sphere, confidence and anxiety are the drives behind modernity. However, I am surprised to learn that Japan, in its imperial era, holds the deepest fears against a primitive, chaotic China. Ambaras shows how loss of children’s bodies stirred up such fears, while loss implies that these children should belong to Japanese nation-state as properties, which informs us that the fear is a modern product. The moving bodies seeking “relations not bounded by the imperatives of territory” (209) therefore challenge the feasibility of modernity in Japan, generating fears of failure – the loss of legitimacy for both modernity and empire. Success of Japan’s early expansion into China couldn’t eliminate such fear (because a large part of China is always messy and out of control), and the fear coexists with the arrogance of a victor, producing the underlying dynamics behind a “popular imaginary constructed Japanese selfhood out of a combination of fear of and desire for the Other” (69).

Ambaras’ engagement with intimate affections is the most fascinating part in this book; when affections (fear, pride, anxiety, etc.) are endowed to nation-states with symbolic, personalized meanings, the author emphasizes that the territoriality and spatial imaginaries of the Japanese empire are imbued with human experiences and emotions that both deny and reinforce static borders; such contradictory picture reveals a mixture of nationalism and individualism unavoidable in the imperial era. Empire can also “fear”, if one recalls the contradictory mixture of (fake) democracy and subject responsibilities stipulated in the 1889 imperial constitution which problematizes the legitimacy of the empire. However, I also feel problematic about the state-person analogy because a large part of intermediated information is omitted (or could not be found at all); for the stories of abducted Japanese women, Japanese officials and press are the main storytellers. They represent the institutional level of the empire. How about the voices from local community level (from both China and Japan)? How did these women’s interethnic intimacies alter the social relations in their original communities and Chinese new homes? How could we explain the great efforts put into both “rescue missions” from Japan and defensive options from Chinese villages, if the women are considered as marginalized people by both sides?

For the conclusion part, I was expecting a multi-level conceptual framework of intimacy that starts from individual level, to a local community level, then institutional level, and finally proceed to larger social and political structures and decision-making processes. Meanwhile, I admit there is a necessity to tear down the walls between different levels, to flatten the abstract power relations and nation-state structures by specifying the roles played by human actors. Although the narration is sporadic and confusing sometimes, it seems to me very much closer to the reality.

Publisher's website:https://www.cambridge.org/jp/academic/subjects/history/east-asian-history/japans-imperial-underworlds-intimate-encounters-borders-empire