WEAI Author Q&A: Jessamyn Abel’s “The International Minimum”

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We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The International Minimum: Creativity and Contradiction in Japan’s Global Engagement, 1933-1964published by The University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Jessamyn Abel, an assistant professor of Asian Studies and history at Pennsylvania State University. Professor Abel tells the history of internationalism in Japan from the 1930s to 1960s, shedding light on the deep connections between modes of diplomacy during times of aggressive imperial expansion and of peaceful cooperation. Her book traces the evolution of the internationalist worldview in Japan by examining both official policy and general discourse surrounding epochal moments such as Japan’s withdrawal from the League and admission into the United Nations, the failed and successful attempts to host a Tokyo Olympiad, and wartime and postwar regional conferences in Tokyo and Bandung, Indonesia.

We thank Professor Abel for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What is the significance of your title “The International Minimum?”

This phrase refers to a central idea of the book: that, after the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, countries aspiring to become or to remain great powers had to engage in a minimum level of international cooperation.  The internationalist imperative meant that when Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, political and intellectual leaders could not abandon the forms and rhetoric of Wilsonian internationalism that had taken hold during the 1920s, but instead twisted both the ideals and policies of internationalism to accommodate the realities of aggression and imperialist expansion.  Though postwar Japan has been neither militarily aggressive nor territorially expansionist, the patterns of international cooperation developed during the wartime period (such as non-governmental cultural exchanges and regional frameworks) continued to shape foreign policy in the decades after the war, even to the present day.  In order to adhere to what had become the “international minimum,” Japanese leaders had to be creative in their foreign policy-making, which sometimes resulted in seemingly contradictory policies.

What drew you to the topic of Japan’s international cooperation and to the time period that this book covers?

I came to the field of Japanese history via international relations, where the tensions between Japan’s strong economic position and constrained international contribution captured my curiosity.  I planned to study the historical background of contemporary Japanese foreign policy in the postwar period, but when I learned about Japan’s continued cooperation with the League of Nations for several years after its withdrawal from the organization, I began to wonder about the fate of internationalism and its proponents in wartime Japan.  A closer look at the wartime period revealed many fundamental continuities with the postwar years, and I decided to do a transwar study in order to highlight those continuities and consider their significance for our understanding of internationalism in the twentieth century.

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What kinds of archives and sources did you consult during your research for the book? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this history?

The Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Archives (Gaikō Shiryōkan) is probably the archive I used the most for this book, as it contained materials for almost every chapter.  Other archives were very specific to a single chapter.  For instance, I used the archives of the Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai (Society for International Cultural Relations), now housed in the Japan Foundation Library, for the chapter on that organization.  In order to get at general views of international relations (as opposed to official government policies or efforts by a specific organization), I read a lot of the popular journals of opinion of the times, to see what people would have been reading about the big international questions of their day.  And this gets at my biggest challenge in researching this topic.  It’s very difficult to get a sense of the regular person’s view of a topic like international relations, because it’s not something that people tend to write about in their diaries or letters to the editor or that sort of material.  For the most part, the people who wrote about theories of international cooperation were intellectuals or government officials.  Of course, these are the people most involved in making policy, so their voices certainly matter.  But what I think brought me closest to a grassroots view was the concept of cultural internationalism, which involved international exchanges and ideas that (though mostly controlled by elites) made their way into everyday life via textbooks, poetry, films, music, and sports.

What surprised you most in the course of your research?

There weren’t surprises so much as a steady shift in my approach to the question.  I started off wanting to know about how internationalists continued their activities, so I was looking for things like that initial point that captured my attention, the continued participation in the League of Nations after withdrawal.  I gradually realized that the things I was pegging as internationalist were neither antiwar nor anti-imperialist.  So I had to realize that the people who claimed to be and sounded very internationalist were not that different from the ones whom historians usually label as imperialist or militarist.  And the question became, really, what aspects of internationalism continued through the war, and how did they change the ways in which the Japanese government and people pursued internationalist activities?

 How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about Japan’s diplomatic history?

I hope the book will change people’s understanding of Japan’s diplomatic history in a few ways.  First, I hope to provide a sense of Japan as contributing to the internationalist imagination.  The black-and-white sense of wartime Japan as acting unilaterally obscures the creative policy-making that took place in the various efforts of Japanese internationalists to remain engaged with the world in the context of imperialist war.  Second, I am joining several other scholars in working to soften the sense of 1933 as a disjuncture in Japan’s international relations.  While  the rift with the League of Nations had a powerful impact on Japanese foreign policy, there was not a clear turn from internationalism to isolation, but rather a variegation of internationalism to suit national circumstances and goals.  The continuities across 1933 are at least as important as the changes.  Third, beyond the field of Japanese diplomatic history, I am contributing to trends in international history more broadly by bringing cultural materials into the study of diplomacy and by linking the international and domestic realms.

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