WEAI Author Q&A: Reto Hofmann’s “The Fascist Effect”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Fascist Effect: Japan and Italy: 1915-1952published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Reto Hofmann, who currently teaches at Monash University. In this book, Professor Hofmann uncovers the ideological links that tied Japan to Italy in the interwar period, drawing on extensive materials from Japanese and Italian archives to shed light on the formation of fascist history and practice in Japan and beyond. Moving between personal experiences, diplomatic and cultural relations, and geopolitical considerations, Professor Hofmann shows that interwar Japan found in fascism a resource to develop a new order at a time of capitalist crisis.

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

How did you become interested in the topic of the transnational exchange between Japanese thinkers and Italian fascists? What questions drove your research?

It was the result of a more or less coincidental meeting of Italy and Japan on Australian soil while I was an undergraduate. I had focused on Italian history but a creeping interest in Japan led to a thesis on diplomatic relations between Rome and Tokyo in the late 1930s. Interest in high politics subsided, not so the desire to study Japan through Italy. My familiarity with Italian fascism made me see fascist ramifications throughout prewar Japan. Existing histories of fascism in Japan, though, barely noticed the commonalities. Did contemporary Japanese notice them, I wondered. They did. Some basic research revealed a vast debate on fascism in general and Italian fascism in particular, from the 1920s to the end of the war. The question, then, was to examine how Japanese, ideologues, politicians, educators, and writers wove fascism into their political anxieties and aspirations. If, as I argue, fascism was simultaneously national and global, what was the effect of the encounter of fascisms?

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this subject?

Over the thirty years covered in this book, the debates on fascism unfolded on all kinds of levels—not just politics, but also mass culture, literature, philosophy, and international relations. This spectrum meant that I had to familiarize myself with a broad range of texts housed in libraries and archives in different countries. In my experience, Japanese government archives can be navigated effectively once one overcomes their bureaucratic quirks and aura. But the attempt to trace the relations that certain individuals entertained with Italians also meant conducting research in Italian archives. While one could hope for no archive that is more scenic or eccentric than that of Gabriele D’Annunzio overlooking Lake Garda, or more charming than a Neapolitan palazzo, or more evocative for this topic than the fascist architecture of the Archivio Centrale dello Stato in Rome, archives and libraries in Italy were often underfunded, messy, or simply closed.

Could you provide an example or two of ways in which Italian fascist ideas were transmitted (and possibly adapted) in Japanese intellectual and political circles? What made those ideas powerful in the interwar period in Japan?

Fascism was both national and global—and the relationship between the two was complex. In the 1930s we notice fascist movements, ideas, and regimes a bit everywhere, all of which emerged in relative independence from one another. I say “relative” because to the extent that fascism responded directly to the crisis of liberal capitalism, often trying to prop up liberal institutions of power, it emerged organically in different national contexts. But, as the book shows, Italian Fascism (capital “F”) played a globalized, ready-made role, presenting a set of motifs, aesthetics, and strategies that travelled around the world. As the globalized Italian version of fascism encountered other fascisms all kinds of things happened. In Japan, for example, we see attempts to appropriate selectively certain aspects of Italian Fascism. Shimoi Harukichi did precisely that, redeploying the Fascist narrative of heroism and its aesthetics of sacrifice in a Japanese patriotic register. Later, in the early 1930s, when Japanese fascism had come into its own, thinkers and activists negated Italian Fascism, but not so much in the sense of disavowing it as in trying to supersede it. Recognizing these entanglements and clashes of fascism means to move away from a straightforward notion of fascist influence and reception; we can focus on the limits and contradictions of fascism, explaining why it is that we often see fascism without recognizing it.


What findings surprised you most in the course of your research?

The gradual removal of fascism from the history and memory of twentieth-century Japan, and its demotion to a marginal problem the country faced in the 1930s. This view, consolidated after the war, jars with the sense so many Japanese had until defeat in World War II, namely that fascism was a problem of the present in which they were deeply involved. There was a consciousness that Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany were linked—for good or bad, that depended on the point of view.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of the history of Japan and the history of fascism?

The evidence presented in this book reveals the multiple levels of engagement with fascism in Japan; it also shows that the ideological production and political praxis in interwar Japan was intertwined with those in Italy and Germany. In other words, Japan played a part in the global history of fascism. As far as fascism is concerned, the lesson from Japan is that it can be more open-ended than we previously assumed. There is a whole literature on fascism that relies on models and definitions taken from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. But if we look at the debates in Japan we understand that the goal of fascism was to restore social and political order and that there was no scripted way to doing so. Japanese tried out a variety of fascist strategies, some of which resembled those in Europe, others didn’t.




WEAI Author Q&A: Federico Marcon’s “The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japanpublished by the University of Chicago Press. The book’s author is Federico Marcon, an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University. In his book, Professor Marcon chronicles how, between the early seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth century, the field of natural history in Japan separated itself from the discipline of medicine, produced knowledge that questioned the traditional religious and philosophical understandings of the world, and developed into a system (called honzōgaku) that rivaled Western science in complexity—and then seemingly disappeared. Or did it? The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan recounts how Japanese scholars developed a sophisticated discipline of natural history analogous to Europe’s but created independently, without direct influence, and argues convincingly that Japanese natural history succumbed to Western science not because of suppression and substitution, as scholars traditionally have contended, but by adaptation and transformation.

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

How did you first learn about and become interested in honzōgaku in Japan’s history?

I first became interested in this field of learning quite early, during a period of study in Japan between 1999 and 2001, before I applied to Columbia University’s Ph.D. program. I was fascinated by the lavish illustrations of plants and animals I first admired in a Jinbōchō’s used bookseller, Toriumi Shobō, that specialized in naturalistic publications—a dusty place on the third floor of an unsteady building crammed with birdwatcher manuals, animal encyclopedias, botanical textbooks, and so on. However, I started to seriously think at honzōgaku as a possible topic of research quite late. Initially I wanted to write a dissertation on the social history of scholars in Tokugawa Japan and focusing on the formation and eventual (apparent) disappearance of a discipline seemed to me a good strategy to approach such a gigantic issue. I remember my friend Ian Miller supported this idea from the start.

Can you give some examples of how modern Japanese science incorporates honzōgaku?

This is a difficult question to answer in brief. The first generation of Japanese biologists, in the early decades of the Meiji period, had all received an early training in honzōgaku. I don’t spend too much time on this in the book, but the best source to see the continuation of honzōgaku styles and methods are the notebooks of many Meiji biologists like, for example, Minakata Kumagusu and Shirai Mitsutarō. Tokugawa honzōgaku was soon disavowed by Meiji intellectuals, who were eager to show their modern attitude by abandoning their Edo past. So, at the end honzōgaku had a double destiny: on the one hand, it lost its name (honzōgaku) but translated many of its practices, institutional framework (i.e., state sponsorship), and goals (economic growth) into the language of the new sciences (seibutsugaku, “biology,” hakubutsugaku, “natural history,” shokubutsugaku, “botany,” dōbutsugaku, “zoology,” etc.); on the other, it kept its name at the cost of two century and a half of Tokugawa developments and became the label of an antiquarian movement that aimed to recover the traditional knowledge of “authentic” honzōgaku, now polemically antagonistic to the modernization process and its allegedly “foreign” origins.

What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in researching this book? What kind of challenges did you encounter in researching this subject?

Working on a topic that stretches across different fields and styles (social history, intellectual history, history of science, etc.) presents a series of difficulties that ranges from the choice of your analytical toolkit to the selection of material to focus in the final version of the book. This is true for many other topics, but the greatest challenge of honzōgaku was that the large majority of secondary sources were written by former scientists who wanted to rediscover a tradition of nature-study that was autochthonous of Japan but whose major concern was to correct all mistaken assumptions of that discipline from the perspective of modern science. This literature was fundamental for my initial navigation of the field, but soon I decided to just read a number of Tokugawa manuals and encyclopedias and come up with my own narrative that addressed different questions from those of Japanese historians. I was particularly lucky to find in the collection of Waseda University Library most of what I was looking for. A second challenge was that many of those texts where handwritten manuscripts, but the help of my Waseda advisor, professor Fukaya Katsumi, who otherwise was utterly uninterested in my project, was indispensible to acquire the rudiments of kuzushiji deciphering.


During your research, did any of your findings surprise you or change the way you thought about the history of thought in Japan during this era?

Yes, I confess that as my research proceeded, I had to readjust my views on the intellectual world of Tokugawa Japan quite often. First, I was at first really surprised to find so many prominent scholars among those who dealt with natural history in the period. Second, I was surprise how marginal in honzōgaku texts were information from Western books. At first I thought of honzōgaku as a field close to rangaku, or Dutch Studies. I hope that in my book I was able to persuasively demonstrate how late in the period Western natural history began to have a substantial influence in the discipline. It was not until Siebolt, in the 1820s, that European natural history started to affect the research methods, the forms of presentation, and the classificatory system of natural knowledge in Japan. Third, I was quite surprised to find a discipline that, autonomous as it was from European “philosophy of nature”, was similarly sustained by the state for its economic importance. If we juxtapose the writings of Carl Linneaus with the texts left by many honzōgaku scholars, we find similar conceptualizations of the “dominion of nature” quite at odds with Meiji ideas of Japanese’s “love for nature.” In a sense, I hope my book will be seen as the prehistory of later developments that scholars like Julia Thomas, Brett Walker, Ian Miller, Robert Stolz, and others have written about. It is a case of “surprising convergence” that I hope will interest historians from different areas and fields.

How did Japan’s natural geography affect the development of its natural science?

In the introductory chapter of the book I state that I wanted to write a non-reductionist critical materialist history of ideas—a quite oxymoronic expression that emphasized my intention to write a history that showed how cognitive practices and ideas are products of the material conditions of their producers, where “material” here means both material proper (i.e., geographical, environmental) and social. So, of course Japan’s natural geography affected the development of honzōgaku, but we cannot reduce the historical development of honzōgaku to the natural geography of Japan—as, for example, some studies on resource scarcity do. Tokugawa Japan was a country rich of vegetal and animal diversity, but it was the social, political, and economic developments contingent and specific of Tokugawa Japan that favored the growth of a specialized field of nature study.

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

Although I followed all requirements of archival and philological precision that East Asian studies publications require, I confess that I wrote this book for an ideal reader who is not an expert in the field of East Asian Studies. Of course, the book takes issue with a number of questions that characterize the historiographical debate on early modern Japan, such as the problem of change vs. continuation after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the question of cultural consumption and the alleged development of a “public sphere” in early modern Japan, the professionalization of scholars, the role of samurai elites in the economic growth of Tokugawa Japan, and so on. But the theoretical concerns that sustained the writing of the book did not originate in my “home discipline,” East Asian Studies. My theoretical questions that motivated me are more general, and I tried to address them from the particular perspective of Japanese honzōgaku: what is the complex dialectical relation between ideas and society? Or, more precisely, what kind of social dynamics determine the development of specific forms of knowledge, which, in turn, influences the changing structure of that society? What are the relation between knowledge, economic growth, modernization and the dominion of nature? In addressing these and other questions through the adventures of honzōgaku scholars I maintain that there are no universal answers, which have instead to be searched for in historical specificity. I like to think of my own method of historical research as a combination of material history of ideas and conceptual history of things.

WEAI Author Q&A: Lee Pennington’s “Casualties of History”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Casualties of History: Wounded Japanese Servicemen and the Second World Warpublished by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Lee K. Pennington, an associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. In this book, Professor Pennington relates for the first time in English the experiences of Japanese wounded soldiers and disabled veterans of Japan’s “long” Second World War (from 1937 to 1945). He maps the terrain of Japanese military medicine and social welfare practices and establishes the similarities and differences that existed between Japanese and Western physical, occupational, and spiritual rehabilitation programs for war-wounded servicemen, notably amputees. 

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

How did you become interested in the topic of wounded Japanese soldiers?

Studying the visual historical record of the Second World War sparked my interest in depictions of combat and its consequences that existed within Japanese wartime culture.  I came to realize that wounded soldiers commanded a prominent presence within the wartime mass media, and as such, began to investigate the realities that lay behind such representations.  While mucking about in archives in Japan, the world of the wounded serviceman began to grow more apparent and more consequential than I had previously thought!

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this subject?

It was very important for me to examine not only the institutions created to support wounded servicemen but also the views and experiences of those men as depicted in their own words.  Also, I wanted to include popular images of battle casualties as well as official discussions of them.  Important archival sources included the National Diet Library and the Japan College of Social Work.  Then, the Shokeikan archive opened in Tokyo during the later stages of my research and I benefited from its vast collection of historical materials related to wounded Japanese servicemen and Japan’s disabled veteran community.

Could you provide an example or two of ways in which Japanese cultural norms created a different experience for returning soldiers than for American soldiers?

A key difference was that local communities in wartime Japan energetically rallied themselves in support of wounded servicemen.  That’s not to say that such did not happen in the United States during the war years, but in Japan providing aid to battle casualties was in many ways a grassroots rather than a national endeavor.  To tell the truth, I was more struck by the similarities rather than the differences between the two national contexts.  No community wants to see its men (and women!) in uniform suffer, and both Japan and the United States mustered great resources for the benefit of wounded servicemen and disabled veterans.


What surprised you most in the course of your research?

I went into this project expecting to find little in the way of support services for repatriated battle casualties in wartime Japan, but I discovered that historical conditions differed greatly from my preconceived ideas.  I think that for too long we have bought into the wartime propaganda produced in Japan that asserted that it was disgraceful for Japanese servicemen to do anything but die in battle.  In actuality, the same state that spouted such jingoism also created a sophisticated social welfare system that trumpeted the heroism of war-wounded men.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of Japan’s wartime experience?

One hope that I have for Casualties of History is that it leads readers to reconsider many of their beliefs and assumptions about how Japanese society experienced war and reacted to its effects.  Years ago, during my first year at Columbia as a graduate student, I remember Professor Carol Gluck stating one day in class that we need more social history about Japan during the Second World War.  As I found out during the course of my own research, there’s much about wartime Japanese society that we historians have yet to explore.  A lot of valuable material is out there in the archives, just waiting to be uncovered and unpacked!

February 24 Event “Sound and Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation with Artist Xu Bing:” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the February 24, 2015 event “Sound and Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation with Artist Xu Bing.” The standing-room only event featured a stimulating discussion between internationally acclaimed artist Xu Bing and five renowned Chinese poets: Bei Dao, Ouyang Jianghe, Xi Chuan, Zhai Yongming, and Zhou Zan.  Their conversation was moderated by Lydia H. Liu, Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, and John Rajchman, Adjunct Professor of Art History at Columbia University.  Eugenia Lean, Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Associate Professor of Chinese History at Columbia University, introduced the discussion.

The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Confucius Institute at Columbia University, Xu Bing Studio, the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, the Department of Art History and Archaeology,  the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia Global Centers East Asia, and Literary Translation at Columbia (LTAC) of the School of the Arts.

On Wednesday, February 25, 2015, the five Chinese poets–along with five eminent American poets– read poetry in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Xu Bing’s soaring “Phoenix” sculpture is on display. For a discussion with Columbia University professor Lydia H. Liu about Xu Bing’s “Phoenix,” please click here.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.
































February 24 Event: “East Asia’s Changing Security Environment and Japan’s Response:” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the February 24, 2015 event “East Asia’s Changing Security Environment and Japan’s Response.” The event featured a lecture by Hitoshi Tanaka, Chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute; Senior Fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange; and Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo; and Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science, Columbia University. 

During the event and ensuing discussion Tanaka and Curtis covered the changing security landscape of Northeast Asia.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.








February 23 Event: “Speech and Media Freedom – New Lessons of the Umbrella Revolution:” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the February 23, 2015 event “Speech and Media Freedom – New Lessons of the Umbrella Revolution.” The event featured a lecture by Margaret Ng, who is a noted politician, barrister, writer, and columnist in Hong Kong. Dr. Ng’s lecture was moderated by Benjamin L. Liebman, Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law, Columbia Law School, and Director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, Columbia Law School. 

During the lecture and the discussion afterward, Dr. Ng addressed current legal issues in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, Columbia Law School.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.













Apply to Columbia’s MARSEA Graduate Program for 2016-17



Interested in furthering your study of East Asia by learning from some of the world’s leading scholars of the region?  Apply to Columbia University’s Master of Arts in Regional Studies–East Asia (MARSEA) program: 

Columbia University‘s Weatherhead East Asian Institute administers the Masters in Regional Studies—East Asia (MARSEA) through Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The MARSEA program is perfect for students wishing to focus on a social science approach to the modern politics, international relations, modern history, and cultural and social formations of the region with a country focus.  The program, completed in two full-time semesters, is tailored to meet the needs of individuals entering professional careers, mid-career professionals, students preparing for entry into doctoral programs, and those pursuing a professional degree, such as the J.D. or M.B.A., who want to gain regional expertise.  As a MARSEA student, you will have the opportunity to study at an Ivy League university in one of the most exciting cities in the world.  Applications for spring semester 2016 are due November 1, 2015 and applications for fall semester 2016 are due January 15, 2016. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until April 15, 2016. Information about applying is available here.

Here are perspectives on the program from two MARSEA alumni:


“One of the most valuable aspects of the MARSEA program for me was the amount of flexibility its structure allowed, even within its 30 credit requirement.  I was continually impressed with how the MARSEA faculty and administrators were willing to work with me to craft a program that best fit my own needs, interests, and goals, while also keeping the scope of focus from becoming too narrow.  I was able to parlay an internship with a local Chinese-American theater company into an independent study, which had a direct influence on the work I am doing now at a Chinese language and culture institute here in New York.  The fact that the program is smaller in size is also a great asset.  I feel it is easier to reach out to a fellow MARSEA alum even if we were were not in the same cohort.  Being a MARSEA grad feels like being part of a special, unique group.”

-Lindsay Bennett, MARSEA ’11, Program Manager, Confucius Institute, Pace University


“The MARSEA program’s great strength is its flexibility. Rather than focusing on one subject and one country, MARSEA students are required to pursue a multi-national and multi-disciplinary course of studies, creating graduates with a mind keyed to interconnectivity. As a journalist working in the U.S. for the Japanese market, the ability to find these intersecting threads has been invaluable to my work and career.”

-Daniel De Simone, MARSEA ’09, Senior Staff Reporter, Asahi Shimbun