I read twelve books this week. Only two were in English. So I think I'm going to start including (some but not all) of the Japanese books I've read in these writeups alongside their English-language brethren. Who knows? Someone might even decide to translate them some day.1) 日米関係史 - 五百旗頭 真(編)
A History of U.S.-Japan Relations - Iokibe Makoto (ed.)
This book, which was published in mid-2008, is the most up-to-date examination of U.S.-Japan relations of which I'm currently aware. It offers a nuanced, balanced examination of the history of these two Pacific powers from the early 18th
century to the present day.日米関係史
's greatest strength lies in the decision of its authors not to examine U.S.-Japan relations through a predefined framework (a la LaFeber's Clash
); this allows them to respond to individual events instead of attempting to shoehorn them into some larger relational paradigm. Despite the fact that all but one of the contributors are Japanese, the text is relatively objective. That said, the tone does get much more subjective and selective from the 1980's onward; its discussions of trade friction are rather pro-Japan and the final chapter on the Bush II-era is little more than a brief chronology of relevant events with little interpretation or explanation of the policy debates that shaped bilateral relations in the wake of 9/11. Still, one could do a lot, lot worse than this volume; I'd recommend it to any Japanese-speakers looking for comprehensive but relatively in-depth examination of the U.S.-Japan relationship. 2) Alignment Despite Antagonism - Victor Cha
Cha's book starts with an interesting question--why does Realism fail to explain the acrimony present in Japan-ROK relations--and offers an interesting solution--that the degree of cooperation between these two nations is a function of each country's interpretation of U.S. actions in the region.
On a basic level, Cha's observation is a sound one: when both states fear a lessening of the U.S. security presence in Northeast Asia they are more likely to put aside their differences in order to protect against common regional security threats. Conversely, when both Japan and the ROK feel confident in a continuing U.S. military presence, they feel they have the leeway to engage in disputes over military, economic, and political matters.
That Japan and South Korea would feel compelled to seek new (albeit less desirable) allies in the wake of weakening U.S. commitment is common sense. But it's hard to take the argument beyond that, because despite Cha's protestations to the contrary, historical animosity, domestic factors, and the persuasion of individual politicians do
exert influence over their conduct of foreign policy. More broadly, Cha's argument founders on two main, interrelated flaws: Cha's attachment to his pet theory and the impossibility of quantifying the ratio of friction to cooperation within the Japan-ROK relationship. In other words, the lack of an objective means to measure friction or cooperation allows Cha to emphasize whichever element best suits his argument even in the face of alternate explanations for state behavior. He also contradicts his own interpretations of historical events (e.g. the Carter administration's ultimate decision not to redeploy from South Korea either did or did not reassure its allies, depending on the exigencies of Cha's argument) and makes illogical statements (e.g. Kim Dae-jung was arrested on trumped-up charges of instigating riots in Kwangju that were actually the result of his arrest--a chronological impossibility).
It's hard to tell whether this is more the result of shoddy editing (which is evident throughout--parenthesis are frequently left unclosed, and Japanese words are misspelled) or a function of Cha's inability to consider aspects of the historical record that disprove his thesis, but I rather suspect the latter. Furthermore, this book was published in 1999; the latest date in the text itself is, I believe 1997, and I think it says something that Cha has not revisted this theory since them. (Indeed, I would be interested to hear Cha's interpretation of how the Sunshine Policy, friction over the DPRK hostage crisis, and the Six Party talks (among other developments) fit this theory.)
End verdict: while this book is worth reading for students of Northeast Asian relations, that worth lies more in the opportunity to question Cha's thesis than it does in the thesis itself.3) This is Paradise! - Hyok Kang
This short but compelling book is the story of its author's childhood in Onsong, a city in northern North Korea. In it, Kang narrates his memories of early childhood: attending school, laboring in the fields and mines, witnessing executions, the life-or-death struggle to survive the 1995 famine, and his defection to China and finally South Korea.
First the bad: this story was related to a French journalist via an interpreter and Kang and journalist's limited Chinese skills, before being translated into English from the French. Thus there's a lot of noise introduced into the text; it does not read like Korean to my ears. Furthermore, the English translator does not seem to be familiar with Korean; his transliteratons of Korean words resemble no romanisation system I've ever seen. If anything, they look like bastardized pinyin.
And now the good: Kang's tale is riveting, and as Kang is the youngest defector (of whom I'm aware) to have written a memoir, both his outlook and the events he describes frequently differ from those found in other memoirs
. I feel I've come a bit closer to understanding how the North Korean regime has maintained the allegiance of its citizens for having read this volume. Indeed, it makes Kang's narrative of thievery, cannibalism, and brutal fights for survival all the more heartbreaking. I only wish Kang had been more able to describe his defection (through China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), although I understand why this was clearly impossible. Final verdict: it is well worth your time to read this book
That will be all.