Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"A Week to Cross the Pacific in 1936"

I picked up a 73-year-old book today entitled "Nippon - A Charted Survey of Japan - 1936" ("charted" apparently meaning that there are charts in the book; the 1936 English translation from the source Japanese-language book isn't perfect), which I'm hoping/expecting to be historically interesting to go through. The thing about history books written by current generation authors, is that they say basically "The old ones did this, and this, and that, and when they did this thing, they were hoping to... but actually...." etc. Which is fine... I guess... maybe.... But there's something immediate and compelling about seeing what the old ones did and thought when they were young - written in their words at the time, before they became dusty old ones.

Take this off-hand remark in the forward to the book:

"Tourists and those who visit Japan for professional and other purposes will find the present book an unfailingly informative companion as they tour the country. Those who are visiting Japan for the first time will do scarcely better than go through the book while their ships are still sailing in to sight of the shores they are to visit."

Trans-Pacific passenger air travel wasn't part of the picture yet, and it was just a normal given that anyone visiting Japan would be spending a week or more on a ship plowing across the ocean. And... the scenario of tourists willingly lugging around a book about industrial production, etc., paints a picture rather different from 2009.

The book also talks about Japanese people as though they are either trying to get a handle on a national identity, or trying to explain themselves to the English-text reader (or both). The book bills itself as an English translation of a Japanese book (which was used as a textbook in schools), but some parts leave me wondering whether the translator did a straightforward translation of the original, or whether he got creative with text he knew was for readers of radically different cultures.

And something else that has recently come to mind. I sailed to Japan on a raft of books saying how amazing it was that Japan rose from the ruins of World War-II in such a short time. This is certainly true, but it's begun to occur to me that the terminology is unfortunate, as it doesn't quite paint the full picture. By 1936, Japan had been industrializing for well over half a century already, so at the close of WW-II, the ruined cities and masses of dead notwithstanding, the country still had a lot of engineers and industrialists. Keeping this in mind and conjuring up the drive that led the original technological modernization, is it in fact so surprising that the country got the industrial machinery going again?

Too much interest in 1936? The accidental discovery of that book is the only reason I'm looking at that specific year, but I have been thinking a lot about the 1928-1946 time frame... hoping that this time around, history will not repeat itself - that we will stop it from doing so. Knowing what happened and getting a grasp of the mindset of specific times can be instructive in how not to make the same mistakes?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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