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Book Review


Robert Thomas Tierney, Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 320. $49.95 (hardcover).


     Broad in scope and cross-disciplinary in its approach, Robert T. Tierney's Tropics of Savagery offers an eye-opening account of the complex ways in which the Japanese people under the Meiji Regime (1868-1945) imagined, wrote about, and tried to make sense of themselves as emerging colonists in relation to two cultural Others. One was the civilized West, which Japan regarded as a model to emulate, imitate, and identify with, and the other were the colonial subjects in the Japanese Empire--and especially those in the frontier regions--who purportedly represented primitivism and backwardness that Japan had long overcome. The Japanese colonists were particularly fascinated by aborigines in colonial Taiwan (1895-1945) and islanders in the South Seas (= the Japanese-controlled Central Pacific islands, 1919-1945), whose "savagery" stood in sharp contrast with Japan's modernity. For instance, the knowledge that Taiwanese aborigines used to practice headhunting--whether real or imagined--drew much attention of Japanese anthropologists, ethnographers, and other writers in the wake of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), since it contributed to reinforcing the image of Japan as a rightful colonist to tame the barbaric and the irrational.

     Yet interestingly enough, and as Tierney's analysis shows, the Japanese writers were quite keen also to emphasize a degree of socio-cultural bonding with the "savage" populations as if to suggest that there were also primordial connections that justified colonial relations. The indigenous Taiwanese were thus perceived not simply as barbaric headhunters but also as "benign" savages, so to speak, with certain affinity with the Japanese. They were portrayed in the Japanese colonial literature as children, whose perceived innocence and pure-heartedness brought back the nostalgic memory of a good-old Japan; as women, whom the Japanese male colonists would desire, romance with, and even marry; and as warriors, whose fearless martial tradition was reminiscent of the Japanese own samurai heritage. As these illustrations show, the rhetoric of savagery was hardly a monolithic one. The Japanese writers deployed it rather to articulate varied and shifting perceptions of the colonial Self as well as the colonized Other.

     The trope of savagery was occasionally directed at the Japanese themselves, as exemplified in Satō Haruo's fiction, Demon Bird (Chapter 2: "Ethnography and Literature: Satō Haruo's Colonial Journey to Taiwan"). Set in a Taiwanese aboriginal community, Demon Bird on its face is about village superstition, scape-goating, ostracism, and village violence resulting thereof. Yet at another level, Satō developed the plot in such a way as to point to a critical role that Japanese colonial violence played in triggering troubles in the aboriginal community. It is indeed the arrival of the Japanese colonial armies, coupled with the occurrence of a rape incident by a Japanese soldier of a village woman, which disrupts the community's unity and that leads to demonization of the rape victim as well as her family. The savagery that Satō implicitly attacks in this fiction, then, is as much the superstitious villagers that ostracize the rape victim as Japanese colonial intervention that visitied upon the abroginal community.

     The Japanese colonial imagination relative to the South Seas is equally complex. To appreciate this, one now needs to turn to Chapter 3 of the book ("The Adventures of Momotarō in the South Seas"). Tierney analyzes in this chapter how islanders in the Central Pacific region figure in the Japanese colonial literature and especially in the modern renditions of an old Japanese folktale, Momotarō (Peach Boy). Momotarō is a story of a boy born of a gigantic peach, who one day leaves behind an elderly couple that raised him. He goes on an expedition to fight oni (ogres) on a faraway island along with a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. In the end, they succeed in the expedition and return home with treasures taken from the demons' island. This otherwise harmless fairy tale had an unfortunate history of being transformed into a propadanda machine during World War II, whose purpose was to justify the Japanese invasion in the southern Pacific region and inculcate militarism into the minds of children at their tender age.

     The prewar renditions of Momotarō (which are the focus of Chapter 3) similarly carried expansionist themes, although the underlying messages could defer greatly depending on the authors. For instance, Nitobe Inazō (1862-1933), a professor of colonial policy at Tokyo Imperial University, saw in Momotarō "a metaphor for Japan's manifest destiny" (124) and a vision of Japan's rise to a great colonial power. He thus exhorted the youngsters at his university to regard Momotarō as their folk hero and follow his example of venturing into the larger world. By contrast, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927)--a literary genious with dark humor--did just the opposite. In his rendition of Momotarō, Akutagawa "satiriz[ed] this ideal Japanese boy as an aggressive invader" and "cast[ed] the ogres as peace-loving islanders." (137). The depiction of Momotarō in Akutagawa's literary hands can take a particularly vicious turn. In one scene, the folk hero hoists high the Japanese flag and encourages his followers to plunder freely while sputtering, "Attack! Attack! If you spot an ogre, kill him. Kill every last one of them!" While Akutagawa apparently falls into certain stereotypes of tropical islanders in other parts of his narrative, the inverted use of the trope of savagery allowed him to produce a "pointed satire on the Japanese imperialism of his time" (140).

     Filled with detailed yet ultimately readable analyses of Japanese colonial literature, Tierney's Tropics of Savagery offers an invaluable window through which one can appreciate wide-ranging experiences and interpretations of colonialism in prewar and warime Japan. Moreover, this book is a welcome addition for those who teach comparative colonialism, since not only does Tropics of Savagery offer useful analytical tools but it also provides concrete titles and other relevant course materials that can be incorporated in classroom teaching. It is hoped that this book will find a broad readership  and that its rich educational resources be fully exploited.

Yuma Totani is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai'i. She specializes in  the studies of World War II Pacific-area war crimes trials. Her contact email is


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