electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 2 in 2009
First Published in ejcjs on 15 April 2009

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Japan and Russia

Three Centuries of Mutual Images


Alexander Bukh

Associate Professor
Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Tsukuba University

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Mikhailova Yulia and M. William W. Steele eds. (2008) Japan and Russia: Three Centuries of Mutual Images. Folkestone: Global Oriental. 237pp. USD90.00 (hardcover). ISBN-10: 1905246420. ISBN-13: 978-1905246427.

Those scholars working in the field of Russo-Japanese relations and familiar with publications both in Japanese and Russian probably know, that the question of mutual perceptions has been one of the favorite research topics among the scholars on both sides of the Sea of Okhotsk. Over the last two decades this trend has led to a significant number of publications in both languages of varying length and quality.[1] At the same time however, the majority of English language works devoted to Russo-Japanese relations have tended to examine mutual perceptions only in a strictly political context, as reflected in opinions of the political elites and governmental polls.[2] As such, this edited volume which focuses on the various aspects of mutual images both in Russia and Japan ranging from cinema to perceptions among residents of rural Japan, which, the authors, argue, allows them to the reach a conclusion that 'mutual images, in particular visual materials, have served as an important reference point in the construction of Japanese and Russian national, social and cultural identities' (p. 4) is a welcomed addition to the voluminous body of English language scholarship devoted to relations between the two 'distant neighbors'.[3]

As it is often the case with edited works, it is quite hard to write a review that will do justice to all the featured works, where the only unifying theme is the images of the 'other'. Therefore, instead of providing a general review of the book I will briefly outline the themes and conclusions discussed by all of the authors in this volume.

An Introduction by M. William Steele and Yulia Mikhailova opens the volume by providing the background for this volume and a brief summary of the featured works. The chapters appear in a chronological order: Chapters I through IV focus on pre-1945 years, Chapters V through VII examine the various aspects of the Cold War years and Chapter VIII through X are devoted to contemporary issues.

The first chapter by Michiko Ikuta focuses on the role of Japanese castaways in shaping mutual images during the Edo period arguing that while the information and visual images presented by the castaways, provided a channel of direct communication and somewhat modified the existing stereotypes, they did not manage to change the persistent stereotypes of exotic Japan and the uncivilized and expansionist Russia. These images, Ikuta argues, survived as dominant representations until the present day.

The second chapter by Elena Diakonova is devoted to Japonisme in Russian art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, generally confirming Ikuta's conclusion that exoticism continued to dominate Russian images of Japan but locating it within both the Russian self-perception as a bridge between the East and the West and the broader contemporary trend of romantic nostalgia as a reaction against modernity in the West.

Rotem Kowner's chapter focuses on the Japanese efforts to create a positive image of Japan in the West during the Russo-Japanese War. It shows that the Japanese elites were largely successful in creating an image of civilized Japan as a result of the already existing negative image of Russia among the European powers, the explicit support of the British and American press, the initial perception of Japan as an underdog, concentrated efforts on behalf of the Japanese elites to foster a positive image of Japan through humane treatment of Russian prisoners and military victories of the Japanese army.

The next chapter, authored by Yulia Mikhailova provides a comparative analysis of the Russian propaganda during the Russo-Japanese War and the Soviet anti-Japanese campaign of the 1930s. In the chapter Mikhailova argues that the latter was much more effective in terms of creating a negative image of Japan because of its appeal to, what Mikhailova calls, the 'geographical consciousness' (pp71-72); meaning a clear definition of 'our land' and extensive utilization of the territorial images in the 1930s anti-Japanese campaign.

In the following chapter Sergei Kuznetsov and Yulia Mikhailova examine the role of the visual media in transforming the experiences of Japanese POWs in Soviet labor camps into Japanese collective memory. The chapter examines the paintings of former POWs which depicted the hardships of their life in the camps, the non-univocal memories of the POWs as well as a number of recent plays devoted to the experience of 'Siberian imprisonment'. The chapter concludes by arguing that the visual images created by former POWs contributed to emergence of a general sense of Japanese victimhood vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the postwar years.

Irina Melnikova's article on the Soviet-Japanese film co-production and the images of Japan in the Soviet cinema is probably the most interesting piece in this volume. By tracing the history of Soviet-Japanese cine-cooperation and critically examining the representations of both nations in a number of jointly produced films, Melnikova examines how the broad political discourses were reflected or became obscured in these visual media.

The next chapter authored by INOUE Kenii and Sergei Tolstoguzov analyzes the representation of the collapse of the Soviet Union in Japanese political cartoons that appeared in Asahi Shimbun in late 1991. The authors argue that the goal of the cartoons, which were building on already existing stereotypes, was mainly to inform the reader regarding the ongoing political processes that were taking place in the Soviet Union and not to engage in creation of new images or symbols. This characteristic of the Japanese cartoons is juxtaposed with those of the West (US), which, the authors argue, were much more analytical, seeking to analyze and interpret the events.

Chapter VIII, authored by Tsuneo Akaha and Anna Vassilieva focuses on mutual perceptions of Japanese and Russian residents in three Japanese cities that receive a large number of long-term and short-term visitors from Russia-Niigata, Sapporo and Wakkanai. This interview-based survey traces the differences in mutual perceptions and explains it through frequency in contact with members of the opposite group, and, more importantly, to the prevalence of cultural beliefs, stereotypes and national images.

The following chapter by Yulia Mikhailova and Evgenii Torchinov seeks to explain the popularity of manga in post Soviet Russia and examines it as a Russian sub-cultural phenomenon. The chapter also provides an interesting description of contemporary Russian otaku and their works.

The concluding and, unfortunately, a very brief chapter, written by Leonid Smorgunov, looks at the representations of Japanese politicians on Russian TV and internet sites, arguing that the construction as well as the interpretation of the images can be divided into three groups: radically different 'other', familiar and friendly 'other' and an indifferent and neutral 'other.'

To conclude, the volume provides a multifaceted depiction of mutual images in Japan and Russia over the last three hundred years. Unfortunately, despite the frequent appearance of such theoretical value-laden terms as the 'other', 'construction' and 'deconstruction', these terms are utilized mainly in their most simple and mechanical meaning. The 'other', it seems, means simply the other nation or state and 'construction' is often used to describe an intentional or manipulative creation of a certain image. As such, this volume lacks in theoretical depth that could provide some new insights into the broader constructions of national identities both in Japan and Russia. It does, however, provide a number of interesting glimpses into the variety of mutual images in Japan and Russia which are rarely discussed in English language works on bilateral relations and would be of interest for both scholars and students alike, particularly to those who have no access to similar literature written in Japanese or Russian.


1. In Russian, see for example, Kulanov, A. and Molodiakov, V., Rossia i Iaponia :imedjevye voiny (Russia and Japan: image wars) Moscow: Astrel' 2007. In Japanese, see for example Fujiwara, A, ed. Nihon to Roshia (Japan and Russia), Tokyo: Sairyūsha 1985.

2. For example, Rozman, G., Japan's Response to the Gorbachev Era, 1985-1991: A rising superpower views a declining one, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992.

3. Hasegawa, T., Haslam, J. and Kuchins, A., eds. Russia and Japan : An unresolved dilemma between distant neighbors, Berkeley: University of California Press 1993; and Kimura, H., Distant Neighbors, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe 2000.

About the Author

Alexander Bukh is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tsukuba University. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE), an LLM in International Law from Tokyo University and a BL from Seinan Gakuin University. Alexander is the author of Japan's Identity and Foreign Policy: Russia as Japan's 'Other' (Routledge, 2009).

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