Yijiang Zhong on the “underside of Japan”: Public lecture at Trinity Centre for Asian Studies, 18th September 2017

My good friend and colleague from Tokyo, the historian Yijiang Zhong, gave a fascinating presentation of his current book project on “Capitalism, Empire, and the Production of Space in Modern East Asia”.

He was the first speaker in this academic year’s Asian studies lecture series, the turnout in the Long Room Hub was great, and the topic was highly relevant for my developing interest in the modern geo-spatial-political imagination in Japan. Our converging interests ensure that Yijiang and I will not run out of conversation topics the next few years!

The lecture traced the development of the now outdated designation of the Sea of Japan coastal areas as ura-Nihon 裏日本 and the Pacific coast as omote-Nihon 表日本, from descriptive geographical terms to a politically loaded oppositional pairing. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the “underside” of Japan “came to be identified, in spatial proximity and ideological association with the Asian continent, as bleak, stagnant, and backward in contradistinction to the bright and progressing Upper-side, the embodiment of Japan’s modernity.” Ura-Nihon thus came to stand for tradition, backwardness, and the Asian past, but ambiguously also for authenticity, populist resentment against the urban and internationalised elites, and as a “lake” uniting the Japanese islands with the continent and an essential element in continental imperial expansion.

This was a very successful presentation, addressing important historical and conceptual questions about “the historical experience of Japan as both a nation-state and an empire, and as both an Asian and a Western(ized) country.”

I am happy to have facilitated Yijiang’s visit to Dublin, which I hope will be the first of many.