CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Sometimes depicted as "noble savages" to be revered, other times as murderous brutes to be subdued or eradicated, indigenous peoples were the foils against which colonial powers defined modern, civilized society, and which they used to legitimize military conquest, political control and financial exploitation during periods of imperial expansion.
In a new book, "Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame" (University of California Press), Robert Tierney, a professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois, explores the theme of savagery in Japanese literary works during Japan's colonial period (1895-1945). Focusing primarily on South Seas territories such as Taiwan and Micronesia, Tierney examines Japan's expansionist discourse and the ways in which literary depictions of savagery changed over time in relation to Japan's rise as an imperial power throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries and after the empire's cataclysmic end in World War II.
In many ways, Japan mimicked Western powers in the tactics that it used to become an imperial power. Japanese writers were influenced by Western imperialist literature such as "Robinson Crusoe," one of the first English novels translated into Japanese, and by the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Pierre Loti.
However, because Japan colonized geographically contiguous territories inhabited by people who were close to themselves culturally and racially and because Japan was itself a semi-colonized nation in the late 19th century, there were some distinct differences between Japanese and Western colonial discourse.
Unlike Westerners, Japanese authors claimed to identify with their colonized people and voiced feelings of ambivalence or anxiety about their roles as colonizers. The Japanese also employed "a rhetoric of likeness or similarity," Tierney said. "The rhetoric of Japanese empire was, 'We are close to the people we colonized (unlike Western colonial powers), so we want to make them like us.' "
When Japan ended 250 years of isolationism by reopening its borders and aggressively striving to acquire nearby Taiwan in the mid- to late-19th century, images of exotic South Seas islands and native "savages" captured Japanese writers' imaginations. Depictions of Taiwanese aborigines were ubiquitous in colonial novels, ethnographies, travelogues and other literature, but the natives often were stereotyped as savage "headhunters" in need of subjugation and the civilizing influence of Japanese colonizers. While a few of the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes did engage in headhunting, that was not true of the majority of the tribes, Tierney said.
To encourage Japanese people to leave their homeland and colonize the new territories, folk stories such as "Momotarõ" ("The Peach Boy"), a centuries-old legend about a tiny boy born from a peach who grows up and conquers an island of ogres, were engaged as political propaganda to whet people's appetites for imperial conquest and cultural assimilation.
"'Momotarõ' is probably the single most famous Japanese folktale," Tierney said. "It was interpreted as an allegory of the Japanese colonization of the South Seas. Scholars refer to it as the Japanese model for the creation of a culture of colonialism - that the Japanese had it in their genes even though Japan had no early history of colonialism."
However, as writers became critical of Japan's expansionist policies and discourse during the country's colonial period, they developed new interpretations of "Momotarõ" that transformed the protagonist from a conquering hero to a villainous ruler and invader - and likewise recast the ogres as peace-loving islanders.
After the colonies were liberated and the Japanese empire disappeared at the end of World War II, Japanese writers struggled to come to terms with the empire's history of aggressive imperialism and the horrors of the war, and their postwar literature redefined the theme of savagery. Long a staple of Western literature, cannibals and cannibalism began to emerge frequently in Japanese literature as well after World War II, appearing in the plots of three major antiwar and humanistic novels. War memoirs by Japanese military officers and aborigines who fought alongside them also contained factual accounts of Japanese soldiers descending into barbarism and consuming their dead - in essence, becoming the savages of the new empire - while the South Seas natives were depicted as embodying noble qualities such as patriotism, valor and self-sacrifice that pre-war literature had attributed solely to the Japanese colonizers.
Postcolonial studies often overlook Japan as a colonial power, although it was the paramount imperial force in East Asia during the early 20th century and provided a template for other late-developing imperial nations, Tierney wrote.
"If you look at pre-World War II maps of the Japanese empire, it encompasses all of Korea, great parts of China, parts of southeast Asia, Taiwan and Micronesia," Tierney said. "Japan was devastated after World War II, and the borders got redefined to just the main islands of Japan. Koreans and Chinese will say that Japanese history books whitewash the colonial period or Japanese aggression. Somehow this shrinking of Japan and this rethinking of what is Japanese, which takes place after the war, tends to exclude the empire."
For decades, Japan's rich vein of literary works from its colonial period were repressed, disowned by the writers and largely forgotten by scholars as the Japanese sought to dissociate themselves from what they perceived as a shameful past and focused on rebuilding their country after the war.