A thought-provoking narration about sport as a substitute for war

Kristian Gerner
Dept. of History, Lund University

J.A. Mangan, Peter Horton, Tianwei Ren & Gwang Ok (red)
Japanese Imperialism: Politics and Sport in East Asia: Rejection, Resentment, Revanchism
453 pages, hardcover, ill.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2018
ISBN 978-981-10-5103-6

War is the continuation of politics by other means.” The anthology Japanese Imperialism does not explicitly refer to the Prussian officer von Clausewitz’s famous thesis. However, its approach to sport is in this vein. The thesis on sport as a form of war is outspoken very clearly in what was obviously the working title of the project behind the book Japanese Imperialism: Sport as Regional Resistance, Rejection and Revanchism – Past into Present.  Thus, the theme is “Sport is the continuation of politics by other means”, or more adequately “Sport is war by other means”.

Japan has not performed anything like the painstaking Vergangenheitsbewältigung which the Federal Republic of Germany went through in repeated instances, starting seriously with the Auschwitz trials 1963–1965 and reaching its apogee with the inauguration in 2005 of the huge, solemn Holocaust Memorial in the center of the capital Berlin. On the contrary, and this fact is reiterated several times in Japanese Imperialism, Japanese premier ministers have repeatedly paid homage to the war heroes of Japan at the Yasukuni Shrine.[1] Equally offending to China and the two Korean states is the Japanese treatment of the memory of the war crimes – the official amnesia concerning them in history books and in school curricula.

The chief editor of the book, J.A. Mangan, who has authored or co-authored eleven of the fourteen chapters, sets the tune with an emphasis on the methodological rule to attempt to explain the politics of a nation primarily with focus on endogenic factors. He takes issue with Pankaj Mishra’s thesis on “The Revolt Against the West”[2]. The presumed ‘revolt’ was an aggression towards Japan’s neighbors.: “It omits the legacies of Japanese imperialism with the longevity of regional resentment now expressed inter alia through the powerful political medium of modern sport” (4).

The book is divided into nine parts and fourteen chapters. A lengthy list of footnotes and another list of references accompany each chapter. The body text comprises only 292 of the 453 pages.  The longest chapter, number 10, by Peter Horton is a substantial study of the atrocities of Japanese imperialism on the ground. It shows how the Japanese authorities treated the Chinese brutally in a “sub-ethnic cleansing” while at the same time posing as liberators from British colonialism of the other ethnic groups. Its title is worth quoting in full because it amounts to a distinct summary not only of this chapter but also, mutatis mutandis, of the analytical thrust of the whole volume: “The Ambivalence of Reaction, Response, Legacy and War Memory: The Japanese Occupation of the Malayan Peninsula: The Consequences for Sport of the Imperial Past and the Democratic Present” (279).

The anthology has a threefold approach. The first approach is empire, militarism and sports. The point of departure is Mangan’s analysis of the British public school system and how its promotion of Athleticism on the Playing Field was transformed into an imperial ‘moral play’ with a ‘Civilizing Mission’. Mangan observes that the Japanese Bushido concept of moral, heroic and martial manhood, which was the basis of samurai education, was close to the martial ethos of British Athleticism. In this respect, the Japanese amalgamation of sport and militarism emulated the British example. But the British model was not the cause.

Once Japan had set out on her imperialist policies in East Asia, “[…]it used both traditional and contemporary sport with their martial purposes as a means of imperial cultural consolidation”(4, italics in original). Thus Mangan uses the relation between British sports, empire and war as an ideal type for his analysis of Japanese imperialism at the same time as he highlights the endogenic causes of the latter. Peter Horton notes how the ideology of Pan-Asianism with its roots in opposition circles in the Meiji period became Japanese government policy in the 1930s with an underlying ‘ideological matrix’ that would result in the concept of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Japan aspired to become the hegemon of East Asia, a modern counterpart to the ancient Chinese Middle Kingdom.

Mangan observes that the Japanese Bushido concept of moral, heroic and martial manhood, which was the basis of samurai education, was close to the martial ethos of British Athleticism.

The second approach of the anthology is double-sided. The first is the modern history of East Asia. The history of Japan from the Meiji restoration until the demise of the empire in 1945 is supplemented with succinct presentations of the political and cultural history of the objects of Japanese imperialism, i.e.  China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Malayan Peninsula with Singapore. The second side is history and memory, more exactly the political use by politicians and in media of memories of triumphs and defeats in competitions between national teams and between individuals who represent their countries. Taiwan and Hong Kong are treated as nations in their own right, regardless of their contemporary international status.

The third approach is the role of sports in Japanese subjugation and pacification policies and in anti-Japanese nation building in the occupied territories. The legacy of Japanese imperialism in the present time is brought forward: official Japanese recalcitrance to recognize the war crimes and the continued relevance of the atrocities in the historical memory of the victim countries. The words rejection and resentment in the title of the book relate to this double issue.

The word revanchism in the title refers to the ideological use of the imperialist legacy by the Japanese authorities on the occasion of the Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo in 1964 and in the bid for and the preparations of the forthcoming Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo in the year 2020. J.A. Mangan observes: “In Japanese post-imperialism /sport/ is used now as an avowal of revanchism.” (4) The book should obviously be read as a background story to the forthcoming Games in 2020 and as a psychological preparation of the international public for presumed Japanese nationalist propaganda.

The different chapters focus on the introduction and subsequent political use of modern sports in the countries under scrutiny. However, athletic achievements as such – “results” or epic stories of competitions – are not the main issue. Major events such as the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964, in Seoul in 1988 and in Beijing in 2008 and the FIFA World Cup in Japan and the Republic of Korea in 2002 are analyzed within the political context of the time as examples of the use of soft power by the respective states.

In this book on Japanese Imperialism, sport emerges not only as soft power but also as functionally close to both war and religion. On the one hand sport stands out as an instrument to strengthen and legitimize the rule of a dominant class or, as in this case, an occupying power. On the other hand, special sports such as baseball, basketball, football, table tennis, wrestling and figure skating acquire a role as playing fields with real victories and defeats. Finally, the book gives examples of how, on the occasion of sport events, both media and spectator crowds become saturated with emotions and, occasionally, experience epiphany.

In the penultimate chapter J.A. Mangan discusses critically the lingering nationalistic legacy of the imperial past of Japan and its projection onto the coming Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. However, in the ultimate concluding chapter Mangan evokes the image of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 as “a manifestation of the rise of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ to political and geopolitical prominence […] a major step towards the Asianization of World Sport” (429).

Japanese Imperialism is a fine example of history writing that takes moral issues seriously and at the same strives for objectivity. It is not a history of sport in a limited sense but a thought-provoking narration about sport as a substitute for war between Japan and the historical victims of Japanese imperialism.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2018

[1] China, South Korea, and North Korea have called the Yasukuni Shrine a microcosm of a revisionist and unapologetic approach to Japanese crimes of World War II. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controversies_surrounding_Yasukuni_Shrine. Accessed 2018-05-10)
[2]Mishra, Pankaj, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. London: Picador 2012.


Table of Content

Part I Prelude

  1. Empires: Dead, Dying and Dormant
    J.A. Mangan

Part II Prologue

  1. Empires: West and East—Curious Conjunction and Contemporary Consequences, Complexity and Circumstances
    J.A. Mangan

Part III Regional Reactions and Responses: Korea

  1. Japanese Imperial Sport as Failed  Cultural  Conditioning: Korean Recalcitrance’
    J.A. Mangan, Kyongho Park and Gwang Ok
  2. The Unclosed Door: South Korea’s Postcolonial Sport as a Revanchist Reaction to Japanese Imperial Legacies
    Sun-Yong Kwon and J.A. Mangan

Part IV Regional Reactions and Responses: China

  1. A Living Legacy (Part One): Japanese Imperialism and Chinese Revanchism—Modern Sport as a Modern Medium
    Jinxia Dong, Tianwei Ren and J.A. Mangan
  2. A Living Legacy (Part Two): Japanese Imperialism— Residual Resentment and an Unforgiving China: The Sports Cartoon as Political Aide-Memoire
    Tianwei Ren and J.A. Mangan

Part V Regional Reactions and Responses: Taiwan

  1. Japanese Cultural Imperialism in Taiwan: Judo as an Instrument of Colonial Conditioning 195
    Dong-Jhy Hwang and J.A. Mangan
  2. Taiwan under Japanese Colonial Control: Sport as a Component of Cultural Conditioning, Political Domination, and Militaristic Imperialism
    Chien-Shing Lee, J.A. Mangan and Gwang Ok

Part VI Regional Reactions and Responses: Hong Kong and Singapore

  1. A Clash of Colonialisms: Sports Culture in Hong Kong Under the Japanese Occupation
    Brian Bridges and David R. Phillips
  2. The Ambivalence of the Reaction, Response, Legacy and War Memory: The Japanese Occupation of the Malayan Peninsula: The Consequences for Sport of the Imperial Past and the Democratic Present
    Peter Horton

Part VII Revanchism or Reconciliation?

  1. Towards the Construction of a New Regionalism? The End of East Asian Colonialism: Japanese Responses and Reactions to the Games of Asia
    Keiko Ikeda and J.A. Mangan
  2. Tokyo 2020: Opportunity for Regional Reconciliation or Protracted Antagonism?
    Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu

Part VIII Epilogue

  1. Retained Memories, Political Pressures, Catalytic MomentsTokyo 2020: Reconciliation?
    J.A. Mangan

Part IX Coda

  1. ‘The Past is a Present Country’
    J.A. Mangan
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