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Bridging Historical Traditions

In recent years historians have increasingly moved away from writing about the history of a single nation state, so-called mononational history, to writing an innovative variety of international history known as transnational history. Unlike traditional international history, which focused on the formal relations between two nation-states, this new form of historical inquiry seeks instead to illuminate how the events and developments that occurred within two countries overlapped and interpenetrated one another. Unfortunately, such an approach has been at a discount in Asian American and Japanese American historical scholarship. Nonetheless, one brilliant practitioner of these historical subfields, Eiichiro Azuma of the University of Pennsylvania, has been responsible for the publication of two landmark books enshrining the practice of Japanese American transnational history.

In 2006, Azuma authored Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America (Oxford University Press). Then, in 2019, Azuma saw into print the book presently under review. Together, these books entailed 20 years of painstaking research by Azuma into archives in the United States and Japan. The hallmark of these remarkable books is this: Whereas most extant historical scholarship treating the pre-World War II Japanese American experience has been limited to the theorization of transnational history, what Azuma has done in his publications is to go beyond theory and present the “actual events and concrete forces, both in Japan and the United States, as well as within their communities, that influenced the ideas and practices of the Issei” (Between Two Empires, pp. 219). It is this difference that makes all the difference, in that it renders both of Azuma’s books reader-friendly and moreover, of compelling interest — not merely to other scholars in his field, but also to general readers, most especially those of Japanese ancestry.

In Between Two Empires, Azuma aimed to show how the Issei immigrants from Japan to the American West forged a unique collective community identity as aliens ineligible for U.S. citizenship, while being simultaneously oppressed by white American racism, on the one hand, and Imperial Japan's view of them as patriotic agents of its nationalistic expansionist and militaristic goals, on the other hand. While writing that monograph, Azuma was struck by the examples of a significant number of Issei who gave up on the American West as a colonial settlement destination because of its racism and returned to Japan to champion more promising worldwide sites of colonization, such as the non-western U.S., Mexico, Manchuria, Taiwan, and Korea. This then becomes the burden that Azuma attends to in the eight detailed chapters that comprise In Search of Our Frontier. In so discharging this burden, according to Michael Thornton’s authoritative in-depth Journal of Asian Studies review, Azuma seeks to bridge two historical traditions: “that of domestic U.S. ethnic studies, which divorces Japanese Americans from the history of Japan, and that of the Japanese empire (and modern Japanese history more generally), which tends to disregard Japanese communities elsewhere in the world.”

Well written, richly documented, and passionately and persuasively argued, In Search of Our Frontier is a true work of historical artistry.

By Eiichiro Azuma
(Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2019, 368 pp., $75, hard cover)


This article was originally published by Nichi Bei Weekly on July 16, 2020.


© 2020 Arthur A. Hansen; Nichi Bei Weekly

America Issei Japan transnational history