Some days ago, I saw this book piled up in a bookshop in Seoul: 「朝鮮開国と日清戦争 アメリカはなぜ日本を支持し、朝鮮を見限ったか」by 渡辺惣樹 (わたなべ・そうき)
They have a decent selection of non-fiction books in Japanese, but not so much space that they would pile up a lot of titles. So naturally, my attention was drawn to this title.
I am both interested in the Sino-Japanese war and Korea history, so it seemed that this book was for me. I must have spent 20 minutes, standing before it, wondering if I should buy it or not, for I was sure that I could not read it.
Even if I hesitated a lot before buying it, it was still an impulse. I hadn’t gone there to buy a History book, and before seeing this book, I was not even thinking of reading one soon. If I were to start reading a History book in Japanese, this is what I should have done: I should have made some research on the internet before, find which books or authors were praised for being easy to read and maybe begin with some general overview of History in Asia, or maybe buy a History book for children, with illustrations and furigana. Instead of which, I just bought a book I knew nothing about (apart from the title).
What is this book about?
The title tells us what this book is about: the opening of Korea, under the Joseon dynasty and the Sino-Japanese war “朝鮮開国と日清戦争”. The subtitle tells us what is the point of this book: understand why the United States supported Japan and turned their back to Korea: アメリカはなぜ日本を支持し、朝鮮を見限ったか.
Many things have been written about the relationship between Korea and Japan. But to fully understand the relation between the two countries, it is necessary to begin before the annexation in 1910. Another important thing is that we cannot understand this relation without taking into account other actors, in particular, the United States and China. Therefore, I am very excited about this book.
I only just began to read it, but I can say that I am agreeably surprised. First, the Japanese level is not as hard as I expected. I had to check a lot of vocabulary at the beginning, but the same words keep coming back, so the task is not as daunting as it may seem.
The first chapter is exciting. The author focuses on the process that led to Korea opening to commercial trade. I like the writing style of the author who tells History as a history. The narrative is easy to follow, and the book is very straightforward. As a reader, we know exactly where we are, and why we are talking about this or that event.
I am particularly curious to see how the author talks about Korea. I found a comparison between Korea and Japan of the time, even if comparing the two was not the point of the chapter. For example, when talking about the first diplomatic delegation sent by Korea (Joseon) to the United States, the author compares it with the delegation Japan had sent some years previously. The superiority of Japan is undeniable, but the comparison was not necessary here. The entire chapter was only focused on the United States and Korea, and the author almost never talked about Japan here, except to say that they were miles ahead of Korea.
This is just a little detail that I noticed, and I am eager to see if this is just an isolated example or if it will be the general tone of the book. But the impression that I have from the first chapter is that Korea was entirely passive. The author of the book depicts very well how the different actors in the United States worked to sign a commercial treaty with Korea, but Korea’s point of view is never taken into account. The whole story is told from the United States’ position, and nothing is said about what happened in Korea at the time. The author almost never mentions the names of Korean rulers, and we don’t know how they saw and discussed the intrusion of American ships near their coasts. It seems that they didn’t have any strategy, or to go further, that Korea was only a passive object to conquer, not an “actor” of the Asian scene at the time. (but maybe it really was so?)
I had a look at the Amazon page of the book to see what readers said about it. The first critic says “これが客観的な記述か、と言えばそうである部分と、その上であくまで日本の立場、視点からの解釈が含まれている。“
How do I read this book
I read this book with my electronic dictionary, Wikipedia and my notebook. It has been a while since I have read a History book and somehow, as soon as I started it, I was itching to take notes as I did at university. I do not only take notes about the contents of the book, but I also like noting when I feel that the author is a little partial. I also write down vocabulary because there are many words worth remembering for the sake of this book, but I don’t want to have them in my Anki.
I use Wikipedia because I like to read further about what the author mentions. Also, the author sometimes evokes Japanese names that are certainly known by Japanese but not by me. In this case, there is no furigana, and it is where my electronic dictionary proves extremely useful. Of course, I use it to look up standard vocabulary, but I would be limited if I only had an English-Japanese dictionary:
- There are some words that I can’t find in the bilingual dictionary, and I am very grateful to also have Japanese-Japanese dictionaries in it: I always find what I am looking for.
- As for names of people, events, fights and so on, I use the ニッポニカ, an encyclopedia in my electronic dictionary that I never opened before! It’s convenient to understand what a name stands for. If I want more information, however, I usually read the Wikipedia page in English.
When I read this book, I usually only read one or two pages if I have time, but I feel satisfied even if I only read a paragraph a day.
I may have sounded a little critical of this book, but I really love it. I am learning a lot from it, and I really enjoy reading it. If I know that the author is not always objective and sometimes tend to see things from a Japanese point of view only, it does not bother me. After all, I want to read this kind of books, because I am curious to see how Japanese historians talk about this period. The book is really interesting and well documented, I am sure that it will allow me to understand better the relation between Korea and Japan, or at least, understand how Japanese see this relation.
The author has written other books, and I would like to read them later, especially those who are more about Japan.
That’s it! I probably won’t be able to write a book review before the end of the year, but it’s fine.