Laughter and Tears on the Charles

A book I’ve been waiting for for a long time is finally almost out [PDF]. Adam Kern, an old friend from graduate school, has been working on Edo-period humor, especially kibyoshi visual humor:

Curious, he brought some of the books to his literature professor, who offered no comment because, he said, kibyoshi were really art. So Kern brought the books to his art professor, who also offered no comment because, he said, kibyoshi were really literature.

This is one of those cases, obviously, where the old disciplinary boundaries have created gaps in our knowledge that didn’t need to exist. No more. There have been books on the history of Japanese humor before, but I’ve never felt that they captured any of the actual fun being had by the authors of haikai, senryu, satirical enga or kyogen. It’s a cliche that the best way to kill humor is to analyze it, and I don’t think it’s entirely true, but that’s certainly been the model to date. Adam, however, is a genuinely funny, and very smart, guy and I look forward to seeing the results.

At the other end of the Charles (I say that, but of course neither MIT nor Harvard is anywhere near an “end” of the Charles, except in the solopsistic Cantabridgian sense), Prof. Peter Perdue has offered another review of the MIT Visualizing Cultures controversy. Most interesting is his differentiation between the censorial rage of “Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student group comprised of graduate students from the People’s Republic of China,” and the “Chinese alumni of MIT [CAMIT]”:

If some future social scientist used this correspondence as “data” for a research project, she might conclude: “A content analysis was done of the opinions contained in the complete database of e-mail correspondence, arranging them on the following ordinal scale from 1 to 5: 1. Dower and Miyagawa were completely justified in their project; the students’ actions were ridiculous and embarrassing; 2. The Website contained some unintentionally offensive portions, indicating the need for some clarification, but it should be restored as soon as possible with warnings about the need to view its content carefully; 3. The site was unbalanced, because it leaned too much toward the Japanese perspective; it needed to include Chinese materials and be substantially revised; 4. The Website indicated such bias against the Chinese people and in favor of Japanese militarism that the Website should be suppressed, MIT should apologize, and Profs. Dower and Miyagawa should be fired; 5. Even more violent threats…

“A frequency distribution of the responses would find them arrayed in a normal distribution with its median at about 3.0, with the median response from members of CAMIT lying one or more standard intervals to the left (< =2.5), and the median response from members of CSSA lying one or more standard intervals to the right (>=3.5). There is most likely a significant statistical difference between the two populations, but this subject requires further research.”

This tongue-in-cheek chi-test comes from his own correspondence after he published his first defense of Dower and Miyagawa: the CSSA, though it’s been defended vigorously, if not entirely honestly, on H-Asia, was quite unrestrained in its attacks (the image of a student presenting Iris Chang’s unbalanced book to War Without Mercy author John Dower to “educate him” pretty much says it all) and demands. The MIT alumni were considerably more balanced and nuanced in their approach, and made it possible to find a solution, as Perdue says, pretty much in line with position 2, though he himself is working with Miyagawa and Dower to implement some more Chinese content to supplement.


  1. Sorry, I should have included links. I’m afraid that the historical consensus is pretty clear on this: Chang’s book, though it includes some excellent new sources, is simplistic in historical causation and uncritical in using sources, not to mention highly wrought in tone and uncautious arithmetically. Its manifest errors have been manna to Japanese nationalists seeking to deny or minimize the atrocities.

  2. Maybe you are right and I am wrong. Iris Chang’s book is not a perfect one. But I just want to ask: how wrong is that book? And how right is that book? You said it is unbalanced. Maybe you are right. But could you make clear how unbalance it is? If the book is unbalanced as you said, which side does the book stay on? You said that “Its manifest errors have been manna to Japanese nationalists seeking to deny or minimize the atrocities.” Firstly, I just simply worry how the Japanese used this book to deny the atrocities. Secondly, it is that book that the Japanese right wings worry about, and if they really want use this book to deny the atrocities, oh, please do it, please tell everyone there is a book by Iris Chang and then deny what is said in that book. Please do it.

  3. I would not use the book in a course, nor would I recommend it as a source to a student: that’s my view on the book. It’s too bad, too, because we still need a solid English language treatment of the subject.

    As far as your sarcasm, unfortunately, debunkers who use Chang’s book very rarely inspire anyone unbiased to go read it…

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