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What annoys you about history books?
Topic Started: Jan 20 2018, 12:59 PM (450 Views)
JoshHistoryland
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Peasant
I'm almost finished the first draft of my book about the British in Japan 1853-1868. So it seems a good time to put this out there. When I'm editing, what are common pitfalls to try to avoid in Japanese history? I'm aware of a few already but everyone's different. What are the bugbears, what will make you dismiss a book about Japan as a waste of time etc. All advice is welcome.

Josh.
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kitsuno
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The Shogun

No sources.

Wikipedia as a source.

Sansom or Turnbull as the major source.

Exclusive use of English sources that date only from before 1980.

Noel Perrin for anything.

Ninjas.
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Toranosuke
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Tosa no kami
Ooh. Sounds like potentially a great book. Looking forward to seeing it!

Let's see... some of my bugbears:
1) Inaccuracies, perpetuation of common misconceptions
2) A lack of the kind of nuance and consideration that is to be expected of an academic treatment. One way this can manifest is in an unquestioning use of anachronistic or problematic terminology. In other words, I *do* want to see a book that shows that the author has given some consideration to, what do we mean by modern (or early modern)? What do we mean by feudal? What do we mean by "nation" or "Japan"? I don't want to see a book that calls merchants "businessmen" or imperial subjects "citizens," or daimyo "Kings" or "Princes..." and so on.
3) Overly lionizing or villainizing narratives. Don't write a book that's all about how wonderful or horrible the British were, and how wonderful or horrible the Japanese were, as if you're just taking Basil Hall or whoever at their word.
4) Lack of Japanese sources. That's a problem.
5) Lack of citation. Also a problem.
6) Too much theory, especially poorly applied theory. Bakumatsu Japan is not a playground for your Marxist or Weberian models - it's a real place, full of real people, with real, complex, vibrant, lives. (Not that I expect this would be your problem - but I just finished a book that definitely had this problem)
7) Books that don't reflect trends in the scholarship. I don't want to see the Edo period lionized as this amazing period of such great incredible advances and peace, as if it didn't have problems, and I don't want to see it demonized as some period of Japan being "closed" and backward, because what is this, the Meiji period? We've moved past that narrative. ... If you think Japan was "closed," go read Ronald Toby, and if you think Tokugawa Japan was one singular strongly unified state, go read Luke Roberts, and if you think the samurai were all peaceful and cultured and intellectual, and that these great heroes of Sengoku valor weren't horribly violent battlefield butchers, go read the last chapter of Morgan Pitelka's "Spectacular Accumulation," and /then/ come back, and write your book.

Stuff like that. If I think of any more, I'll be back :) Thanks for offering a space to rant.
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JoshHistoryland
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Peasant
Thank you ever so much for all the food for thought! As you might expect I'm quite glad (indeed overjoyed that I share quite allot of those bugbears) that I have definitely dodged a few bullets, and to some degree concerned that I may have tripped here and there, but that is why we do first drafts after all.

The first ringer I am concerned about is that I don't have enough Japanese sources because I am sorry to say I don't read Japanese (which is why the book is quite specific in its range). This should answer wether I've used too many English sources pre 1980 as well (I will provide sources in the book, heaven help me), I wanted to be sure I tried to be as balanced as possible in a book that focuses on the British and what they saw and thought and how the official beginning of Anglo Japanese relations began (which of course demands I clarify some of what the contemporaries say). What I have used so far is:

Constitutional development of Japan. Toyakichi Iyenaga.
The Intercourse between the United States and Japan. Inazo Nitobe.
Kinse Shiriaku.
Japan in 1853-1864 or Genji Yume Monogatari.
Women of the Mito Domain. Yamakawa Kikune.
The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa (I shall probably make use of some of his other work so)
Life of Li Naosuke by Shimada Saburo.
Agitated Japan Life of Baron II Kamon no kami Naosuké. Based on the Kaikoku Shimatsu of Shimada Saburō.

Bearing in mind some obvious Meiji propaganda and the odd dash of Tokugowa defensiveness I also have thus far utilised later General studies which are not written in Japanese or by Japanese people but which deal almost exclusively with Japanese sources. The author's being Jansen, Totman and Craig. There is allot more (prejudiced and unprejudiced one way or another) in English.

(I read Ryotaro Shiba for some colour and to see what culturally modern people associate with the period but that isn't used as a basis, other than to refer to it as a lead in here and there.)

I have no doubt there will be gaps in what I've selected, what do you guys think have I missed in this department or what would you suggest I add, bearing in mind the brief of the book?

Keep the advice coming if you can people, information is my ally in this and in the editing process it will be of inestimable help.

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ltdomer98
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Daijo Daijin

Kitsuno and Toranosuke already hit on most of mine. The biggest thing I'd say is honesty: all of those things above (citations, proper sourcing, acknowledging the biases and limits of sources, etc.) speak to intellectual honesty. I don't have to agree with your book. I do need to be able to look at what you wrote, see who or what you read, and understand why you came to the conclusions you did. As an academic, there are lots of "good" books I dislike or disagree with, that I intend to use in my classes. Some of them it's because even though there are problems, there are good bits; others because I want to show students negative examples that they can argue against.

If you're not an "academic" and you're not producing a book for "academics," that's fine. Be up front about that. Admit your limitations--"I don't read Japanese well, so have relied on X, Y, and Z who are specialists and have produced trusted works." There is no quicker way for me to dismiss a book than if it attempts to be "academic" but doesn't have secondary AND primary sources in Japanese. If that's not accessible to you, that's fine. It won't be a book I use in a grad seminar. It might be a book I recommend to a casual reader, though. There's nothing wrong with that.

Also, you should have primary sources in English, being as you're writing about the British. Diaries of Brit diplomats, naval officers, businessmen, etc. who came over. Those of the French or Americans who dealt with them. Government documents. All of that stuff is out there, and is easier to get than it ever has been. Without that, you're writing a summary of what other people have written. Again--that's fine, if you say that's what you're doing.

Now, one red flag that IMMEDIATELY jumped out at me:

JoshHistoryland
Jan 21 2018, 03:15 AM
Life of Li Naosuke by Shimada Saburo.


It's not "LI." It's II. Two I's. not an L. ii. "LI" is not a linguistically possible Japanese name--it's not just a misspelling. Beyond that, the II (two i's) family is one of the most important daimyo families of the Edo period. Seeing "Li" immediately would make me put the book down. I googled the book you are referencing--it isn't "LI" it's "II" on the book, so this is your mistake, not the source. I'm sorry if this comes across as harsh, but think about it--why should I read a book by someone who doesn't understand the names of the people he or she is referencing? What other mistakes are lurking in there that aren't as apparent? Would you read a book about the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchbill? Or US President Abram Linkoln?

Again, that may seem harsh, but you'd rather hear it here than from a reviewer. I've said worse in manuscript reviews I've done for a journal. What seems like it may be a minor mistake is, as I said, a major red flag. Even if you did that once, everything I read from that point on is getting a doubly critical eye. When you write a book, you are making a claim to knowledge, and that people should read your book to gain that knowledge. Admit your limitations, be up front about what you're trying to accomplish, and get the things you can right, and it'll be fine.

ALSO: Never, ever trust a Western editor to catch things like the above. My Edo-period seminar class absolutely trashed a recent book by a respected author because he had so many stupid mistakes that any editor should have caught. Things like saying Pilgrim's Progress was written by Paul Bunyan (It was by John Bunyan, not the legendary American lumberjack giant). Other things included giving birth and death dates when a historical first appeared--which is fine--but getting them wrong, like, so wrong to the point that Person A was an advisor to the Meiji Government, but the date of death given was 1855...

Details matter. Again, this is a well known scholar in a book that just came out this past year. And it was really hard to take his book seriously, even though overall it made good points, because so much of it was just horrible. It may seem harsh, it may seem petty, but I go back to the question of why anyone should trust you if you make simple mistakes like that. As a non-academic author, you already (fairly or unfairly) carry a strike against you, because you don't have a fancy schmancy title declaring you worthy of reading. On top of that, you don't have many Japanese-language sources. That can be overcome, but not if you get the details wrong. It's even MORE important to avoid those mistakes. Trust me, I wrote for several years as a "non-academic" before going back to a PhD program. I've seen what it takes to be taken seriously by people. You have to be impeccable on the things you CAN get right.

Looking forward to it. Hope I haven't scared you too much.


Toranosuke
Jan 20 2018, 09:40 PM

6) Too much theory, especially poorly applied theory. Bakumatsu Japan is not a playground for your Marxist or Weberian models - it's a real place, full of real people, with real, complex, vibrant, lives. (Not that I expect this would be your problem - but I just finished a book that definitely had this problem)
7) Books that don't reflect trends in the scholarship. I don't want to see the Edo period lionized as this amazing period of such great incredible advances and peace, as if it didn't have problems, and I don't want to see it demonized as some period of Japan being "closed" and backward, because what is this, the Meiji period? We've moved past that narrative. ... If you think Japan was "closed," go read Ronald Toby, and if you think Tokugawa Japan was one singular strongly unified state, go read Luke Roberts, and if you think the samurai were all peaceful and cultured and intellectual, and that these great heroes of Sengoku valor weren't horribly violent battlefield butchers, go read the last chapter of Morgan Pitelka's "Spectacular Accumulation," and /then/ come back, and write your book.


I love these two bullets so much my wife might get jealous. Please stop with the Maruyama Masao-versions of "we must explain why Japan turned evil and started in WWII...it's all the Edo Period's fault!!" narratives, people!!
Edited by ltdomer98, Jan 21 2018, 05:01 AM.
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JoshHistoryland
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Daijo, thank you so much for your candid advice. Let me assure you I feel strangely encouraged by what you have written. Believe me getting feedback like this is why I posted this, I want people's help, I came at this story through the British sources and I know I will have made mistakes. Indulge me a little story:

When I began researching the project I learned about many Japanese figures I had never heard of before and in pointing out the incorrect spelling of the Tairo's name you have excellently summarised some of my journey. In my early notes, I read his name and to my western mind I wrote it down as Li. At this time I was not consciously aware that to quote Alex Kerr quoting his mother 'I'm drowning! That's d-R (not L)-o-w-n-i-n-g!'. This travesty recurred until I saw how the British wrote the word Rônin, every man and his dog wrote it 'Loonin' and I realised when spelling the word phonetically they hadn't quite grasped Japanese pronounciation. Thus cautioned I saught a phonetic acompanyment to Naosuke's name and now I write it as Ii. This is a mistake inside a mistake. I copied and pasted this book list with my old errors, without checking it, thinking as I do now that to write Naosuke's name one would write Ii and your observations about editors become in fact even more multi faceted. I am a terrible editor and will indeed have missed many lurking errors, and that is perhaps my biggest concern.

Everyone here has been very generous here and all criticism has been constructive and kindly put. What you say about honesty in the writing is something I will strive towards, and indeed has been a concern of mine from the first.

This is my first book, and I need all the help I can get.

Josh.
Edited by JoshHistoryland, Jan 21 2018, 06:07 AM.
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kitsuno
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The Shogun

ltdomer98
Jan 21 2018, 04:45 AM


Now, one red flag that IMMEDIATELY jumped out at me:

JoshHistoryland
Jan 21 2018, 03:15 AM
Life of Li Naosuke by Shimada Saburo.


It's not "LI." It's II.


Ya beat me to it :lulz:
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JoshHistoryland
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Peasant
Facepalm. :ouch:
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kitsuno
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The Shogun

When I first found Nobunaga's Ambition in middle school, for the longest time I called it "Nobunga's Ambition". And I called all the Daimyo "Day-mio". :ouch:
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ltdomer98
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kitsuno
Jan 21 2018, 11:29 AM
When I first found Nobunaga's Ambition in middle school, for the longest time I called it "Nobunga's Ambition". And I called all the Daimyo "Day-mio". :ouch:


yeah, don't worry too much, Josh, we've all been there. I did the same as the above re: NoBUNga, and I'm pretty sure I said "To-kuhguhwuh" until I had some exposure to the language.

and now, here I am, struggling through reading 8th century legal codes!
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Bethetsu
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I am particularly interested in the calendar, so here are some problems I have been aware of.

First, for reading, the most important point is to be sure which calendar your source is using. And if a secondary source, did they get it right? Your work involves the Japanese, Gregorian (English), and perhaps also the Julian (Russian) calendars. Japanese uses the same terms for western and Japanese months, and some western writers use "May" for the Japanese 5th month, etc. So be careful how your English-language sources treat Japanese dates.

For your writing if you use Japanese dates you have to decide on a policy on how to differenciate and explain it in the introduction—for instance, month names means western calendar, but 5/1 is the 1st of the 5th Japanese month, int 5/1 is the first of the intercalary (leap) 5th month. If you quote Japanese documents, it is very helpful for readers who want to follow up to have the Japanese date also. So perhaps something like "letter of May 21, 1860 (Japanese 5/21)".

However, there is one thing you have to be careful about. This gets a bit technical, but often parts of the Japanese 11th and 12th months are in the following western year, so "January 27, 1859 (Japanese 12/24)" is confusing because a reader might check it under 1859/12/24. So when the western and Japanese dates are in different years it is probably best to write the Japanese year "January 27, 1859 (Japanese 1858/12/24)"

JoshHistoryland
Jan 21 2018, 06:05 AM
I saw how the British wrote the word Rônin, every man and his dog wrote it 'Loonin' and I realised when spelling the word phonetically they hadn't quite grasped Japanese pronounciation.

I would not say Loonin was wrong phonetically—Rônin isn't right phonetically either. It is just that R for the consonant in らりるれろ has become standardized since then. It is like saying the Europeans were wrong for calling the Tokugawa shogun the "emperor", though it was standard European all through the Edo period—the the Jesuits and Will Adams used it for Ieyasu. It meant someone who was over kings, i.e. daimyo.

PS If you want to know a work less reliable even than Wikipedia, it is Louis-Frédéric's Japan Encyclopedia (Harvard University Press Reference Library).


Edited by Bethetsu, Jan 21 2018, 11:12 PM.
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JoshHistoryland
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Peasant
Excellent point about the dates. I will watch that carefully.
Interesting point about Rônin and Loonin, (an exercise in explanation and thought process rather than anything properly linguistic, I'd not include that bit in the book, I have an 80,000 word limit!) so by today's standards it's spelled wrong, but back then it wasn't so terrible? Good to know I'll be sure not to correct anything on that score and just mention what they are writing. I think, apart from the dear old Loonins, that one of the most interesting europeanisms is Yaconin.

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Bethetsu
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Tsushima no kami
I suppose Yaconin is from "yakunin," an "official"? Why is it interesting? What did it mean to the Europeans?


I would say the most interesting europeanism, and certainly one of the few Japanese words to have become a general English word in its own right (not just a word about Japan), is "tycoon," from Taikun, "great lord," which was used to foreigners when referring to the Shogun. According to Webster's, it entered English in 1857. This is something you might want to mention. From the pronunciation of the vowels "oo" and "y", I would think that it was taken directly into English from the Japanese, while the spelling Loonin is more likely to have come via the Dutch.
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JoshHistoryland
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True, Tycoon is indeed an excellent example and yes I agree probably the best one, though Loonin does make me smile. From that you will probably gather that I have not particular reason for signalling out Yaconin now you mention it, not above the others, it just stood out to me in a few books as being incorrect, or perhaps just something about it seemed off or different, and stayed in my mind as an example. Silly really. :confused:
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ltdomer98
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JoshHistoryland
Jan 23 2018, 02:08 AM
True, Tycoon is indeed an excellent example and yes I agree probably the best one, though Loonin does make me smile. From that you will probably gather that I have not particular reason for signalling out Yaconin now you mention it, not above the others, it just stood out to me in a few books as being incorrect, or perhaps just something about it seemed off or different, and stayed in my mind as an example. Silly really. :confused:


Also, one thing to think about as we smile about the ways 19th C. Westerners romanized Japanese words: "Loonin," if you read it in normal English phonetics, is amusing because of the double oo--which is normally OOH as in "kangaroo." LOO-nin. However, a double oo is a perfectly valid way to render the enlongated oo (think of someone saying "OHHH!" in recognition) sound of rōnin (ろうにん), even though a more direct rendering of the kana characters would be "ro-u-ni-n." The modified Hepburn system, in use by most academics and professionals who romanize Japanese these days, typically avoids using "oo" for these two reasons--in most cases, the second kana character is an う (romanized as "u") so it's more representative; and B. even in cases where it is more accurately an "oo" (as in 大きい おおきい ōkii or ookii), it generally avoids the last one ("ookii") because most English speakers would pronounce that as "ew-kii" instead of "OH-kii." (On the board, I generally use a "u" to type an doubled O or U sound, as in Toukyuu for Tōkyū, mostly because I'm too lazy to go find a macron-o or u character).

The Japanese sound we normally assign to "r" (the らりるれろ that Bethetsu already mentioned) is phonetically a mix of the English R, L, and D sounds, but is closest to R so that's what has been used. Westerners tend to make fun of the Japanese for mixing up R and L when they write words in English, but it's just as much a problem when trying to render Japanese words--we've just collectively agreed to use the "R" at this point. "L" is only strange to our eyes because R has become the standard.

My point is, given that in the 19th century no standardized rational way of rendering Japanese syllables into English letters existed yet, "loonin" for "rōnin" is perfectly reasonable. There's a logic to why you'd render the word that way--there's just better logic that has superseded it once a standard orthography in roman characters was agreed upon.

"Yaconin," on the other hand, is a mishearing. While the C/K switch is understandable, as both make a k sound, it would be "yacunin" if that were the case. The o/u sounds in this case aren't interchangeable. So in other words, smile away at "Yaconin"! :lulz:
Edited by ltdomer98, Jan 23 2018, 05:43 AM.
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JoshHistoryland
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Glad to hear it Itdomer. :) I also remembered why Yaconin was 'interesting' to me. It's because from my reading of the memoirs and accounts it seems that most Europeans use it almost interchangeably with samurai, a word they often tended to disregard in favour of the somewhat disdainful and long winded 'two sworded gentlemen/class'. Yaconin to many in the British legation was meant to be lower than a 'governor of foreign affairs' but higher than a 'samurai' or 'two sworded gentleman' of whom they readily admitted in their lengthy, rambling ethnographical passages (and Sir Rutherford Alcock knows who I mean!!!) the Yaconin were a species of. Like many things about early Foreign appreciations derived from Dutch and their own interpreters, not wrong in sum, just confused.
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JoshHistoryland
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I don't know how you want to do this, but would be so good as to let me know your real names so I can acknowledge your help and advice in the book when the time comes? Of course if you'd rather keep a secret identity then please do so, and I shall thank you here.
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kitsuno
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You might want to just PM all the people that you're looking for.
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ltdomer98
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Daijo Daijin

Yeah. It's not like people can't find my name (it's bandied about here a lot), but best to contact people directly.
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JoshHistoryland
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Probably a good idea.
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