A Tale of a Unique Bookstore Amidst War: A Bridge Between Cultures
Naoko Kato, a distinguished academic, has contributed her expertise to the fields of Asian Canadian and Asian Migration studies at both the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. Her thought-provoking book, “Kaleidoscope: Uchiyama Bookstore and its Sino-Japanese Visionaries,” unveils the captivating transnational tale of a one-of-a-kind bookstore in Shanghai. Operated by a Japanese Christian, this establishment attracted Chinese patrons amidst the tumultuous backdrop of the war between China and Japan. Kato, who previously served as a Japanese-language librarian at the University of British Columbia, now works with the North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources. Her scholarly interests encompass the utilization of Japanese-language sources for delving into Japanese-Canadian history. In the subsequent conversation, Kato examines the motivations, obstacles, and historical framework that shape her research on the Uchiyama Bookstore and its impact on Sino-Japanese relations.
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What inspired you to write about Uchiyama Kanzō and his bookstore, and how did you first come across this story?
I was a graduate student, taking a Republican China History course, and looking for a topic for my term paper. I have always been interested in discovering hidden stories that are different from the common narratives that circulate widely. I was searching Japanese-language sources, and I came across a story of a Sino-Japanese bookstore that was also a cultural salon. This took me by surprise, as up until that point, I had only read about conflict and antagonism between China and Japan, and cultural exchanges during the war did not fit into this picture. I was then determined to find out what brought Japanese and Chinese together at this bookstore, and turn this into the central question.
How did your background and experiences influence your approach to writing “Kaleidoscope”?
The concept behind “Kaleidoscope” is that with each turn of the kaleidoscope, the readers sees a different facet of the bookstore. I also wanted to bridge the gap that exists between modern Japanese and Chinese history. The emphasis here on providing different perspectives, is shaped by my experiences growing up in both Australia and Japan.
The first time I encountered a different way of seeing History was in high school in Australia. Some of my friends had grown up in various Asian countries that were colonized or invaded by Japan during the war, and Australia was also attacked by Japan. These stories that I heard were vastly different from what I grew up hearing in Japan, even if both were stories of victimization. This made me realize that there are at least two sides of a story when dealing with history.
How do you think the Uchiyama Bookstore influenced the cultural and intellectual landscape of the time, particularly in regard to Sino-Japanese relations?
The bookstore played a crucial role in enabling intellectual and cultural exchanges between Japanese and Chinese literati, which played a significant role, especially in Chinese intellectuals’ quest to save its nation from imperialism. Chinese May Fourth writers read Marxist works through Japanese books that they purchased at Uchiyama Bookstore that were not available elsewhere. Lu Xun, the father of Modern Chinese Literature who visited the bookstore on a daily basis was able to publish his works through the bookstore while he was being persecuted by the Guomindang. Together with Uchiyama Kanzō, Lu Xun was able to nurture young Chinese artists the art of woodblock printing which was to be used to awaken the Chinese populace.
What were the most challenging aspects of researching and writing about this unique historical period and the people involved in Uchiyama’s story?
What has been most challenging is the extreme scarcity of primary source material available on the Uchiyama Bookstore. The majority of Uchiyama’s notes and diaries from his 30 years in Shanghai had to be left behind in China at the end of the war, and hence have been inaccessible. Most of what has been written about Uchiyama Bookstores is based on Uchiyama’s autobiography, written after WWII. This left me with the option to rely on various customers’ autobiographies, government records, and Uchiyama’s own published works. A group of scholars have recently begun to translate a few remaining diary entries from 1944 that Uchiyama was able to bring back to Japan. However, these records are not publicly available through archives. Given the sensitive time period that the Uchiyama Bookstore’s story is set in, the questions of war-time collaboration and spy accusations are always in the background. However, these questions cannot be fully addressed, given the lack of primary sources that are available.
How did Uchiyama Kanzō‘s Christian faith impact his work as a cultural liaison between China and Japan?
Uchiyama’s faith was at the core of his unwavering life-long dedication to promoting Sino-Japanese cultural exchanges, peace, and friendship. This was no easy task, during a period when the two countries were at war, and being Christian went against the State Shintoism norm and was deemed unpatriotic.
Uchiyama Bookstore’s policy to cater to and treat Chinese customers equally to Japanese customers, was based on Uchiyama Kanzō and Miki’s Christian faith. The foundational values propagated by the Sino-Japanese Friendship Association that Uchiyama founded, was to “deeply self-examine” and correct mistaken notions of China held by Japanese. This notion was also deeply Christian, and a commonly held sense of repentance that was shared by postwar Japanese Christian peace movement activists.
How did the role of the Uchiyama Bookstore evolve over time in response to the changing historical context and the needs of its patrons?
Uchiyama Bookstore began as a humble Christian bookstore founded by the wife, Uchiyama Miki. Initially, when it opened in 1917, it specialized in Christian books as the Uchiyamas were Christians and their pastor in Japan had connections with a Christian publisher that agreed to ship books to Shanghai. The original customers were Japanese Christians residing in Shanghai. Many of them were avid readers who began to ask for the latest publications coming out of Japan, dealing with contemporary issues on a wide range of topics.
In the 1920s, it begins to attract Chinese customers, particularly those who had studied in Japan and had returned to Shanghai. They were able to read Japanese, and the Uchiyama bookstore became a place to acquire the latest books on Politics, Law, Philosophy, Economics, Literature, and Medicine including Japanese translations of Western works.
In the late 1920s, the bookstore also functioned as a Sino-Japanese cultural salon where Japanese and Chinese cultural literati would gather over tea. Around the same time, the bookstore also began to be seen as a haven, where Chinese writers who were being persecuted by the Guomindang could take refuge.
What lessons can be learned from Uchiyama Kanzō‘s efforts to promote peace and cross-cultural understanding between China and Japan?
At the core of Uchiyama’s belief was the notion that one must really try to understand the other – in this case, China and Chinese people. Uchiyama was extremely critical of Japanese residents who only acquired superficial knowledge about China but claimed that they know the country. He insisted that one needs to spend the time to really get to know the language, the culture, and the people because China is a complex place.
We can learn from his unrelenting efforts to promote peace, under excruciatingly difficult circumstances. Uchiyama continually emphasized positive aspects about China to a Japanese audience that were accustomed to largely negative portrayals of China. Uchiyama never gave up trying to be the bridge between Japan and China, even as the two countries were at war with each other and being accused of being a spy.
What are your future research plans, and are there any new projects or areas of interest you are currently exploring?
I am still interested in exploring further, lives of people who fall in between nation-centered narratives. The grey zone, the intermediaries, and portraying the complexity of humans. I continue to pursue my interests in the flow of ideas across nations through books. My future project will be on Japanese language spaces from prewar to postwar, but I plan to look more at the Americas.
Topics: Uchiyama Kanzō and Sino-Japanese relations, role of Uchiyama Bookstore in cultural exchange, Uchiyama Kanzō’s impact on 20th-century history, understanding Sino-Japanese relations through Uchiyama Bookstore, studying Asian history with focus on Uchiyama Kanzō.