(Im)possible Redress

Reviewed by Guy Beauregard

In Cold War Ruins, Lisa Yoneyama investigates what she identifies as “post-1990s redress efforts” comprising varied calls for historical justice spanning Asia, the Pacific Islands, and North America following the collapse of the Japanese empire in 1945. In exposing the inadequacy of the forms of transitional justice administered immediately after the end of World War II, such redress efforts have, as her study observes, been indelibly marked by belatedness and feelings of indignation, leading her to ask: “Why so late? Why after almost half a century? Why failure?”

In posing such questions, Cold War Ruins focuses upon what Yoneyama calls “the predicament of transitional justice” both within and potentially beyond a US-led Cold War frame that has attempted to contain and manage decolonization efforts in Asia and the Pacific. This focus leads Yoneyama to bring together two apparently distinct yet closely related critical projects: questioning the politics of Cold War knowledge production, particularly concerning sites in Asia and the Pacific, and remaining attentive to the transnational production of “insurgent memories, counterknowledges, and inauthentic identities that have been regimented by the discourse and institutions centering on nation-states.” By developing this two-pronged approach, Cold War Ruins makes a brilliant contribution to current debates over justice, historical violence, and the (im)possibility of redress.

The breadth of Yoneyama’s critical project is bolstered by illuminating discussions of specific histories and sites. In individual chapters, she addresses ongoing struggles over US military bases in Okinawa, read through unexpected forms of “catachrony” (glossed as “temporal discombobulation”) that can help link US military hegemony after 1945 to the Japanese colonial annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom as “Okinawa prefecture” in 1879; the discursive construction of “Japanese women” in the US-led occupation of mainland Japan following the end of World War II, analyzed through media representations of “normative Cold War subject[s] of liberation”; the modalities of historical revisionism following the establishment of the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform in 1996, revisionism read “as a historically structured discourse” tethered to Japan’s post-World War II position as the “model minority nation” as seen by the US; the turn to legal and juridical means in the US to address Japanese war crimes, an uneven and ambivalent process through which “Asian/American immigrant-citizens are emerging as subjects of redress”; and the mid-1990s controversy over the Enola Gay display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, marking a dispute over “how, with what, and where to commemorate the nation’s past war.” In each case, Yoneyama’s study urges us to ask what “historical justice” would look like. How—if at all—could forms of Cold War knowledge be undone?

Julia Lin’s Shadows of the Crimson Sun opens additional space to consider such questions through an account of what its subtitle calls “one man’s life in Manchuria, Taiwan, and North America.” The man in question eventually came to be known as Charles Yang—his remarkable story is narrated by Lin in this “told to” text. His life includes time spent in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, Chinese Nationalist-ruled Taiwan, the US, and Canada, which is presented as his “final destination.” In these varied settler-colonial sites, Yang assumes different identities: Akihisa Takayama, Masaaki Takayama, 楊正昭, Yang Cheng-Chao, C-C Yang, Charles Yang. How might this man’s story be told? Along with its compact narrative, Lin’s text provides maps, photographs, a list of works cited, notes, and multilingual lists of places and peoples referred to in Yang’s story. In so doing, Lin brings together many of the strengths, and some of the limitations, of Miah (2012), Lin’s debut collection of short stories, which generatively cut across seemingly scattered sites but also at times laboured to explain histories to readers presumed to be unfamiliar with them.

At its best, Shadows of the Crimson Sun sympathetically represents the resilience of a man living across empires and displacements and somehow, despite enormous challenges, managing to thrive. From the abrupt end of the Japanese settler-colonial project in Manchuria (depicted as a “frontier land” where the protagonist’s family had migrated from Taiwan as “pioneers”), to the “[m]onths of terror” following the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, to the chaos of the Chinese civil war, to state-directed disappearances in the ensuing White Terror period in Taiwan, Lin’s text moves from key moments of ideological capture under Japanese colonial rule to its unsettling aftermaths. Lin writes:

After fifty years of being Japanese citizens, the Taiwanese had suddenly found themselves under Chinese rule. . . . Akihisa knew he was now supposedly Chinese but he felt no affinity with the Chinese students at school. His feeling of alienation surfaced each time he struggled to speak Mandarin.

Following his migration to North America, different ideological pressures and apparent forms of closure come to the fore, with the protagonist developing political consciousness as a Taiwan independence activist and eventually immigrating to Canada in 1964. Through his participation in—and willingness to speak at—a 1980 demonstration in Seattle protesting Chinese Nationalist rule in Taiwan, Lin contends that “[h]is four-decade search for belonging was over.” Canada, through its “largely successful multiculturalism policy,” seemed “for the most part . . . to be able to accommodate differences peacefully,” even as the text foregrounds how forces of capitalism and globalization continue to reshape Vancouver’s built environment and its communities.

In “Possibilities of Asian/Canadian Transnationality” (published in Canadian Literature 227), Yoneyama writes:

[i]f Asian/Canadian critique were to be critically intersected with transpacific Asian/American critique, this might open up a way to relearn how Canada as a subimperial nation has been deeply implicated in the transpacific Cold War order.

Shadows of a Crimson Sun is an exemplary textual site for such critically intersecting work, but for its potential to be “unleash[ed]” (as called for in the powerful epilogue of Cold War Ruins), its readers must push beyond depictions of Canada as another “model minority nation” to instead relearn how, as a settler-colonial space, it continues to be tied in intimate ways to what Yoneyama calls “global colonial constellations.”

This review “(Im)possible Redress” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 158-160.

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