Mark Driscoll


On his book Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895–1945

Cover Interview of February 08, 2011

In a nutshell

This book is the first comprehensive treatment of Japan’s imperialism that emphasizes the crucial aspects of sexuality, desire and labor beginning around 1880 and ending with the nuclear terrorism of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Until now, the scholarship on Japan’s imperialism has both marginalized sexuality and tended to configure the contours of J-imperialism as something that was basically copied from Western templates of modern capitalist development, then got out of hand when Japan turned on its Western mentors and started a war against the US/UK in Asia and the Pacific.  My book rejects this Eurocentric assumption and situates Japan fully in Asia; in particular, I focus on the inter-state rivalry between Japan and China.

The book begins with the first full historical discussion of the throngs of Japanese pimps and drug traffickers working in the expanding treaty ports in China and Southeast Asia.  These were the most influential early Japanese imperialists—not the West-worshipping intellectuals like Fukuzawa Yukichi who have tended to receive the most attention from scholars.  These traffickers were the first Asians to successfully compete against the dominant position that Chinese merchants enjoyed in the region for 800 years.

I also focus on something that has never been discussed in previous treatments of Japanese imperialism in either English or Japanese: the fact that North Chinese coolies from Shandong and Hebei did all the physical labor for Japanese colonial and capitalist enterprises in Northeast China (Manchuria) and in Japan’s colonies elsewhere.  The Japanese didn’t physically build anything, but they super-exploited the Chinese men and women who did.  Japanese capitalists took advantage of the ecological, political and economic problems in Central and North China during the late Qing Dynasty era, which caused some 20 million desperately poor Chinese to migrate to Manchuria, a historical phenomenon I call after the Middle Passage of African slaves across the Atlantic, the “Manchurian Passage.”

The most important feature of the book is probably the emphasis on sex work and non-normative forms of erotic expression and the ways in which Japanese sexologists and erotic-grotesque writers naturalized them.  In addition to coolies and Japanese pimps/human traffickers, between 30,000 and 60,000 young Japanese women, most of them kidnapped, were brought to Asia from 1885-1920 to do sex work in the booming Japanese commercial areas in Korea, Northeast China, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.  The appeal they had for male consumers (represented in Madam Butterfly) led these same consumers to buy Japanese food, liquor, and other merchandise and stimulated a general “desire” for things Japanese.

Almost all countries had banned human trafficking by 1910, but important Japanese leaders decried the ban as Christian erotophobia and, as non-Christians, they opposed it and its assumptions of universality.  Popular Japanese sexologists writing in the 1920s argued strongly that East Asia since 800 AD had always had sex districts and pleasure quarters and in fact wouldn’t be East Asia without them.  Unfortunately, this contributed to the so-called comfort women system, where anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 women were trafficked as sex slaves by Japanese militarists beginning in the early 1930s.

The last section of the book, “Necropolitics,” returns to Asia to demonstrate what happened to Chinese coolies, peasants and sex workers in a more extreme form of imperial domination.