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

The wide angle

In addition to my new interpretation of Japanese sexology and sex practices in Asia, the three middle chapters of the book focus on the most commercially popular of Japan’s mass culture in the 1920s—“erotic-grotesque” modernism.

Similar to both Weimar culture in Germany and the Jazz Age in the US, Japan’s erotic-grotesque writers, artists, and performers downloaded the understanding of East Asian sexuality from Japanese sexologists like Tanaka Kôgai as completely opposed to the erotophobia of the Christian West.  Therefore, the representation of sexuality in Japan’s erotic-grotesque modernism was much more celebratory and promotional than in the West.  However, these codes of sexuality gradually became more extreme and sensationalistic.  Partially out of the need of publishers and writers to compete in an urban marketplace that was obsessed with the new and bizarre, they came to feature necrophilia, cannibalism and sadism as regular themes.

This is important because I think that—ironically, since many producers were in fact Marxists or highly critical of colonial militarism—this culture of the erotic-grotesque ended up contributing to the atrocities that Japanese men committed in China and Southeast Asia.

Up until my book, scholars have largely understood the crimes against humanity that Japanese forces committed in WW II as caused by a kind of culture of militarism going back almost 1,000 years.  I strongly disagree.  In the book I make the case that the consumer capitalism of the erotic-grotesque contributed much more to atrocities like the Rape of Nanjing than Japan’s “timeless” military culture.

As far as the professional and political path that led me to working on East Asian cultural history, I went to graduate school in cultural studies and intellectual history in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the critique of Eurocentrism was strong.  I decided to work on Japan and China at this point and learned both Japanese and Chinese, eventually getting a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2000.

What I found was that because of the Cold War alliance between Japan and the United States, scholars in the West almost completely whitewashed what Japanese imperialists had done in Asia.  Obviously, this contrasted with what Chinese scholars were saying.

I attended a protest against the Japanese emperor in California in the summer of 1994.  The information in the US media surrounding his visit was outrageously false.  For example, the New York Times reporter from Tokyo, Nick Kristof, who is now a regular op-ed columnist, stated at this time that 300,000 Chinese had died in WWII, a number he learned at Yale University where he was an East Asian studies major.  In other words, the accepted “story” consolidated in elite universities in the US about Japan’s wars in Asia almost completely repressed information about atrocities against the Chinese.  This fact led Iris Chang to write The Rape of Nanjing—and scholars now acknowledge that an estimated 21 million Chinese died in WWII.

In the book I try to reveal other things that have been long repressed and silenced by scholars in Japan and the West—but that are known by the general public in China.  And my book is now being translated into Chinese.