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Japan Through History: An EAA Interview with Professor Akira Iriye, Harvard University

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Professor Akira Iriye is  one of the world’s foremost scholars of Japanese American relations. A graduate of the Seikei High School in Tokyo (1953), Haverford College (B.A. 1957), and Harvard University (Ph.D. 1961), Professor Iriye has taught in France, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States. As the attached bibliography makes clear, he has written or edited seventeen books in Japanese and English (with Dutch and Korean translations), all of which deal with the tangled relationships between the great powers in Asia from the late nineteenth century to the present. President of the American Historical Association in 1988 and the winner of several prizes for his path-breaking work on how different nations view both their own security and each other, Professor Iriye is currently the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University. He recently discussed his thoughts on how to think about the U.S.-Japan relationship with EAA Associate Editor Peter Frost.


Professor Iriye, while I realize the difficulties of condensing a sophisticated analysis into a short interview, I wonder if you could briefly discuss the suggestion you made in your book, China and Japan in the Global Setting, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) that we teachers might think of Japanese foreign relations in terms of “power” prior to World War I, “culture” in the inter-war period, and “economics” after World War II. What, for example, do you mean by power, and why did you say that this concept provides the most useful way of thinking about Japan’s international relations from the late nineteenth century to World War I?


While I am still revising some of my ideas on this since writing that book and so whatever I say is still rather tentative, by “power” I mean quite simply a country’s ability to fight a war—military force plus whatever other material and human resources are mobilized in fighting. I think that this concept provides a key to understanding Japanese foreign relations in this period because the leaders (and the bulk of the people, presumably) were convinced that the country had to safeguard its independence and to acquire the status of a great power by going to war or being willing to do so. Japan was, of course, not exceptional. Every great power viewed international relations in such a great power way; the European states had been doing this since at least the seventeenth century.


What about the period between the two world wars? Why, in a period that saw the Great Depression and Japan’s expansion into Asia, do you feel that “culture” is now a key concept?


Although power never disappears from Japanese foreign relations, I believe that it would be wrong to treat the whole period from the 1850s to the 1940s or the 1990s as if that were all there was to the story. We have to understand that a country’s foreign affairs change as both it and the world changes. My argument in all my recent books is that in the 1920s, something does happen both in the world and in Japan, as cultural forces assert themselves. By “cultural forces,” I mean non-state initiatives by individuals and organizations, activities that I call “cultural internationalism,” as well as ideas and movements away from a power-political (or geopolitical) definition of international affairs. Whereas power is embodied in the state (government, armed forces), these kinds of cultural forces belong in the realm of society. To the extent that society gains its autonomy vis-à-vis the state, cultural forces come to play more influential roles in the country’s history.

In the 1920s, even though the power-level interaction was never absent, the cultural interaction would seem to have been more notable. As scholars such as Joshua Fogel have made clear, China and Japan had student exchanges, visits by literary figures, language study, and other types of attempts at mutual understanding.

After 1931, Japan reverted to a primarily power definition of its foreign affairs; in a sense it reverts to the Meiji stress on armed strength and war as indicators of national greatness. At the same time, the Japanese never gave up their fascination with cultural relations, except that in the 1930s, culture was made to serve power, i.e. education, literature, and other kinds of cultural propaganda were employed to support the war effort. Some argue, and there is some sense to it, that if Japan had stuck to a purely power definition of its strategy, it would not have been so stupid as to go to war first against China and then against the U.S. and others. It was their cultural arrogance that made them think that they could wage a war against China and the decadent West.



After Imperialism: The Search for a New Order in the Far East, 1921-1931. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Images in Sino-American Relations (in Japanese). Japan Institute of International Affairs, 1965.

Diplomacy in Japan (in Japanese). Chuokoronsha, 1966. Korean translation, 1993.

Across the Pacific: An Inner History of American-East Asian Relations. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1967.

Pacific Estrangement: American and Japanese Expansion, 1897-1911. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.

The Cold War in Asia. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.

From Nationalism to Internationalism: American Foreign Policy to 1914. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

Power and Culture: The Japanese American War, 1941-1945. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

War and Peace in the Twentieth Century (in Japanese). Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1986.

The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific. New York: Longman, 1987. (Dutch translation, 1989, Japanese translation, 1991).

Fifty Years of Japanese-American Relations (in Japanese). Iwanami, 1991.

Japanese Diplomacy Since the Second World War (in Japanese). Chokoron, 1991. Korean translation, 1993.

China and Japan in the Global Setting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

The Globalizing of America: United States Foreign Relations, 1913-1945. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Cultural Internationalism and World Order. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Japan and the Wider World. New York: Longman, 1997.