AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 133

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Session 133: 3, 2, 1, 0: Numbers as Object and Method in the Study of East Asia

Organizer: Ryan Sayre, , USA

Chair: Hansun Hsiung, Harvard University, USA

Discussant: Annelise Riles, Cornell University, USA

While all sciences drag us toward numbers, we in the human sciences tend to gravitate toward the lower reaches of the number line, in the neighborhood of 3, 2, 1, and 0. An invocation of absence (0) and presence (1); an argument framed in binaries (2) or dialectics (3): these demonstrate the prevalence of numbers as a conceptual apparatus that cuts across theory, practice, and discipline. In order to draw attention to this prevalence, we have organized our panel as a ‘countdown,’ constraining each presenter to the numbers 3, 2, 1, and 0, respectively. With this ‘count down’ as the red thread running through our panel, we hope to draw attention to how numbers continually insinuate themselves as both the object and method of the human sciences. In the spirit of this transdisciplinary approach, we examine multiple times and spaces in China and Japan from the early nineteenth to early twenty-first century. The paper on “three” argues that activism in Japan occurs through a triangulation of activists, citizens, and an imagined “people” of the ethnic nation. The paper on “two” recounts the history of missionary surveys in northeast China, looking at numerical translations into statistics of notions of faith. Meanwhile, a consideration of the concept of “just one life” as it functions in discourses of Japanese earthquake preparedness serves as our paper on “one.” Finally, the paper on “zero” analyzes the "discovery of the zero-numeral" during Meiji Japan as the key to the new “practical science” of modern accounting.

Crowding Threes and Ethnic-Nationalist Populism in Japan
Nathaniel M. Smith, University of Arizona, USA

This paper takes up a “threeness” that coheres in political activism in Japan in the triangulated relationship between rightist activists and the double orientations of their activism: contemporary citizens and the state on the one hand, and on the other, the abstracted and imagined, but historical “people” of the ethnic nation. From sound-truck parades to assassinations, modern Japanese history is pockmarked with disruptive and aggressive rightist activism. But despite political and social marginalization in contemporary Japan, the character of their activism is both grounded in the democratic mores of the postwar and engaged in a romantic embrace with an ethnic national ideal that was discredited in defeat in 1945. How then does this vocal minority apprehend the object of their activism? I argue that the disjuncture between a contemporary Japan that would exclude them, and the romanticized ideal of the ethnic nation they strive to embody foments their activism in the present. This affective engagement with the past conjures an understanding of a compelling but imagined “Japanese nation,” where instead of contemporary citizens who may condemn them in ideological and social terms, the rightist can instead apprehend via “the crowd” a proxy for a contemporary ethnic nation. This homogenizing abstraction of contemporary Japanese society allows rightists to maintain a place for themselves within it, and to feel powerfully tasked with “redeeming” it. Thus, this populist “crowding” of contemporary society reanimates the idealized ethnic nation in a palpable and actionable way.

“Pauvre Xen Jang, sans vie, sans foi”: Numbers That Measured Catholic Faith in Northeast China
Ji Li, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

This is a study of a bilateral dialogue between contradictories: Christians and pagans, missionaries and converts, foreign and native, male and female, and above all the sacred and the profane. In this dialogue, missionaries not only took pains to record numbers in their annual statistical reports in order to measure Catholic faith in local communities but also took an effort to translate such numerical local experience into religious explanations. Focusing on the Manchuria Mission founded by the Mission Etrangères de Paris (MEP) in the height of missionary expansion in the nineteenth century, I examine how the MEP translated and disseminated the universality of the Christian message into the particular context of northeast China. In particular, this paper focuses on systematic parish reports that measured and assessed the success of local religious experience. The dissemination of Christian faith included translations of literal languages such as French and Chinese as well as of numerical languages that observed and measured the “faith” of local converts: how often must a convert confess to become a “good” Christian? How many times must communion be conducted in a village to turn it into a “good” Christian community? I seek to probe this "numerical translingual practice" in the broader context of historical methodology, using it as an approach to explore the relation between historians and historical numbers, asking how historians’ understanding and interpretation structure disparate sets of discourses within their field.

The Adequacies of “Just One Life” in Earthquake Disaster Preparedness in Japan
Ryan Sayre, , USA

Listen carefully the next time you’re at a disaster preparedness conference in Japan and you will likely hear the lecturer gently scolding the audience: “We shouldn’t presume that death can be made completely preventable through our preparedness efforts.” “We must realize,” she will continue, “that the aim of preparedness is not to save every life, but to save even-just-one-more life” (hitoridemo-ouku no inochi). So pervasive is the phrase ‘even-just-one-more-life’ in disaster preparedness discourse that one could justifiably call it the movement’s unofficial slogan. Implicit in the notion is a confidence that any victory Japan may earn over earthquakes will come as the direct fruits of citizens trained to protect even-just-one-more-life rather than as the indirect gains of policies and laws aimed at the protection of the many. I discuss how an increasing commitment to the ‘even-just-one-life’ over and against the ‘life-of-the many’ in disaster preparedness makes individual lives more precious (toutoi) while at the same time making life-in-general more abstract and withdrawn. The larger aim of this paper is to inquire into how a discussion of the even-just-one-more life might bring us closer to understanding what counts as ‘life’ and how ‘life’ counts in Japan.

Discovering Zero in Meiji Japan: the Mathematics of Political Representation
Hansun Hsiung, Harvard University, USA

How does one discover that which is nothing? This question, far from being another angel on the pinhead of scholastic abstraction, appears at the core of Fukuzawa Yukichi’s treatise on one of modernity’s most practical of sciences: bookkeeping. Completed in early 1873 and widely considered the first work in Japanese on ‘Western’ accounting, Fukuzawa’s Methods of Bookkeeping situates the “discovery (hakken) of zero” at the pivotal transition point from Japanese into ‘Western’ techniques of bookkeeping. My paper aims to recover the meaning of this “discovery” and its implications for understanding the political thought of Meiji Japan. However, rather than focusing on Western accounting as an expression of state bureaucratization or rationalization, I instead first examine textbooks on accounting and numeracy to uncover how ‘zero’ figured in a new system of mathematical representation. More specifically, I argue that differentiating 0 from the kanji rei relates not simply to the categorical distinction between words and numerals, but to algebraic thinking predicated on the concept of ‘variables.’ In short, the importance of ‘zero’ is not that it is ‘nothing,’ but that it allows ‘anything,’ acting as a ‘placeholder’ to keep open a space for possible substitutions. From here, I connect the idea of ‘variables’ with articulations of liberal parliamentarianism by Meirokusha thinkers. Engaging with their conceptions of representative democracy, I draw out the interplay between two rival theories: the first, wherein representative and represented are linked by a singular identity; the second, wherein the representative speaks for a variable set of changing voices.