Modern Languages, postcolonial studies

Searching for Japan: 20th Century Italy’s Fascination with Japanese Culture – an interview with Michele Monserrati

Comparing Japan and Italy is quite unusual and a bit counterintuitive. When did you decide to write a book about this subject?

The idea first came to me when I was an undergraduate at the University of Florence. I was part of a committee comprised of both students and faculty for a short-story prize on the topic of travel. On the day of the ceremony, I had the honor of interviewing Fosco Maraini about his work and, since then, I became deeply intrigued by his writings, and I shared his passion for Japan. Reading Maraini introduced me to a contrapuntal view of Florence and its well known humanistic and Eurocentric tradition. A cultural site like the “Museum of Anthropology” brought me into contact with a Florentine tradition of studying, traveling, and importing knowledge from Japan, which is quite in contrast with exotic representations of the “Orient” in the form of zoologic curiosities that abound in the region’s Medici villas. When I became aware of other similar institutions spread out across the peninsula (in Venice, Genoa, Rome, Naples, and Palermo), I envisioned a distinctly Italian approach to Japan coexisting – and at times intersecting – with other better-known European perspectives.


What is specific about this Italian approach to Japanese relations?

In this book, I argue that a set of historical circumstances, which projected both Italy and Japan as late-comers on the modern world stage, allowed Italy to develop a sense of “fascination” with a model of nation-building and empire-formation that, like Italy itself, was challenging the existing world order. I theorize the notion of “relational orientalism” to define Italians’ approach toward the Japanese “other” that builds on commonalities and integration while acknowledging cultural differences. Within this interpretative framework, Italian travelers to Japan not only praised nationalism and military might, but also exposed the humanity and cultural diversity of the Japanese society, against the international backdrop of the “Yellow Peril” campaign, targeting the rising East-Asian power. While xenophobic and racist components were not missing in Italian public discourse, I maintain that an overarching positive approach toward Japan resisted historical change.

Can you tell us about a surprising discovery in your book?

Sure. Scholars usually describe the WW2 military alliance between Italy and Japan, in the context of Tripartite Pact, as an empty vessel, an historical period dominated by rhetoric, propaganda and misconceptions about Japan. While this assessment is partly accurate, I take a different view by observing that for some longtime scholars of Japan, the Axis Alliance became an opportunity to gain visibility and expand their mission of educating Italian to Japanese language and culture. For a polyglot like Pietro Silvio Rivetta, for instance, his affiliation with Fascism was conducive to his longstanding project of dispelling worn-out stereotypes and importing Japanese culture to Italy.

If nationalism and imperialism play a crucial role in making Japan “attractive” to Italy, how does the relationship continue after WW2 and the rising of new world order?

Historians commonly describe the decades between the 1950s and the 1990s as a time of a great international revival of Japanese culture through the translation industry, the success of Japanese cinema and pop culture. In Italy’s case, I argue that this enhanced knowledge about Japan paradoxically produced a neo-exotic aesthetic, as Italian travelogues of this period perceived the two countries as radically apart. Italians joined the rising Nihonjinron (discourse about Japanese culture and identity) literature by posing Japan as a country whose modernity did not fundamentally alter the traditional foundation of its society. As in a typical exotic narrative, this model of continuity between the past and the present became the mirror image to compare the shortcomings of Italian post-war reconstruction. Italian intellectuals critiqued the new Italian Republic for turning away from its rich cultural heritage to embrace American-led capitalist modernity and submit to the authority of the Catholic Church. By contrast, they saw in Japan an ideal country whose past informed the present identity of its society and protected it from external spheres of influence.

What does this book suggest about the Italian nation-building process?

I hope this book will contribute to rethinking the whole mechanism of national identity formation. In this regard, I suggest that from the beginning of the Italian unification, the construction of an Italian national identity did not exclusively rely on internal narratives (such as the Latin, Mediterranean, and Catholic heritages) but also drew from transnational models of nation-building, such as the Japanese. Japan offered an alternative to Edward Said’s orientalist paradigm, predicated on the dichotomy between West and East, as it posed itself as a Westernlike imperialist nation acting in the Asian continent. The Japanese’s willingness to “Westernize” itself and the Italian search for models of superpowers that were “catching-up” produced this transnational tie that projected Italy’s search for identity outside the Mediterranean rim.

What is the subject of your next book?

I will continue to work on Italian transnational identity formation, now by looking at the Mediterranean heritage of Italian colonies abroad, as reflected in their construction of agrarian landscapes.


Searching for Japan: 20th Century Italy’s Fascination with Japanese Culture by Michele Monserrati is part of the Transnational Italian Cultures series. 

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