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Commentary on Thomas S. Mullaney, “Controlling the Kanjisphere,” and Antonia Finnane, “Cold War Sewing Machines”

  • David Arnold


As studies of technology in modern Asia move from production to consumption, and from big machines to small, so they confront increasingly complex and nuanced issues about the relationship between the local, the regional, and the global; between political economy and culture; and, perhaps most crucially, between technology and modernity. From a South Asian perspective (and perhaps from a Southeast Asian one as well), many of these issues are inescapably bound up with the Western colonial presence, decolonization, and the post-independence quest for national self-sufficiency and economic autarky. In East Asia, as the articles by Antonia Finnane and Thomas Mullaney demonstrate, the issues play out somewhat differently, not least because of the pivotal role of Japan as a major regional force, an industrial nation, and an imperial power. In South Asia in the period covered by these essays, Japan was a far more marginal presence, with only some industrial goods—such as textiles, bicycles, or umbrella fittings—finding a market there by the mid-1930s. At their height in 1933–34, some 17,000 Japanese bicycles were imported into India (out of nearly 90,000 overall), and in 1934–35, barely 1,400 sewing machines (out of 83,000); within three years this had fallen to less than 700. However, as Nira Wickramasinghe has recently demonstrated with respect to Ceylon (colonial Sri Lanka), Japan had a significance that ranged well beyond its limited commercial impact: it inspired admiration for the speed of its industrialization, for its scientific and technological prowess, and as the foremost exemplar of an “Asian modern” (Wickramasinghe 2014, chap. 5). One other way in which Japan figured in postwar regional history was through demands for compensation made in 1946 for sewing machines destroyed by Japanese bombing (or the looting that accompanied it) and the occupation of the Andaman Islands. And yet, relatively remote though Japan and China might be from South Asia's consumer history, across much of the Asian continent there was a common chronology to this unfolding techno-history, beginning in the 1880s and 1890s and dictated less evidently by the politics of war and peace than by the influx of small machines, of which sewing machines and typewriters were but two conspicuous examples.



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Arnold, David. 2013. Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India's Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Government of India, Ministry of Education. 1958. Report of the Hindi Typewriter and Teleprinter Committee: Part I (Hindi Typewriter Keyboard). New Delhi: Government of India.
Karnad, Raghu. 2015. Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. London: William Collins.
Singer Archive. n.d. Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison. Box 152, file 6.
Twain, Mark. [1897] 2005. Following the Equator. Washington, D.C.: National Geographical Society.
Weinbaum, Alys Eve, Thomas, Lynn M., Ramamurthy, Priti, Poiger, Uta G., Dong, Madeleine Yue, and Barlow, Tani E., eds. 2008. The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Wickramasinghe, Nira. 2014. Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka. New York: Berghahn Books.

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Commentary on Thomas S. Mullaney, “Controlling the Kanjisphere,” and Antonia Finnane, “Cold War Sewing Machines”

  • David Arnold


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