The Role of Historians in the History Problem

At first glance, historians may not look like the best candidates for facilitating a resolution of the history problem. This is because historians have traditionally used the nation as a primary unit of analysis, helping to naturalize it as a primordial entity. They have also created professional associations and delimited their membership along national borders, consistent with the nationalist logic of self-determination; for example, when Japanese historians write about the history of Japan, they often talk among themselves without consulting with foreign historians who study Japan. This nationally bounded content focus and membership reinforces the logic of nationalism that divides the world into discrete nations. Thus, even though historians are not necessarily supporters of nationalism, they have participated in nation-building as authoritative narrators of national history.1

But, at the same time, historians have regularly criticized nationalists for their tendency to simplify the past in order to create national myths and identity.2 Historians are acutely aware that historical evidence is often incomplete to the extent that facts and interpretations of historical events are inevitably and inherently subject to controversy and future revisions. While nationalists often resort to emotionally charged commemoration to transform these open-ended historical controversies into immutable historical truths as foundations of national identity, historians contest such nationalist commemoration by exposing factual errors and unwarranted interpretations in light of available research.

In fact, over the last few decades, historians have become more critical of nationalism in the methodological sense, breaking away from the nationally bounded content focus and professional membership. Take, for example, the recent growth of global and transnational historiography.3 Historians working in this new genre focus on economic, pol itical, social, and cultural interactions that traverse national borders, challenging the idea of nation as a discrete primordial entity. Historian Eric Hobsbawm even suggested that any historiography should entail a global and transnational perspective: “Historians, however microcosmic, must be for universalism, not out of loyalty to an ideal to which many of us remain attached but because it is the necessary condition for understanding the history of humanity, including that of any special section of humanity. For all human collectivities necessarily are and have been part of a larger and more complex world.”4 Moreover, the norm has emerged that historians as well as history teachers should collaborate across national borders in writing history of past international conflicts, as evinced by the growing number of joint historical research and education projects in East Asia and other parts of the world.5 Thiese joint projects represent the institutionalization of cosmopolitanism in historiography, which shifts a unit of analysis from the nation to transnational interaction while incorporating foreign perspectives into historical narratives.

In this chapter, then, I critically examine the potential for historians in problematizing nationalism and promoting cosmopolitanism in the politics of war commemoration. In recent years, the presence of historians in the history problem has increased, given that generations who did not experience the Asia-Pacific War became the majority in Japan, South Korea, and China—they learn about the war mostly from history lessons in school. In theory, then, historians who participate in joint historical research and education projects have the capacity to help these generations disentangle nationalist commemorations from the problematic historical judgment of the Tokyo Trial and move toward more cosmopolitan commemoration. But, at the same time, their actual influence on the relevant political actors in the field has yet to be systematically examined. To what extent did historians succeed in shifting governmental and public commemorations from nationalism to cosmopolitanism? What barriers did they encounter in trying to influence the dynamic and trajectory of the history problem?

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