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Home arrow History arrow The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
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Limited Influence of Historians on Governments and Citizens

Thus, historians in Japan, South Korea, and China have begun to engage in mutual criticism of nationalist commemorations. But how much historians can actually influence the governments and citizens in the three countries is another matter. In this respect, Bu Ping made an astute observation when he defended the Chinese side’s decision not to publish some of the papers and memos that the Japan-China Joint Project had produced. Bu argued, “The history problem between China and Japan has three dimensions: political judgment, popular sentiment, and scholarly research. . . . These three dimensions are partially overlapped, though never perfectly. If a problem happens on one dimension, that would affect the other two dimensions. That is, if we want to overcome one dimension of the history problem, we have to take into consideration the other two.”43 Put another way, even when historians—epistemically oriented rooted cosmopolitans—mobilize mutual criticism of nationalist commemorations, their criticism does not directly translate into changes in governmental and public commemorations, because the latter two have their own dynamics. Thus, while historians in East Asia have produced a variety of joint research reports and common teaching materials, they have had only a limited impact on commemorations of the Asia-Pacific War in their respective countries.

I argue that this limited impact of the “historians’ debate” on the history problem stems from at least four institutional factors. The first factor is the absence of institutional mechanisms that authorize historians’ critical reflections to influence governmental commemorations. As Hatano Sumio, a historian of international relations who participated in the Japan-China Joint Project, observed, “The first objective of the project, from the Japanese government’s perspective, was to delegate the history probl em to experts and ‘depoliticize’ it, so that it will not interfere with Japan’s relations with China regarding such important issues as trade, investment, natural resources, and food security.” 44 Similarly, another participant, Kawashima Shin, a historian of modern and contemporary China, thought that joint projects by historians would have only a “very limited contribution to resolving the history probl em because their objective is mainly to prevent politicization of the problem.” 45 Since governmental joint projects are “depoliticized”—ceremonially treated as “venting mechanisms” for the history problem—they are unlikely to transform the existing official commemorations.

At the same time, the role of historians can be politicized in spite of the rhetoric of depoliticization. When Prime Minister Abe Shinzo tried to defend his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, he insisted that it was not politicians but historians who should decide on the interpretation of Japan’s acts in the Asia-Pacific War: “Politicians must be humble (kenkyo) about the issue of historical view. Governments must not determine a particular historical view as a correct one. This issue is up to historians.”46 Similarly, when revisiting the 1993 Kono Statement that apologized for the military comfort-women system, Abe’s cabinet secretary, Suga Yoshihide, stated, “Our cabinet members agree that this issue [of comfort women] should not be turned into a political and diplomatic problem . . . and I hope that more scholarly research will accumulate.”47 Abe, Suga, and other conservative politicians, however, were most likely to welcome only the kind of historical research that would discount Japan’s past wrongdoings. Thus, when the Cabinet Office established a five-member commission to examine how the Kono Statement had been created, Hata Ikuhiko, known for his conservative orientation, was appointed as the only historian.48 Hata’s appointment was in effect political, to support the position of Abe’s government, in the guise of “disinterested expert.”49 Here, historians are not really “depoliticized” but are part and parcel of the politics of war commemoration, exploited by politicians in power who seek to legitimate their commemorative position as “rational.”

The second factor is the existence of mass media as a mechanism that mediates the influence of historians’ debate on public commemorations. As historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki pointed out, “Today, more than ever, we learn about the past from a multiplicity of media,” such as newspapers, television programs, and movies.50 Indeed, the majority of citizens in Japan, South Korea, and China are likely to learn most of the “facts” about the Asia- Pacific War from media rather than from historians and their scholarly output. But media companies constantly put spin on historians’ debate, given the pol itical orientations of their readers and viewers. For example, when Murayama’s government was preparing the Asian Women’s Fund in August 1994, Asahi shinbun reported that the government planned to provide former comfort women with one-time “sympathy money” (mimaikin) collected from Japanese citizens, as well as published reactions from supporters of former comfort women criticizing the government for trying to evade its responsibility. According to Wada Haruki, one of the promoters of the fund, this news report downplayed the extent of intended “atonement” (rather than “sympathy”) within Murayama’s government, undermined the ongoing efforts by some cabinet members to push for government compensation, and created distrust between the government and former comfort women and their supporters.51 In South Korea, too, mass media rarely presented information and interpretations that would contradict the stereotype of unapologetic Japan.52 Similarly, Chinese mass media lashed out against JSH- TR’s history textbook in 2001 but failed to report that only 0.039 percent of junior high schools adopted the textbook.53 The escalation of East Asia’s history problem thus owed no small part to the mass media in the three countries that circulated sensational but misleading and even distorted information about Japan’s past wrongdoings and the Japanese government’s actions.54

The third factor is the weak institutional boundary of history as an academic profession. As sociologists Andrew Abbott and Thomas Gieryn illustrated, any “experts,” ranging from nuclear physicists to historians, constantly engage in “boundary work” to distinguish themselves from “nonexperts” and defend their “jurisdictions,” that is, their cognitive authority over certain kinds of activities.55 Such boundary work may include the establishment of professional associations, codification of standard training programs, and legitimation of certain methods of collecting and analyzing data. History, however, is one of the fields in the humanities and social sciences where the distinction between experts and non-experts is highly ambiguous; for example, many local historical societies are organized by amateur historians, and there is a long tradition of memoirs that people narrate as historians of their own lives. Ultimately, as historian James Banner put it, “all humans [are] acting as historians when chronicling and understanding their own biographies, evaluating the meaning of the pasts they think relevant to their lives.”56 Since narrative is constitutive of representation of the past, the distinction between professional and amateur historians, both of whom use narrative, is more continuous than discrete.57 This makes history a most democratic discipline in the humanities and social sciences, but it also prevents professional historians from effectively intervening in the history problem by correcting factual inaccuracies and unwarranted interpretations contained in official and public commemorations.

The weak authority of historians in Japan manifested most clearly in the way that the nationalist commemorations of comfort women and the

Nanjing Massacre escalated in the 1990s. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, for example, claimed that the Japanese government forcibly drafted Korean “female volunteer corps” into the military comfort women system, with two hundred thousand Korean women forced into such work. But even the most sympathetic Japanese historians, including Yoshimi Yoshiaki, as well as some South Korean historians, disagreed with the Korean Council’s claim. These historians pointed out that female corps and comfort women had been recruited separately, recruiters had included Koreans, and the estimated number of Korean comfort women was excessive.58 These Japanese historians also suggested that testimonies should be carefully evaluated, as some former comfort women had changed details of their testimonies over time. But the Korean Council refused to change its claims and even denounced seven former comfort women who received atonement money, medical and welfare relief, and a letter of the Japanese prime minister’s apology from the Asian Women’s Fund. The president of the Korean Council, Yun Jeong Ok, even argued, “By receiving the money that does not accompany the admission of guilt, the victims [the seven former comfort women] admitted that they had volunteered to become prostitutes.”59

In the case of the Nanjing Massacre, too, Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking galvanized the American public, especially Chinese Americans. But Japanese and American historians who specialized in modern and contemporary Chinese history criticized Chang’s book for its numerous inaccuracies and careless handling of historical evidence. David Kennedy, a professor of history at Stanford University, doubted the validity of Chang’s claim that the massacre had been a systematic genocidal program comparable to the Holocaust, while Joshua Fogel, a professor of history at the University of California—Santa Barbara, criticized Chang’s book for failing to carefully consider the credibility of the interviews and documents that she presented as “historical evidence,” as well as for misrepresenting the massacre as completely forgotten by Japanese citizens.60 Kasahara Tokushi also requested Chang, face-to-face, to be more careful about interpreting available archival materials.61

Despite various problems in Chang’s book, the left-leaning publishing company Kashiwa Shobo planned to translate it into Japanese because the company believed that details of the Nanjing Massacre should be more widely known in Japan. When Kashiwa Shobo asked Chang to correct various errors and inaccuracies in her book, however, she agreed to make only about a dozen small revisions. Moreover, Chang refused Kashiwa Shobo’s proposal to pair the Japanese edition of her book with an anthology of commentaries critically evaluating the evidence and arguments presented in the book.62 In the end, Kashiwa Shobo gave up the Japanese translation of The Rape of Nanking because the company feared that the book’s serious flaws would only give Japanese nationalists more ammunition to discredit the Nanjing Massacre as a fabrication.63 Instead, Kashiwa Shobo published Thirteen Lies by Deniers of the Nanjing Massacre (Nankin Daigyakusatsu hiteiron jusan no uso)—written by a group of prominent history professors who specialized in research on Japan’s wartime atrocities in China, such as Fujiwara Akira, Kasahara Tokushi, and Yoshida Yutaka—as a “counterpoint to the Nanjing Massacre denial in Japan revived by many factual errors in Iris Chang’s book.” But Chang never retracted her claim that at least three hundred thousand Chinese had been massacred inside the city walls of Nanjing as part of Japan’s genocidal program.

Conservative NGOs in Japan, most notably JSHTR, seized upon these problematic claims made by the Korean Council, Chang, and other advocates of South Korean and Chinese victims. They invoked their own, equally problematic version of objective truth to justify the Asia-Pacific War as a heroic act of self-defense. In fact, they even challenged professional historians who defended the historical facticity of the comfort-women system and the Nanjing Massacre. In particular, one of the JSHTR’s members, Fujioka No- bukatsu, declared that “the age of experts is over” and argued, “Ordinary people have misunderstood that only historians, experts of history, can understand how to interpret the history. But history is an academic discipline examining facts that are the closest to ordinary people’s common sense and, therefore, ordinary people are allowed to evaluate historical research in light of their common sense. . . . Even amateurs can refute historians’ distorted arguments if they use their sound reason.”64

Thus, with regard to comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre, nonhistorians brushed aside questions raised by professional historians. Yun Jeong Ok was not a professional historian but a professor of English. Neither was Iris Chang a professional historian but a journalist. Two of the founding members of JSHTR, Fujioka Nobukatsu and Nishio Kanji, were not professional historians, either. They were both university professors, but they specialized in curriculum studies and German literature, respectively. Another JSHTR member, Higashinakano Shudo, was also a university professor, but his specialty was Japanese intellectual history. Above all,

Kobayashi Yoshinori, at one point the most popular JSHTR member because of his Sensoron comic book series, was a cartoonist who had majored in French literature in college. Nevertheless, the problematic factual claims made by Yun, Chang, and the JSHTR members overwhelmed the cautious and reflective voices of Japanese historians who had dedicated their careers to studying Japan’s past wrongdoings.

After all, the ambiguous distinction between professional and amateur historians is only part of a larger, more fundamental probl em of the relationship between historiography and commemoration as two overlapping modes of representing the past—this is the fourth institutional factor that limits the influence of historians.65 For a long time historians and scholars of collective memory have debated on the relationship between “history” and “memory.” At first, many historians and sociologists drew a sharp distinction between the two by defining history as “rational” and “objective” vis-avis memory as “irrational” and “subjective.” More and more historians, however, began to realize a variety of epistemological (and political) limits of their scholarship, given controversies over historical representations of the Holocaust, postmodernist challenges to “objective historical facts,” growing awareness of the existence of “subaltern history,” and acceptance of oral history and other new methods.66 As a result, most historians and scholars of collective memory now accept historiography and commemoration as simply two different modes of narrating the past, where one has no epistemological superiority over the other.

In this respect, historiography and commemoration form what Paul Ricoeur called a truly “open dialectic,” because their opposition can never be transcended into a synthesis of higher truth about the past.67 Put another way, they form a dialogical, symbiotic relationship, where they mutually constitute and transform each other. As historian Aleida Assmann explained, “Historical scholarship depends on memory not only for oral testimony and experience, but also for criteria of meaning and relevance; on the other hand, memory depends on historical scholarship for verification, substantiation, and falsification.”68 It is therefore difficult for professional historians to invoke their cognitive authority to bring closure to the history problem because politicians and citizens have their own memories whose criteria of epistemological validity are different from those of the historians. Worse, historians are likely to be overwhelmed by memories of traumatic events, such as wartime atrocities, as in East Asia’s history problem, for commemorations of traumatic events tend to be so emotionally charged that people can often over-identify with victims and become unable to notice inconsistencies, omissions, and contradictions in available evidence.69

The difficulty that historians face is further compounded by the heterogeneity of historiography vis-a-vis commemoration. As the term “historians’ debate ’ suggests, controversy, not consensus, is the norm for historians. When different historians maintain competing interpretations of the same historical event, these interpretations can be used by competing groups of political actors to legitimate their preferred commemorative positions. In such a situation, historians are unable to arbitrate competing commemorations. On the contrary, they are likely to exacerbate the competition by lending credibility to each of the commemorative positions.

 
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