Letters to the Editor

On "Standing with Historians of Japan"

Jason Morgan, July 2015

To the Editor:

I noted with much sadness the letter signed by 19 American historians of Japan published in the March issue of Perspectives on History. I have profited from many of these historians’ work, but in this case their hasty coalition reveals the powerful orthodoxies that constrain historical writing, thus warranting an outsider’s response. I hope here to repair some of the damage done by their attack on the Japanese government.

Missing from the letter’s dogmatics is a nuanced consideration of fact. To correct this lacuna, I recommend Hata Ikuhiko’s Ianfu to senjō no sei, which eschews presentist politics in favor of documentary evidence. (Even the American historians’ own referee, Yoshimi Yoshiaki, has said publicly that he could find no evidence of the forced recruitment of women in Korea, putting Yoshimi in agreement with Hata.)

Furthermore, the Americans fail to note that in 2014 the Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, formally apologized for years of untenable ianfu (comfort women) reporting by Uemura Takashi, whose mother-in-law is the main comfort-woman activist in Korea. The Asahi falsehoods, in turn, mirrored the sordid confabulations of novelist Yoshida Seiji, who conjured up wild scenes of sexual enslavement on Jeju Island. When Hata investigated and found Yoshida’s claims baseless, Yoshida admitted he had made it all up. It took some 20 years, but eventually even the Asahi followed suit.

The American scholars, though, vow never to retract. Such vows are easier when one can cavalierly dismiss all contrary opinion as “conservative” or “right-wing.” One does not expect much rigorous debate from the same academy that brought us “micro-aggressions” and “trigger warnings,” and this is no exception. Indeed, “conservative” and “right-wing” are clear signals, like the old Graecum est, non legitur (“This is in Greek, and cannot be read”) in the margins of vellum manuscripts, that something is a priori out of bounds and not to be taken seriously.

The obverse of this manufactured consensus is the inevitable charge of “revisionism.” In a sealed episteme, though, revisionism is all we’ve got. Either you are working within the anthill, or you are an invader from the outside. It is a dizzying tautology: the academy laboriously weeds out all opposition, and then compares the skeptical to atrocities deniers. This shock-and-awe style of enforced consensus building is certainly good at getting everyone either to agree on something or else find another job, but the conclusions thus reached are hardly convincing to those who want something more than mere argument from authority (or from a democratic majority, which amounts to the same thing). Not everyone works this way, of course; I personally know many historians who are models of dispassionate scholarship, but outing the objective-minded seems tantamount to escorting Moses to the edge of the Sinai. In any event, the enforced silence within the American academy, in comparison with the buzzing and jousting in Japan, is telling. Perhaps we can just chalk it up to blinding nationalism, but that cuts both ways, too.

Many of the letter writers themselves have probably experienced the lively Japanese academy under the sponsorship of the same Japanese government that they now accuse of practicing Turkey- and Russia-like intimidation. The Americans’ outrage over two moth-eaten paragraphs thus sounds more than a little out of tune. After several silent decades of enduring the Ienaga Saburō school of historical sanctimony, the Japanese government meekly requested a meeting with the publisher of a fictionalized textbook. Why cry “censorship” over such a harmless—and long-overdue—request? Doesn’t anyone besides the 19 self-appointed experts and those in their anthill get to have any historical say?

The irony lies in how well this is all playing in Beijing and Seoul—both strongholds of actual censorship. The Chinese communist dictatorship needs no introduction on this score, and South Korea, for its part, recently released Katō Tatsuya, a journalist whose crime was repeating an unflattering rumor about President Park Geun-hye’s personal life. It is unthinkable, by contrast, that Uemura Takashi should face detention in Japan for his reporting. May we really equate a lone request for a meeting with what the PRC and the ROK do as a matter of quotidian policy?

The American scholars are much exercised over censorship, but even Hata was subjected to shameful persiflage when he delivered a scholarly talk at Princeton University, right in the Americans’ backyard. Perhaps, someday, a Japanese historian will look back and congratulate this same American academy for seeing the International Military Tribunal for the Far East narrative in its death throes and magnanimously embracing defeat. In 2015, it is the Japanese academy that ought to be giving the lecture on historical inquiry.

Jason Morgan
PhD candidate, History Department, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Researcher, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities, and in letters to the editor. Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.