by Jacob Horton
On Tuesday October 1st I attended a lecture at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute titled “Stormy Seas: Japan’s Disputes Over History and Territory and the US-Japan Alliance”. Thomas Berger, the guest speaker, is a Columbia alumnus and professor of International Relations at Boston University. Berger argued that any solution to these disputes will involve direct confrontation with differing historical pasts and he laid out three ways in which historical memory can be addressed. In a lecture that was largely about political alliances and war scenarios I was struck by how important oral history interventions might be.
Briefly: The Empire of Japan began expanding in the late 19th century. By the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 Japan fully occupied the Korean peninsula, many areas in Southeast Asia, and large sections of what is now Eastern China. Today's territorial disputes between Japan, China and Taiwan revolve around (in English) the Pinnacle islands in the East China Sea and between Japan and South Korea, the Liancourt islands in the Sea of Japan. Japan often claims that governance was settled through various treaties over the last 150 years. Japan's neighbors argue that these agreements have been rendered void by history. But how can 8 uninhabited islands and some 38 rocks spark large-scale, popular riots and protests? Berger argues correctly that these disruptions pour from a fount of popular memory; from suppressed and unaddressed grievances. Beneath these disputes lie the deeper concerns of how Japan addresses or ignores its past as an imperial power that exploited the populations of its now sovereign neighbors.
Berger spoke about the construction of historical memory in three ways. The first was through political power. Polities make claims on history in order to legitimize their existence. The governed come to know the world because they are told stories about it. These stories are shaped by political interests. A senior resident of Nanjing in Eastern China, for example, might know Japan as the occupying empire that invaded their city and tormented their neighbors. From this person’s point of view Japan was only ejected by and is only held at bay by the liberating army of the Communist revolution. A young Japanese person, however, may know Japan primarily as a small but wealthy pacifist nation that is struggling to recover from a recession and a series of national disasters. History is instrumental in defining a sovereign state and allowing the population to interconnect, to be sympathetic toward itself and develop a relationship toward outsiders. National stories map the world through prefabricated narratives with a political core. This can be tracked in textbooks. The shape of an individual's world is mapped through personal experience. The oral history method can open this map.
Berger also described how wildly different historical memories can coexist within a political polity. One American may understand the Florida trial of George Zimmerman to be an example of how the American legal system systematically decides cases based on a skin or race bias. Another American may see the trial as another example of the world's most fair and deliberative justice system. Both of these people are Americans and yet they understand the history of their nation in almost contradictory ways. For a government to address conflicts that have roots in historical memory it must address how internal histories have come to be radically different. Historical narratives become impressed on individual lives and they also emerge from individual experience. Oral history interviews can demonstrate the emergence of differing histories within complex, intertwined nations of people.
Lastly Berger identified the history of experience. This is the most obvious home for oral history as he meant exactly the stories that people recall from their own lives. While large identity histories are documented through collective means, personal histories always start with a single person. Berger noted that one of the ways Japan might address grievances with South Korea would be to address the lives of individuals, in particular the so-called “comfort women”. This term refers to Korean woman, now grandmothers, that were requisitioned during the wars to service the desires of Japanese occupiers. Reaching out to these individuals, Berger argued, is an acknowledgment South Korea's historical memory. As these women pass away the issue will not pass with them – the opportunity to address historical damage will. Oral history is exceptionally well suited for documenting such stories, those that will soon pass beyond our reach. The formal documentation of these individual stories would be a suitable core for a reconciliation action as suggested by Berger.
Berger discussed historical memory because he rightly believes it to be central this dangerous set of tensions in our world today. He identified broad actions that might be taken to avoid the worst outcomes. But what I saw was the paths that oral historians should walk. It is into these dens of past hurt and conflict that we must venture. The past is not always so distant. It shapes today. As oral historians we can be actors on this level. It is our responsibility to consider context, method, bias, and modes of analysis not only for the sake of accurately representing our narrators but in order to make clear to our audience the ways that these histories, personal and small, are essential components in the larger, shared histories that change our world. Next time a lecture or an event piques your interest, make time for it. It may be more important to your work than you first think.