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Home arrow History arrow The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia


Historians as Epistemically Oriented Rooted Cosmopolitans

To answer these questions, it is first necessary to understand the unique potentials of historians to act as “epistemically oriented rooted cosmopoli- tans.”6 Typically, rooted cosmopolitans are those based in a single country but endowed with openness to foreign others.7 They include immigrants whose biographies and social ties crisscross multiple nation-states, and activists who mobilize advocacy networks to address human rights violations in various parts of the world.8 These rooted cosmopolitans show that openness to foreign others is not merely an individual attribute but also a collective property sustained by transnational networks. As sociologist Craig Calhoun put it, cosmopolitanism is not “simply a free-floating cultural taste, personal attitude, or ethical choice” but is instead always embedded in specific networks of actors.9 According to this definition, historians, too, qualify as rooted cosmopolitans because they develop transnational social networks by organizing conferences and other professional activities to exchange methods, standards of excellence, and training programs, which are open to all nationalities.10

More importantly, historians are epistemically oriented rooted cosmopolitans. Historians participate in the politics of war commemoration in the capacity of what sociologist John Meyer called “Others,” those who are defined as disinterested bearers of “truths” and authorized to act as consultants for other pol itical actors pursuing self- i nterests.11 In this respect, historians form “epistemic communities” with regard to the history problem, that is, knowledge-based networks of “professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area.”12 Put another way, historians are regarded as experts in providing reliable data and authoritative interpretations for relevant pol itical actors in the field of the history problem to justify their commemorative positions.

Their epistemic orientations distinguish historians from other types of rooted cosmopolitans in the history problem. Perhaps the most visible type of rooted cosmopolitan is advocacy-oriented: members of Japanese NGOs supporting South Korean A-bomb victims, former comfort women, and other victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings. They extended solidarities across national borders, shared information and resources at the transnational level, and coordinated their actions to press the Japanese government to adopt the cosmopolitan logic of commemoration. These advocacy-oriented rooted cosmopolitans, however, unwittingly intensified the history probl em because they sacrificed historical accuracy for pol itical expediency. Many NGOs in Japan and South Korea, for example, categorically defined the comfort stations as rape centers and the military comfort-women system as sexual slavery by following the UN special rapporteurs. As anthropologist C. Sarah Soh critically observed, such a categorical definition is “a political act in support of the redress movement” and a “partisan prejudice” that eliminates complexities of the system that operated different types of comfort stations and depended on Korean cooperation.13 The advocacy-oriented rooted cosmopolitans in Japan thus ended up perpetuating nationalist commemoration in South Korea while galvanizing Japanese nationalists to reject the claims by former comfort women as fabrications.

In contrast, historians acting as epistemically oriented rooted cosmopolitans have the potential to generate a differ ent effect on the history problem. As historian Kosuge Nobuko pointed out, “The method of history, to interrogate historical materials (shiryo hihan), is best suited for correcting misunderstandings and distortions of the past. . . . By interrogating historical materials and conducting empirical research, historians cannot but become humble and accept scholarly asceticism [against indulging in manipulation of data and distortion of descriptions].”14 Historians are therefore capable of critically reflecting on nationalist commemorations and preventing historical inaccuracies and problematic interpretations from fueling the history problem. Indeed, joint historical research and education projects by historians in Japan, South Korea, and China have shown their potential to generate mutual criticism of nationalist commemorations and promote the cosmopolitan logic of historical research.

Nevertheless, not all joint projects are equally effective in critiquing nationalist commemorations. The processes and outcomes of the governmental and nongovernmental joint projects show that the latter tend to be more successful in promoting the logic of cosmopolitanism.15 The nongovernmental joint projects, most notably the History to Open the Future project, allowed historians from Japan, South Korea, and China to criticize each other’s nationalist biases. They not only incorporated dialogues with foreign historians more effectively into the process of historical research but also shifted content focus from the nation to the interaction of nations.

The governmental joint projects, by contrast, appeared to have difficulty facilitating mutual criticism of nationalist commemorations. In fact, the Japan-South Korea Joint Project was severely constrained by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had long resisted revisiting the 1965 Basic Treaty between Japan and South Korea. The ministry feared that any reinterpretation of historical events mentioned in the treaty, such as Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea, would pave the way for new compensation claims. One official in the ministry was reported to have said, “There is no room for a joint historical research project to reinterpret the 1965 Basic Treaty.

Since reinterpretation of the 1965 Basic Treaty could lead to reigniting the problem of compensation, the possibility of scholarly agreement between Japanese and South Korean sides is extremely small.”16 Similar constraints were also found in the Japan-China Joint Project, where Chinese historians were restricted by their government in publishing the results of the joint proj ect.

I argue that the differences between the nongovernmental and governmental projects derive from the different frames of identification that they support. In general, two different frames of identification are available for participants in a joint project. The first is a nationally bounded frame, such as “Japanese,” “South Korean,” and “Chinese.” The second is a nationally unbounded frame, that is, “historian.”17 The nongovernmental projects foregrounded the nationally unbounded frame of identification—the historian who is concerned about the escalation of the history problem—and this framing allowed the participants to suspend their national identifications to a significant extent. The governmental projects, however, foregrounded the nationally bounded frame and positioned participants as representatives of their countries. For example, the Japanese participants in the Japan-South Korea and Japan-China Joint Projects were selected by the Japanese government without consultation with professional associations of historians, and t hese joint projects were all managed by foreign ministries of respective governments.18 This kind of structural constraint made it difficult for the participants to be open to foreign perspectives and dialogically transform their original positions.

The different processes and outcomes of the nongovernmental and governmental projects also appear to depend on the dispositions of participants—on the degree to which they were already open toward foreign others. For example, the Japanese participants in the History to Open the Future project included many left-l eaning historians, such as Kasahara Tokushi, who had actively engaged in the social movement against conservative politicians and NGOs. The History to Open the Future project was, in some respects, an outgrowth of the existing transnational network of advocacy-oriented NGOs that had pressed the Japanese government regarding apology and compensation for foreign victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings. The dispositions of participants can also partially explain the struggle of the Japan-South Korea Joint Project, to which the Japanese government appointed Furuta Hiroshi, a history professor at Tsukuba University known for his belief in the Japanese people’s superiority over

Koreans.19 In turn, the Korean side included Lee Man Yeol, a chair of the National History Committee, who insisted that “any research on Korea must presuppose love for Korea. . . . Only with very strong love for Korea, Japanese historians can begin to understand Korean history correctly.”20 These two historians with strong nationalist dispositions sat on the same subcommittee and contributed to spreading distrust among other participants. The dispositions of participants therefore constitute another mechanism that can either facilitate or forestall mutual criticism of nationalist commemorations because they situationally influence interactional dynamics among historians. In short, due to the more open dispositions of participants, nongovernmental projects tended to be more successful than their governmental counterparts in incorporating foreign perspectives according to the logic of cosmopolitanism.

Nevertheless, nongovernmental projects have limitations, given their overlap with advocacy-oriented activities. Take, for example, the History to Open the Future project. Overall, the Japanese participants in this trilateral project refused to shy away from criticizing nationalist biases in South Korean and Chinese versions of history, and the South Korean and Chinese participants were willing to include descriptions of Japan’s victimhood and question official versions of history promoted by their own governments. The Japanese participants nonetheless sacrificed scholarly rigor for advocacy when they agreed to the first sentence in A History to Open the Future’s chapter 3, section 2.1, on the Second Sino-Japanese War: “On July 7, 1937, the Japanese military started the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in the vicinity of Beijing.” This sentence came under heavy criticism from the community of Japanese historians who, based on available evidence, had concluded that the Japanese military had not plotted the incident.21 Some Japanese historians also thought that A History to Open the Future as a whole was academically disappointing, and others saw it with suspicion because many of the Japanese participants were left-leaning and previously involved in advocacy activities for foreign victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings.22

In fact, one of the Japanese participants, Saito Kazuharu, was very much aware of the danger of “facile border-crossing (an’ina ekkyo), a failure to critically examine the nature of dialogue and solidarity, [which] may lead the joint history textbook to disseminate wrong understandings.”23 Put another way, the danger was that if the Japanese side simply expressed “facile” solidarity with the South Korean and Chinese sides and allowed problematic historical facts and interpretations, “the ultimate mission for the joint his?tory textbook project . . . to overcome narrow-minded nationalism” on all sides would be compromised.24 In turn, the potential of governmental joint projects to facilitate mutual criticism of nationalist commemorations cannot be dismissed too hastily, for it was the Japan-China Joint Project that ended up resolving the conflict regarding the description of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident: in its final report, both Japanese and Chinese historians agreed that the battle between the Japanese and Chinese militaries at the Marco Polo Bridge was started accidentally. This prompted Saito to acknowledge that “on this point [regarding the Marco Polo Bridge Incident], the governmental joint project overcame the obstacle that the nongovernmental joint project could not.”25

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