Episode 29 – Dr. Lisa Yoshikawa (Hobart & William Smith)

Originally published on May 18, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Lisa Yoshikawa, Associate Professor of History in the Department of History at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. Dr. Yoshikawa is the author of Making History Matter: Kuroita Katsumi and the Construction of Imperial Japan, published by Harvard University Asia Center in 2017. Dr. Yoshikawa, thank you for talking to me today.

Lisa Yoshikawa: Thank you for having me.

TG: In your book Making History Matter, you take historians during the Meiji period to task a little bit in how they justify Japanese imperialism. So, can you explain how is it that the professional historians during that time are contributing to Japanese imperialism?

LY: Well first of all, it’s a process in which the historians are justifying Japanese imperialism most likely because they support Japanese imperialism, but also with another motivation, which is to get the field going. And in order to do that (so we’re talking about the academic history), the importance of academic history is introduced very early after [the] Meiji Restoration, but [in terms of] actually establishing the field, that doesn’t get going until probably mid-Meiji into [the] 1890s and [the] turn of the century.

So, they’re trying to establish their own field based on the German model, and of course, the university system is already being established, but in order to establish the German Rankian influenced historical field, they need to establish archives, and there’s all these practical matters, training students. That’s one of the reasons why I argue that the historians try to get support from the state sponsors to try to establish their field, and one of the ways they’re doing this is to legitimate Japanese imperialism, and they do it in various ways.

One of the things that they are tasked to do is, initially, to write a history of Japan; essentially, a national history – what they end up calling Kokushi (or National History of Japan) – because it’s part of [an attempt] to establish the state of Japan. So one way in which they do that [is that] the initial effort really, by the academic historians, is started by the first generation of historians, which are people like Shigeno Yasutsugu and Kume Kunitake, and they attempt to write a national history. So, national history meaning starting from the beginning (a linear narrative) from the beginning of Japanese history to (back then) the Meiji period (so, trying to write that history). But this is the first Kokushi Gan that was just published in 1890, before Japan gets its first colony if we exclude what’s today Okinawa and what’s today Hokkaidō.

It’s really the second generation of historians who are writing after Japan gets Taiwan and Japan starts going into Korea (first, as a protectorate) that they really start narrating the empire into Japanese history. And one of the ways that they do this is to write a malleable history in terms – also, they have to, obviously, deal with the chronology (a linear chronology) of Japanese history – [of] deal[ing] with defining Japan geographically. One way in which the Japanese historians (the academic historians) tried to legitimize Japanese imperialism is to try to keep this geographical border quite malleable, so that as the new territories are being incorporated, that can, in the future, be written into the linear history of Japan.

TG: You mentioned historians such as Kume Kunitake. In the book, you also focus on Kuroita Katsumi, so who is Kuroita and how does he fit into this story?

LY: Right, so Kume and Shigeno and Hoshino [are] the three early historians. Those are what I call the first generation of historians, so they’re the ones that are better known. Japanese historians in Japan have been writing about them. People like Ōkuba [have] been writing about them. [They] were usually known as the founders of Japanese academic history, and [they] were the people who initially attempted to write this history of Japan as a scholarship. But all three of them pretty much get fired because they go overboard. [It’s] the dominant narrative that’s been around for a while in that they take the evidentiary history too far, and start questioning some of the imperial myths that have been endorsed by the supporters of this new nation-building.

So, what my book focuses on is Kuroita Katsumi who’s the second generation, so Kuroita and people like Tsuji Zennosuke and also Mikami Sanji (sort of 1.5th generation), are the second generation of historians who are trained by the first generation of historians. But they come to age around the time the Japanese are acquiring Taiwan and then later Korea. So, these are the historians that start writing Japanese history to incorporate those places into the narrative of Japanese history. These second generation historians play a much more significant part in terms of legitimizing Japanese imperialism in Meiji.

TG: Speaking of this historical legitimization, it’s funny that you mentioned the mythological narratives because I kept thinking about the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki as a kind of retrospective legitimization of the Yamato court.

LY: Right.

TG: Is there a kind of similar function going on here with the “writing in” legitimacy over these newly acquired territories?

LY: Well, so for example, one of the most well-known ways in which historians in general (or actually, anybody using a historical narrative to justify Japanese imperialism) was [the] colonizing of Korea and how they referred to the myth of Jingū, who was one of the mythical female emperors, who supposedly went and conquered Korea and established [a] Japanese colony in Korea. So you know, [it’s that] trying to use those older texts like Nihon Shoki and Kojiki to set up a precedent for [the] colonization of Korea.

The importance of academic historians is that they stress the fact (most academic historians trained at Tokyo University) that they are academic historians. They work with scholarship, so they try not to make that simple connection of precedent, for example. What they’re trying to do is that this is scholarship that is backed up by evidence, by documents, and therefore, this is a scholarship with a certain methodology conducted by people who are trained in a certain way, and a lot of this, again, goes back to borrowing from the German system. They used the fact that this is scholarship (so Wissenschaft is the term that they were using back then). Therefore, our story makes imperialism legitimate because this is scholarship and not just a popular piece of history. So in terms of using Jingū, for example, people like Kuroita talk about the invasion of Korea by Jingū, but in a much more delicate, balanced manner. You know, the point is that Kuroita tries to establish a[n] early connection between Japan and Korea to justify Japanese colonization of Korea, but at the same time, that early contact can’t be so early that it takes away from Japanese exceptionalism that allows Japan to colonize Korea. So, those older texts are used in a much more delicate way to justify Japanese imperialism.

TG: Speaking of not going too far back, well, we don’t want to talk about the alliance between Paekche and Wa, for example.

LY: So, that was the time period that Kuroita was referring to. Jingū was fourth century if I recall. But it’s a much more complicated argument than saying: “Japan was colonizing Korea very early in the history. Therefore, that legitimizes Japanese colonialism of Korea in 1905, 1910.”

TG: I was reading the annual reports put up by the Government General of Korea. They talk about the archaeological excavations that they undertake, and I’ve always considered: Is this a way to find that historical evidence? You know, maybe if we can actually find archaeological proof for Jingū.

LY: Right (laughter).

TG: You know, is this another way of looking at it…

LY: Yes, thanks for that question. Yes, that’s a whole area of this is that to try to deal with [the question of]: What do we do with these myths? Because obviously, there’s no evidence to back up a lot of these myths, and the Japanese historians like Kuroita back then were aware of this. But that’s why scholars like him turned to archaeology. He is also one of the early people to try to introduce archaeology into Japan, and one of the reasons he pushes archaeology is because he feels that if…So, this is coming from the fact that from 1908 (for about two years) Kuroita travels around Europe, and one of the places (he goes to many places) he goes to is to the digs that are happening around the Mediterranean.

He hears about the story, and he witnesses the excavation in Troy, and his understanding was that until Troy was excavated, a lot of the Greeks’ myths were just myths, but once the archaeology proved the existence of Troy, then those myths no longer were myths. They became history. So, that is also going on, and Kuroita is one of the earlier ones who [goes] to the peninsula with other scholars, of course, to try to find evidence of early Japanese occupation of Korea (of course which they don’t find). Also related to this, the fact that (not just in terms of Japanese imperialism, but also early Japanese history too) archaeology is going to help the scholars as long as there’s no evidence to disprove the existence of the early empress for example, right? We have to keep on digging because maybe, there might be evidence that we find to try to establish the Japanese history further [and] further back into time.

TG: You mentioned that one of the reasons that these professional historians are so actively encouraging imperialism, perhaps, is as a way to solidify their own positions within a changing academia. So, what is happening to the profession of history and the discipline of history during the Meiji period?

LY: So, the initial attempts in 1869, right after the Meiji Restoration, the initial leaders put out a memo saying that history is important, and history is fundamental to establishing a new state. They start working on trying to establish a history of Japan, and that leads [the] establishment of the History Department once the Tokyo University has established etc., and the first generation of historians [try] to narrate Japan and try to legitimize Japan and later imperialism through history. But there [are] a lot of problems (Margaret Mehl was one of the scholars who wrote in English about this), as the historians try to do this from the 1880s into [the] 1890s, and what ends up happening is basically that those first generation of historians fail. They set up a historiographical institute to try to collect the documents to try to write these histories, but the historiographical institute gets closed in 1893.

So, what do we do here? The profession of history is already in its decline, and there are other means rising in terms of trying to legitimize [the] Japanese state and Japanese imperialism. And so, what the second generation of Japanese historians have to do is [to] try to resurrect or resuscitate the field of Japanese history. This is, again, in [the] mid-1890s into the turn of the century/1900s. So that’s part of the story there, is that the Japanese historians initially tried, but the government didn’t approve, so what do we do now? One of the most important institutes for historical study is closed. Where do we go from here? And so, one idea is that let’s support the Japanese state formation, Japanese imperialism through history so that the discipline itself can get support – both in terms of (most importantly) monetarily, but in terms of political support [as well].

TG: And in doing so, as you mention, they come to supporting statist authoritarianism and aggressive expansionism, which is counter, certainly, to this interwar liberalism. So, you get this counterintuitive situation where the academics and intellectuals are somewhat actually supporting what we might think of as fascism.

LY: They are. Well, if you call that “fascism,” if you’re talking about the interwar illiberalism (so these forces fighting against liberalism), people like Kuroita are standing on the side of supporting illiberalism, right? So especially after World War I with the rise of national self-determination and the new [attitudes] to imperialism, and within Japan rises a movement towards relative democracy. Certainly, there are forces [that are] authoritarian, anti-liberal, illiberal forces in important parts of the government (among the philanthropists for example). And what the Japanese historians like Kuroita end up doing is to take that stance of illiberalism to fight against the rhetoric and movement of interwar liberalism and internationalism in general. They do that by chang[ing] their rhetoric so that their rhetoric might be in sync with the language of the liberals, for example. But in reality, what they are advocating is this Meiji authoritarianism. You know, this is going into Taishō, but [they are] advocating Meiji authoritarianism and holding on[to] very strict, heavy-handed colonial policies.

TG: I noticed you’re talking about military expansion abroad, political repression at home, but very carefully not using the word “fascism.” So I’m curious, can we define the mid-20s and ‘30s as a time of fascism in Japan? Or should we be more cautious in using that term?

LY: Let’s put it this way: I think, a lot of the ideals of fascism were not taken up by the governmental authority in the 1930s (the philosophy behind fascism). Miles Fletcher was one of those people who wrote about how the fascistic ideas were not really being accepted by the government. But at the same time, as I was looking into some of these commemorations that historians and others were orchestrating in the 1930s (surrounding historic figures or if we go up to 1940, the 26th centennial of the empire) with all this popular support. There are fascistic elements that I see (especially once we get into the 1930s) of [this] popular support of this totalitarian state. So, I’m still going towards being convinced that this period can be defined as fascistic, although I think some fascist ideologies have been rejected by the government.

TG: And since you mentioned commemorations and, certainly, the politicization of history and professional historians, can I ask you to talk about – not only the commemoration of the 2600th founding of the empire in 1940; and then of course, there’s the centennial of the Meiji Restoration in 1968, which sees another kind of movement; and now this being the sesquicentennial of the Meiji Restoration – what is the politics of historical commemoration?

LY: Well, it goes back, right? You know, [the] politicization/commemoration of historical events we can trace back [to the] Tokugawa period. But really, the modern politicization of these historical events, historical people…We have the celebration of Ninomiya Sontoku for example, someone like that. A celebration of historical figures really go back into Meiji, but I think things change in [the] 1930s. Its scale becomes much larger, and in the 1930s, a lot of these are spearheaded by academic historians, again, to give historical legitimacy because these are being headed by academic historians who are trained to do this.

So [in terms of ] that celebration of historical figures and events, there’s also the celebration of the Kenmu Restoration, for example. That’s happening in the 1930s (a bunch of celebrations surrounding [the] Kenmu Restoration), but in the 1930s and ‘40s, we see academic historians really taking part in these movements. And the 1940 celebration (the 26th centennial of the Japanese Empire)… By that time, Kuroita is still alive, but he’s sick, so he’s not really part of it, but some of his students are participating in such an event.

The most well-known name is Hiraizumi Kiyoshi who’s often times pinpointed as the historian that collaborated with the authoritarian government and the wartime government. But certainly, the role of historians in these celebrations go quite far back, but the nature of it, I think, changes in [the] 1920s into [the] ‘30s, and definitely by the ‘40s.

What’s interesting in the 1968 centennial of the Meiji Restoration is that a lot of progressive historians were, of course, on the opposing side of this commemoration that was being led more, to my understanding, by some parts of the Liberal Democratic Party, of course. And the Japanese progressive historians are fighting this, but at the same time, what’s interesting is historians also learn that these are moments in which (because these are historical celebrations) the field of history can gain from these celebrations. For the 1968 celebration, one of the things that happened is there’s a push to establish the Reki Haku, which is the history museum that’s in Chiba. This was a project that was started by Kuroita much earlier, but was never finished, so these moments are also being used. So, same way in which the historians were trying to establish their field, they politicized, support[ed] political events [and] leanings using historical arguments. By participating in this commemoration, the historians are also trying to add something to their field, trying to make their field, keep their field or make their field important and significant.

So [in] 1968, the progressives seemed to have lost that battle, and the celebration for the centennial seemed to have gone on to a certain degree. But [in terms of] that commemoration for example, some of the historians from Tōdai are trying to have a history museum established. Again, I think these commemorations are being used for academics for the purpose of enhancing the discipline of history too.

TG: As you mentioned, in 1968, you have all these very prominent progressive historians. It reminds me of [how] you always hear about, in the postwar period, a lot of the historians (or the most prominent ones) are Marxist in their interpretations, right? So, Tanaka Akira or Inoue Kiyoshi: these historians [who] are very critical of the Japanese wartime regime. Maruyama Masao, of course, [is] another example.

LY: Right.

TG:  I mean with that in mind, do [these historians] feel culpable for some of what happens in the wartime? Or are they self-reflective about the role of professional history in legitimating imperialism?

LY: You mean the historians of 1950’s-60’s?

TG: Right. The historians who survived the war.

LY: Well, the problem there is that these are students. Especially in the ‘50s, these are still direct students of these historians like Kuroita and others who are supporting the war effort or interwar illiberalism that led to the war. So for the most part, they have a scapegoat, which tends to be people like Hiraizumi Kiyoshi [who] I mentioned before or Itazawa Takeo [was] another one. Ōkuba Takeyoshi is the one who becomes the father of Japanese historiography. He also was a student of Kuroita’s at a certain point, and what happens is that they try to downplay the amount of [the] politicization of history that was going on, especially by the main founders of the field.

And by doing that, they themselves also are not implicated. What’s also happening here is that by the 1930s, when the second generation historians are established, these students are also helping these people (like Kuroita) to write general histories of Japan in whatever projects that these interwar and wartime historians were working on. So as students, they’re helping them, so they are also, to a degree, linked to this illiberalism as a project and support of this illiberal government/authoritarian government and Japanese colonial efforts. And in a way, they tried to write that out of their recollection of Japanese history.

TG: I teach a Pacific War film class, and so one of the early postwar films that I show is Kurosawa film Waga seishun ni kuinashi (No Regrets for Our Youth).

LY: Okay.

TG: Which is a dramatization of the Takigawa affair, where this professor gets kicked out of Kyōdai in 1933 I think it was? And so, you have this whole narrative of the “red professors” in the 1930s, the ones who are speaking out against militarism.

LY: Right.

TG: But notably, they aren’t historians.

LY: They’re not historians, right, because most of the historians especially in Tokyo University were not speaking out against the war. They were supporting the war effort. So, Takigawa was in economics, was it?

TG: Yes, I think. I just remember he was teaching about Tolstoy. Maybe a law professor [or] something?

LY: Oh maybe, yes.

TG: Well, Minobe Tatsukichi was of course a law professor…

LY: Right.

TG: …another one of these [so-called] “red professors,” but it’s interesting that the historians are the ones who are openly supporting the war. Then this is maybe why in the postwar period, there is such a reaction or almost rejection of this prewar history.

LY: Right. So, we know initially, when the postwar historians started writing about how they ot their predecessors were doing history, one of the narratives/historiographies about their predecessors is that the entire historical enterprise up to 1945 (academic history) was a failure, that the first three historians were (back to Shigeno, Kume and Hoshino) tried, but did not succeed. They got banished from their positions because they were too overzealous in trying to write history using evidentiary history and questioning the myths. So, the authorities shut them down, and since then, historians have just been collecting documents, and it was going to be the postwar historians who were going to use those documents to try to pick up where they left off pretty much in the 1890s. And then along the way, there [are] martyrs like Atsuda Sōkichi whose work gets censored by the late interwar and wartime government, for example. So, that tended to be the narrative of these scholars, and that came out when the Marxist history was at its heyday.

TG: So, what is the legacy of all of this for the history profession today in Japan?

LY: Really, the issue of historiography is just getting to be revisited by historians today. Of course, those Marxist historians of the ‘50s and ‘60s and then going a little bit into the ‘70s wrote their own history, a lot of times using those primary sources, but also, in a very theoretical manner. And then those histories that came out of those decades, a lot of them are quite useful, but because the nature of the studies, they focus on certain economic factors and overly focus on economic factors (for example), and because they’re so theoretical and supportive of regimes that are today considered to be problematic (there’s Stalinism, PRC, North Korea, etc.), historians tend [to] not want to look back at the scholarship that came out of [the] 1950s and ‘60s too.

Although their contribution, in terms of revitalizing the historical field (the general contribution) might be commended today. But it seems like today, what’s happening is [that] the attitude is going back to primary sources. You know, what’s often said today is, for example, rather than publish [an] elaborately theoretical, analytical monograph on a certain topic (which goes out of fashion within a decade), to really leave a mark as a historian, it’s most important to publish a collection of documents, for example. So that, I think, is one of the legacies that remain because of the history of historiography.

TG: And so maybe, a turn to a less partisan or maybe even [a] turn to a more empirical research, perhaps?

LY: Right. [A] turn to a more empirical research in a way, but we also have to remember that that’s what earlier historians of prewar Japan were also claiming to do (was empirical research). I don’t really see a particularly partisan agenda coming out of Japanese historians today, but the rhetoric seems similar in terms of focusing on primary documents.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Lisa Yoshikawa, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, May 18, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-29-dr-lisa-yoshikawa-hobart-william-smith/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.