My Positionality

I knew I had this issue for a long time but I am feeling it real this time. My parents are Japanese; I was born and grew up in Japan; My only mother tongue is Japanese; my nationality is Japanese too. I cannot avoid people defining me as Japanese. I cannot even have a fancy identity crisis.

My association with Japan, which, again, I did not choose but happen to have, is becoming problematic in teaching *critical thinking* of some materials. I am TA-ing for a legendary class in our department called “World War Two in History and Memory,” in which we cover many topics related to memory issues of both Japan’s aggression and atrocities and Japan’s victimhood. This class is a world history so almost no students know the historical background of Japan’s aggressions, or will learn much about it in this class. They are usually more knowledgeable of the European front and German history. For Asian history, they have not developed a point of reference from which they could read the assigned articles very critically. In other words, they tend to absorb the information from the readings — often the case simplified versions of it — without processing it. Usually this is exactly where discussion sections become useful. I, as a TA, am responsible for guiding the students to see the weaknesses and naive assumptions of the readings. This normal operation has been extremely hard and requires so much careful wording and mannerism in this class when we discuss Japanese war responsibility.

Let me give you an example. Assume there is an article which says “fascist masculinity is in Japan’s culture for centuries, and this is responsible for causing comfort women and miring their memories.” It has a point. Yes, the sociocultural background is important in understanding the phenomenon of comfort women stations and their memories. But of course you want to criticize the cultural essentialism in this argument. How would I phrase it??

I anyway started by saying “we should be always skeptical of the terms like ‘cultural tradition.'” But in order to explain why, I needed to go back to the emergence of the nation-state and how it happened in nineteenth century Japan. I also felt obligated to explain how ‘fascism’ was a time-specific phenomenon to the twentieth century. What a lecture just to make a simple critical point!

My concern is, how many students would actually care about the content of what I say no matter how carefully I explain? I am so afraid of having a reverse effect of giving them an impression: “oh she is defending Japan’s position with such elaborate details. Maybe she’s offended by the article because she is Japanese.” If this is happening it is worse than if they are not listening to me at all.

Another tricky thing is to explain the difference between Nazism and Japanese militarism/fascism — This absolutely makes me look like a Japanese apologist! I’ll blog about the details of this experience maybe later.

Category(s): (Anti) Nationalism, History, My Grad School Life

6 Responses to My Positionality

  1. Although I’m not TAing, I can relate. I’m usually the only Westerner in my classes, and I feel very self-conscious about how my remarks will be interpreted. To be honest, sometimes I say things that might be easily misunderstood and I have no idea how my classmates interpret them. I also had the odd experience of sitting through a lecture on Orientalism. I was ok with it until the teacher mentioned “You really have to read this book, especially if you are a Westerner.” … I was the only Westerner in the class!

  2. Also I want to add a few lines from Said I found to be very profound that you might as well: “For it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second. And to be a European or an American in such a situation is by no means an inert fact.”

  3. What a lecture just to make a simple critical point!

    If you do it right, though, you lay the foundation for a real shift in historical consciousness: just getting students to stop thinking in terms of eternal essences, timeless traditions, half-baked stereotypes, is a moral and intellectual victory.

    I’m about to do my WWII War Crimes/Crimes Against Humanity lecture in the World Survey — nobody comes out all that well, obviously — and I’ve often wondered how I would handle a serious epistemological/positional challenge. These kids (showing my age, I know!) have been brought up on a kind of lumpen-postmodernism in which scholarly works are “novels” and there’s always “two sides” to a debate; the only way I know to combat that is to distinguish between facts and interpretations, to explain how one interpretation gets chosen over others. I still don’t know how I would deal with a hard-core challenge: I had a moon-landing “skeptic” in a class a few years ago, and we actually talked about why I don’t find that position credible, why “beyond a reasonable doubt” isn’t a valid historical epistemology. That was relatively harmless: there’s a fair population around here, I’m told by people who teach in the public schools, that has doubts about the Holocaust, but I’ve got a spiel for that, if I need it. But being Jewish makes my positionality on that question suspect, so there are always going to be some who won’t take it seriously no matter how right it is.

  4. Oh wow, everyone has a serious positionality problem!!
    We should collaborate on teaching these difficult themes!

  5. “Another tricky thing is to explain the difference between Nazism and Japanese militarism/fascism — This absolutely makes me look like a Japanese apologist! “

    I am a Westerner teaching a stage 2 course on East Asia IR to Westerners – at first one assumes no positionality problems. It is interesting to see the students feeling they are being positively educated on some of the key historical controversies, by taking a critical approach (usually the default position is “Japanese people don’t learn about WWII” at worst, or at best “Japanese have not admitted war responsibility”.) All well and good – until they find out I have a Japanese spouse – at which point I become in their eyes a Japan “maniac”.

    On the one hand it seems to give me more ‘authority’ on “Japan” in isolation- “you lived there, speak the language and have lived like the Japanese do(sic)” but on the other it seems to pull into question my objectivity on some of the cross-cultural and historical issues. Which is funny because I was more a “China” maniac until I actually went to Japan Smilie: :-)

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