A little bit of something else

I was reading a dissertation on the history of discourse on youth during the colonial period from Seoul National University the other day. This is my third time reading it over years as it is very relevant to my topic. I have to admit that it is informative and useful, and it is a nice synthetic work. Every time I read it, however, I feel frustrated. At first I thought that I grew out of discursive analyses. I became skeptical of subtle shifts that authors discuss in this type of history. From my own experiences of making a narrative about changes in discourse, I learned that I can find pretty much anything in the discourse if I look for it long enough, and I can connect dots as freely as I wish. Think of how historians in the future would discuss today’s discourse on “democracy,” for example. Would it be a value that gained almost perfect consensus? Would it mean liberation? Or a convenient concept to hide oppression? From the viewpoint of contemporary people (us), what would be the most meaningful way of analyzing it — or does that analysis even matter to us?

I presume everyone’s answer is, IT DEPENDS. The meaning of “democracy” totally depends on the local context. It could be a rebellious, or conservative, concept depending on who uses it for what reason. The importance of such discursive analyses also depends on the context — would it trigger a new political phase like the one in the 1990s Taiwan and South Korea, or just another speech by the US president? Thinking this way, I thought I did not like discursive analyses no matter how elaborate they are. Because it is the background that mattered, not the discourse itself.

I was wrong. Besides the fact that I have encountered wonderful discursive analyses, I felt the same frustration when the book was so strictly empirical. I do social history and I like detailed facts, but people have hearts and brains. I want to know what they were thinking and feeling. Ultimately, without that imagination, history is boring.

And I realized a very simple fact. Even if you are interested in one kind of analysis, you need to add information from a different point of view. I remember the best feedbacks from professors to speakers are usually asking to add another dimension. “Who are these people in the committee that you are talking about? Did they get along?” “Why did they advocate the policy in such a way?” are good questions to ponder if you are doing political history, for example. The question of “how did they feel, or how did the other people feel, when soldiers came back from war?” requires both social and discursive research in addition to the issue of compensation. And for those who do discursive analyses, “to what extent did people care or know about these things? what impact did it make?” is always a challenging but worthwhile question to keep in mind. Exciting histories I have read address all-round questions like these. They make our imagination rich and expansive.

…. Sigh. (feels like I’m raising the bar by myself.)

Posted in Academic, History, My Grad School Life

Why Do We Hate Essentializing Nations?

If there is one clear line between history lovers and historians, or journalistic commentators and social scientists, it is probably the fact that scholars are extremely sensitive to any assumption of national characteristics. This also makes us allergic to the phrases like “tradition” and “cultural differences.”

Why do we feel disgusted by these ideas? One clear reason is the accuracy issue. We know a lot of what people consider traditional and culturally unique was created (or “invented” ) together with the modern nation-state. Speaking of which, most of us, including myself, doubt everything the nation-state does for its own sake. I don’t know about other people, but my reaction is quite instant and harsh, and it does feel like I have a real mental allergy to this whole area of thoughts, which I cannot explain just by the historical accuracy. Maybe because we encounter too many histories that are so badly tainted by nationalism, and are tired of it. Or maybe because historians do not want to repeat the same mistake of exoticizing foreign objects that they study as it happened in the past. We feel guilty for what our predecessors kept doing up until a few decades ago. Maybe that is it. I used to force my partner (a male caucasian) to say he likes me “despite how I look (=asian)” just to make sure this is not about exoticization.

I noticed, however, our allergy is making our lives (including my partner’s) harder than necessary. People love anecdotes and conclusions about national essences. They really do. People want to confirm with each other that North Koreans are absolutely bizarre by discussing how people wept on the street when their leader died. I also tell people that the Japanese eat fermented soybeans and seaweed everyday when I sense people want to hear something exotic. Japanese families keep asking foreigners what they think are unique about Japan and how difficult they think the Japanese language is — they love exoticizing themselves! Just recalling all these things makes me feel nauseous now, but they are just enjoying conversations in bars, and this is one of the most polite, and potentially witty, things to talk about with complete strangers. It is only us who feel weirdly distressed in this situation, not knowing whether we should argue back, or just go along with it.

Posted in My Grad School Life

Mental notes while in Okinawa

I spent the last 7 days in northern Okinawa. My friend & driver, Rumi, and I lucked out with a few days of brilliant weather. Here’s a few notes from this trip before I forget:

Looking at the gorgeous beach and blue sky in the countryside, I just keep thinking of my dream of hosting a summer camp for high school students from all over East Asia. I have not worked out anything practical. But I want to have students from Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan live together for a few weeks, do history together, think about social issues, hike in the deep mountain and dive in the tropical sea, and maybe learn each other’s languages a bit. Okinawa is such a perfect location for its historical role as a small hub and to keep some distance from any national capital yet stay physically close. I don’t know what language in which we will operate. I also don’t know how to lead the history workshop to constructive critical thinking, instead of creating the clear-cut aggressor-vs-victim narrative. (Ugh, this positionality issue, again.)

I kept thinking about it while we drove along the coast, but it also made me realize that I am affected a lot by my research topic — youth groups. I have to admit that a famous Japanese novel, 次郎物語 (Jiro monogatari), was a powerful piece. The latter half of this long novel describes the idealized version of what youth group advocates imagined to do during the youth training in 浴恩館 (Yokuonkan) in Tokyo — probably because this part was written after the war, the author, Shimomura Kojin, depicted it as such an anti-militaristic, youth-centered, bonding experience for the youth. My desire to open a summer camp worries me if this is a sign of me getting a little too close to my research object.

Another note is about case studies. Even at this stage, case selection is hard. It cannot be too rural or too urban, has to match the other cases, and you have to find good witnesses. This time I found a bunch of self-published autobiographies — fortunately the Okinawan elderly write many of those –, and I might be able to track down a perfect Okinawan figure in Aichi. Yes, in the Japanese main island. This is another thing. Those who were active in village youth groups often became successful businessmen or politicians. They all left the village early on (or died in the war, of course), making it harder to find them.

Finally, the relationship between Shimazu (in Kagoshima) and Okinawa is fascinating. It gives a good sense of the political tensions between the center (whether it’s Toyotomi Hideyoshi or Tokugawa shogunate) and Shimazu, as well as the relationship between Ming/Qing China and the Japanese local domains. Interpreting Shimazu’s rule/invasion of Ryukyu is the key to imagining the place of Okinawa in the modern history of Japan. I would most definitely include one lecture on Okinawa’s point of view if I teach Japanese survey history. Please remind me that I should write a historiographical analysis of the history of Okinawa written by various Okinawan intellectuals before I graduate.

Posted in Japan, Research