Japan's History Problem: Agency, Violence, and the Limits of Decolonizing History


Hitomi Koyama

PhD defended at: 

Johns Hopkins University



August 15, 1945 marks both the end of the war in Japan and a day of liberation in Asia. More than half a century later, the contestation over how the history of World War II should be written continues and is referred to as Japan’s “history problem.” How should Japan’s past as an imperial power be passed down, not only as a lesson for future generations, but also as a way of acknowledging the war dead in Asia? More broadly, how do we narrate war, navigating description and explanation, and how do these choices in turn implicate our relationship to the history of wars? For when Japan’s former victims call for accountability of its imperial past in its writing of history, such a demand ineluctably presents a dilemma: whereas a causal account of war obscures state agency and thus responsibility, a move to make Japan an agent of history that could be held accountable hints at a return to the nationalistic past. At the center lies the vexed relation between history and agency in the context of the Far East.

The dissertation begins by posing the question of the history problem’s persistence. Many have attributed its persistence to the East Asian state’s instrumental use of history towards the end of inciting nationalism. Indeed, history-writing has been used by the state to mobilize the masses for war in the past. Such an understanding would lead one to think that the solution is to deny state agency and control over history-writing. The dissertation argues otherwise. In IR, historical narrative can be used as a way to both assert and occlude state agency, thereby calling attention to responsibility for what is done in the name of history.

The work as a whole examines the shift in the westernizing Japanese state’s use of history as it seeks to position itself in relation to world history. When the state use of history is discussed in IR, many draw on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s insight that Europe used history to naturalize its dominance. In particular, Chakrabarty associates civilizational history with historicism, a kind of history which denies agency to those in the non-West (2000). Attending to the similarity between Chakrabarty and Japanese intellectuals’ critique of history in 1930s, I argue that while the role of civilizational history is of import, we must also account for the role of culture in theorizing historical agency. Chapter One offers a theoretical backdrop on how history and political agency were intertwined in the imagining of the world order. By reconstructing the way in which historicism came to embody at least two meanings, one that denies agency in the name of a general law of history and the other asserting that individuality cannot be subsumed under that which is general, I submit that to better understand the state’s relation to history, the question of agency is central. Chapters Two and Three examine how each type of historicism, one civilizational, and the other cultural, have reconfigured Japan’s relation to the West and the Orient through the writings of Yukichi Fukuzawa, Ukichi Taguchi, and Kiyoshi Miki. The conundrum for those in the East is that under a civilizational, Eurocentric history, Asia is always already backward and stagnant, prompting a shift from engagement with civilizational history to cultural approaches to making history—thereby asserting historical agency. The tracing of modern Japan’s vexed relation to these two different types of historicisms enables one to contextualize the post-war debate and resultant stalemate on the subject of history. In Chapter Four, I show how after World War II the historical explanation of the causes of war, have worked towards effacing Japanese state agency in making war, which suspends the question of responsibility. In response to such a palimpsest state of agency, literary critic Norihiro Kato intervened to advocate for reconstituting Japan as a subject of history that could be held accountable. The history problem between Japan and her neighbors persists because this move towards constituting Japan as a subject of history once more is opposed within Japan, especially among those wary of how historians were recruited by the state during World War II and became complicit in mobilizing the masses.

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International Insitute for Asian Studies