Barbara Brooks Award 2017 City College of New York

Refuting the Culture of War Amnesia or Denial in Japan

This historiography on “war denial” or “war amnesia” in post-World War II Japan was recognized as an Outstanding Paper on East Asian History in May 2017 by the City College of New York History Department and received the Barbara Brooks Award.


Countries that suffered under the Japanese during World War II, like China and South Korea, have repeatedly called on the Japanese government to issue apologies for long-standing issues, like the Nanjing Massacre and the “comfort women” system.[1] These apologies have been forthcoming. For example, the Japanese government apologized to former comfort women in the 1993 Kono Statement. In 1995, Prime Minister Murayama expressed a general apology for Japanese war atrocities. In 2005, Prime Minister Koizumi reaffirmed the apology offered by Murayama in 1995. In 2010, Prime Minister Hatoyama visited Nanjing, China, and apologized for the atrocities committed there. Despite these consistent acknowledgments of and apologies for actions taken by the Japanese government during World War II, accusations that Japan has a “history problem” persist.

Does Japan have a problem with acknowledging its war history? This paper will examine the ways that scholars have addressed the issue of war memory in Japanese postwar culture. “War memory,” as a term, is somewhat vague and is applied to a variety of topics and ideas by the authors surveyed. It is sometimes used to refer to any situation, conflict or issue that stems from events or actions that occurred during the Asia-Pacific war. It may also imply a sense of guilt or responsibility, as well as the proper allocation of that guilt and responsibility to the deserving party or parties. It is in many ways a catch-all phrase, a broad term meant to associate a current problem with Japan’s actions during World War II, with the implication that Japan or a Japanese individual is acting in an improper way. Scholars have approached the topic of war memory from a variety of perspectives, but there is a clear thread linking their arguments: Japan does not, as China and South Korea claim, have a problem remembering their role in the war. Instead, the problem is how Japan’s role in the war has been remembered, why particular narratives have historically dominated the national consciousness, and how the Japanese people continue to choose to incorporate those memories into a national narrative.

In Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s) (2001), edited by Takashi Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama, the introduction (written by the above authors) looks at the way that memories of the war were constructed and how those memories were continually refigured to address contemporary issues. They believe that marginalized memories are in danger of being lost because they do not fit into existing narratives. They also feel that an examination of marginalized voices creates the possibility of a “positive” recovery and reinterpretation of events, experiences, and sentiments.[2] This statement comes across as rather vague, but most of their introduction deals with general outlines and larger ideas rather than specifics, which is reasonable considering they are introducing a volume of collected works.

The authors believe that the role of the U.S. in the postwar period had a major impact on the development of a national war memory narrative in Japan. First, the authors of the introduction are critical of the way that the Asia-Pacific War has been covered in previous scholarship as a binary clash between the U.S. and Japan. Framing the conflict in those terms ignores the longer wars in the region prior to December 7, 1941, as well as local perspectives. By moving the boundaries of the conversation beyond conventional binary diplomatic and military histories, they hope to illuminate the reasons why Asian nations, like China and South Korea, claim that Japan has a “history problem.” Specifically, the authors mention the legacy of the Cold War in dividing the world “along a single axis formed by the incommensurability of two utopian, ideological visions.”[3] They use Okinawa as an example, mentioning that the United States military presented itself as not only a conquering force but as a defender of freedom and democracy for Okinawa, Japan, and the entire world. Furthermore, the idea that the U.S. had saved Japan from Japanese military rule was emphasized throughout the occupation period, lasting from 1945-1952, and was included in the San Francisco Peace Treaty and U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that went into effect in 1952.[4] The authors do not present any conclusions about why the U.S. decided to commit to this course of action, but by placing blame for the war on the military, the U.S. allowed the Japanese public to deny personal responsibility.

Without going into details, the authors state that they believe the ongoing collapse of the Cold War order in East Asia has allowed for the development of new narratives and conflicts at the domestic and international level. This point could have been made more clearly if they had discussed the role the Cold War played in preventing the U.S.’s historical narrative in Japan from being challenged by China. The lack of details is a continuing issue with the introduction. It is written in an extremely general way that often does not include dates or other necessary information that would allow someone unfamiliar with the issues to easily understand their arguments. To their credit, they do mention that the development of new post-Cold War narratives is a process that results from the competition of multiple, competing voices within and across national boundaries, which acknowledges that there are scholars within Japan challenging the dominant narrative.[5]

The authors also examine counternarratives that attempt to romanticize or downplay the events of the past in order to create a Japanese historical narrative that is not “masochistic.” They note that there are “what if” novels and video games with simulated outcomes that aggrandize Japan’s role in the war and displace what they believe are actual memories of the events. They also note that manga artists, like Kobayashi Yoshinori, use manga as a medium to promote the view that the Japanese have been brainwashed into believing a critical history that deprives the Japanese of their national pride. Popular culture references that change or gloss over aspects of the war are discussed by the authors as though there is a clear, unified intent to misrepresent history. In some instances, that may be true, but “what if” novels may also be written wholly for entertainment value, or to be thought-provoking. The examples they choose to present in the introduction only support their point of view.

As an example, The Man in the High Castle, written by Philip K. Dick in 1963 is set in a fictional 1962 North America that is occupied by Japan and Germany. The book poses the question: “What if Japan and Germany won the war and divided the United States?” Granted, this is an American work of fiction, but it illustrates the question of whether only negative portrayals of Japan in World War II should be allowed in entertainment venues. The tone of the editors’ introduction leads one to believe that they feel no accurate detail (in their point of view) should be spared and that Japan should be seen in as negative a light as possible. Does Japanese history have to be masochistic? Is there no room to have a positive view of history that allows one to move forward without continuing to carry all of the baggage of World War II? Is there no room for entertainment?

Addressing the historiography on war memory, the editors discuss the role of the Liberal History Study Group, founded in 1995 by historian Fujioka Nobukatsu, in promoting a revisionist view of history. The authors feel that this revisionist trend is gaining ground, putting the marginalized memories represented in their volume at risk of being imperiled, or forgotten, which was the impetus for the title of the book. This does introduce a possibility of viewpoint bias. If they’re focused on not letting these imperiled memories disappear, the perspective presented in this volume will not be representative. Their goal is to promote specific agendas rather than balanced viewpoints. This same criticism was leveled against them when requesting funding for a conference that would have addressed the topics covered in this volume. Many of the authors included in the volume are activists rather than traditional historians. Ishihara Masaie was very active in protests against the Japanese and American domination of Okinawa. Chen Yingzhen was imprisoned for his critiques of the government in Taiwan. Utsumi Aiko collected oral histories of colonial experiences but was not trained as a historian. Lastly, Toyonaga Keisaburo was a high school teacher and principal who retired and engaged in grassroots political activism. So, it would be difficult to approach this volume without a fair degree of skepticism.

James J. Orr approaches war memory in Japan through the idea of victimhood and the mythologizing of victimhood in Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan (2001). Orr states that from the immediate postwar period to the 1960s, when Japan became a “mercantilist” success, the Japanese presented themselves as a cultured, peace-loving nation, with responsibility for the war placed on the military and government elites.[6] Orr presents the prevailing pacifist ideology as deriving from a feeling of victimization that developed among the Japanese public after the Asia-Pacific War ended. During the occupation period, U.S. authorities encouraged war victim consciousness to alienate the Japanese from the wartime state and its military. This built on psychological warfare efforts during the war that encouraged Japanese soldiers to allocate blame with their leaders, who led them into unwinnable situations. The goal of the U.S. Psychological Warfare Branch was to undermine morale, charge the military leadership with responsibility for the war, and encourage the surrender of Japanese troops. Shifting blame was a way to give the troops hope that they would not suffer if they surrendered.[7]

This policy was continued after the war, with MacArthur comparing the condition of the Japanese under their former government to a condition of slavery. This rhetoric was part of the process of converting the Japanese into a democratic nation. Because democracy places governing power in the people, the idea that the general Japanese population was not responsible for the acts of the country during the war was reinforced. Orr also points out that the focus on top leadership in the Tokyo War Crimes trials (1946-1948) encouraged people to disassociate themselves from personal responsibility. The purge of top government officials who might oppose occupation reforms also encouraged people to believe that it was the entrenched “system” that had caused the country to suffer.[8] This was problematic, considering that many of Japan’s postwar government leaders were also in positions of government power during the war, but Orr states that these conservative leaders were able to successfully adopt the language of Japanese war victimization in order to appeal to their electorates.[9]

The government’s opposition elements, the Communist and Socialist parties, became vocal opponents of the conservative government’s policy of remilitarization. To rally people to their cause, they utilized war memories of suffering, deprivation, and the victimhood that Japanese felt during World War II. They also consistently called on the conservative Japanese government to acknowledge Japan’s role as the aggressor in the Asia-Pacific War. This use of war memory as a political tool to protest rearmament reinforced the feeling that the wartime government, rather than the general populace, was responsible for the war.

Calls for acknowledgment of responsibility led what Orr identifies as “progressive activists” to take the lead in the formation of a peace movement to lobby against what they perceived to be the reversion of the postwar government to its prewar policy of militarism. The peace movement initially presented the role of the Japanese people collectively (as the masses, national citizenry, or ethnic nation, interchangeably) as being both victimizers and victims. However, because of the way the peace movement utilized personal Japanese accounts of war experiences to promote its agenda, Orr believes the vision of the Japanese as victims came to overshadow the Japanese role as victimizers. He writes that the role of victimizer was passed on to “the system,” the military, or to the militarist state.[10] This feeling of victimhood allowed members of the peace movement to sidestep the important issue of feeling responsible for Japan’s actions during the war. So, the idea that the Japanese as a whole were responsible for the actions of the government became a marginal narrative.

Orr notes that this mythology of victimhood reached its peak with the first postwar generation and then began to shift as people recognized themselves as past victimizers when they were faced with the realities of the U.S. role in the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The U.S. used bases built on Okinawa as a staging area for troops, as well as for launching bombing runs into Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Orr relates a trip made by members of a peace movement called Beheiren, founded in 1965 by Oda Makoto, to Hanoi in Vietnam. In 1966, Oda reflected on this trip in an essay, commenting that it was imperative that the Japanese people understand their role as victimizers if they were to avoid repeating the same errors in the future. Oda was specifically concerned that the U.S.-Japan Bilateral Security agreement would draw Japan into a war.[11] Orr indicates that there was a consistent narrative being pushed by social commentators that called on the Japanese to remember their role as aggressors in the war. This group included Okuma Nobuyuki and Nanbara Shigeru during the occupation, Kamei Katsuichiro and Maruyama Masao in the 1950s, and Shimizu Ikutaro and Sakamoto Yoshikazu in the years around the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Bilateral Security Agreement in 1960.[12] However, it is not clear how much impact they really had, because Orr also mentions that depictions of the Japanese as victims in popular media were prevalent throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It seems more likely that it wasn’t until after the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989 that debates about personal war responsibility became widespread in Japan as a public, rather than niche phenomenon.[13]

In War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005 (2008), Franziska Seraphim argues that questions of war memory and postwar responsibility have been a part of public political life in Japan from immediately after the war through the 2000s. She argues that the way war memory was used depended on specific historical factors, including international circumstances, domestic politics, and a shifting public culture. She is very adamant that questions of postwar responsibility and memory have been a part of public political life in Japan since the end of the war and argues against the idea that the Japanese are politically immature, have no sense of guilt, or have a culture of amnesia. Seraphim also addresses the issue of the creation of a national public memory. On the one hand, she says there is an ideal of a unified memory, whether it promotes pacifism or nationalism, that is promoted by Kato Norihiro in his book Haisengoron, for example. On the other hand, there is the messy, complex, history built around special interest politics, which Seraphim holds to be more true to actual events.[14]

According to Seraphim, the Japanese people became accustomed to seeing war memory as part of special interest representative politics and because of this, they saw war memory as an issue that did not concern the individual as an individual or the public as a national public.[15] She contends that the making and negotiating of war memory took place at the middle level of the political process between organized groups of citizens, their constituents, the state, and the larger public.[16] This approach breaks war memory down into specific categories of interest that were pursued by different portions of the Japanese population. There was no feeling of general responsibility for the war as a whole, but rather a diverse set of interests. This is a much more realistic approach to the topic of what an entire population might feel about an event as complex as the Asia-Pacific War.

Seraphim draws on the histories of five prominent civic organizations from across the political spectrum to illustrate her point, including the Association of Shinto Shrines, Association of War-Bereaved Families, Teachers’ Union, Japan-China Friendship Association, and Memorial Society for the Student-Soldiers Killed in War (referenced by the organization’s Japanese name, Wadatsumikai, moving forward). These groups represent a wide range of special interests, including religion, military family issues, anti-militarism, reconciliation with China, and pacifism. They also represent different political leanings in Japan. Organized in the 1950s, these groups established and dominated the use of war memories in special interest politics. These groups are adequately diverse to prove Seraphim’s point and cover issues that are still being debated today, including textbook revisionism, fears of remilitarization, and acknowledgment and reconciliation with China.

Like the editors of Perilous Memories, Seraphim acknowledges that the prevalent discourse on war memory was initially imposed on the Japanese people by the American occupation, which positioned Japan as the sole aggressor in the war. She also agrees with James Orr’s view of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials as a matter of “victor’s justice” that skipped over major issues like comfort women and biological warfare testing in Manchuria.[17]  She looks at the shift in war memory and responsibility from being primarily a domestic issue from the 1950s through the 1970s to one of international and broad public significance in Japan in the 1980s. What Seraphim is claiming is not that international, external events had no impact on Japanese war memory, but rather that these events did not change the competitive nature and utilization of war memory by the special interest groups she is reviewing.[18] She acknowledges the impact of the Vietnam War in forming groups like Beheiren. She also discusses normalization of government relations with South Korea in 1965 and China in 1972, as well as some of the associated problems that prevented an actual discourse of reconciliation. For example, the resumption of relations with South Korea was widely believed in both Japan and South Korea to be the result of business interests rather than a genuine concern for making amends for the past. In China, she cites the role of the government in suppressing the media as the reason there were no similar protests.[19]

Seraphim’s work covers a lot of ground, but it fails to address the public reaction to these special interest groups. The role of other nations in her work is slightly lacking, but her focus is on Japanese national politics and the development of war memory as a tool used by special interests leading up to the 1980s. In the 1980s and beyond, she discusses outside pressures, but only in terms of how the Japanese political body reacted to them. Perhaps her work could have benefited from giving more voice to these other countries, especially in her chapter on the issue of Japan offering apologies to Asian countries in the 1980s and beyond.

James Orr’s work, which presents all Japanese as experiencing a feeling of common victimhood with members of other Asian nations, presents a gap in public understanding of war responsibility that is contradicted by the other works surveyed in this paper, but especially by Takashi Yoshida in From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (2014). Yoshida argues that the Japanese understood their role as aggressors in the war immediately after Japan’s defeat as a result of an American “war guilt program” initiated during the occupation period. A problem with his understanding of war guilt, however, is that while he notes that the Japanese rejected the values and conduct of wartime Japan, he fails to address the distinction between the assignation of blame to the military and government elites versus a feeling of personal responsibility among the Japanese public.[20] This nuance being lost does not seriously detract from his examination of early peace movements and museums, however. In his analysis, Yoshida disagrees that Japan, as a nation, has a “history problem,” and attempts to challenge the assumption that all Japanese are committed to forgetting about or denying their imperial past. Instead, Yoshida presents the wartime Japanese populace as having believed in their government as a result of media propaganda and indoctrination.[21] Subsequent to their defeat, they came to grips with their role in the war as aggressors and evidence of this can be found in the peace museums that were constructed.

Yoshida presents the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as the primary driving force behind the establishment of the first peace museum. He details the development of an annual Peace Festival at Hiroshima, that began one year after the bomb dropped, into a world recognized event that initially had support from Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. Despite waning interest from the American government in the face of potential war with Korea and the onset of Cold War politics, Hiroshima’s mayor, Hamai Shinzo was able to secure funding from the Japanese Diet to help rebuild the city into a testament for peace. The Bikini Atoll / Lucky Dragon Five Incident in 1954 provided additional support from both the Japanese national public and international community.[22] In 1955, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was opened to display the effects of the atomic bomb on the city. As indicated in its name, the goal of the museum was to promote peace. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, originally established as the Nagasaki International Cultural Hall Atomic Bomb Museum in 1955, served the same purpose of promoting peace. These museums speak more to a feeling of victimhood and a commitment to pacifism than a real feeling of guilt for the war, however. It may be that Yoshido is conflating victimhood with a feeling of war responsibility.

Another set of museums included in Yoshida’s work have a more critical perspective. They include the Maruki Art Gallery (1967, Saitama), the Osaka Human Rights Museum (1985), the Korea Museum (2001, Tokyo) and the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (2005, Tokyo). These museums attempt to show the results of Japanese aggression. For example, the Osaka Human Rights Museum discusses the fact that Japanese citizenship was stripped from colonial migrants, while the Women’s Active Museum primarily commemorates the women forced into sexual servitude in the Japanese military’s “comfort women” system. These museums, which are driven by a pacifist agenda, display the devastating effects of the war on people’s lives in Asia and the Pacific.[23] Yoshida does not make it clear that the people who constructed these museums felt a sense of war guilt or responsibility, but it can be inferred from the types of exhibitions they put on display. Additionally, there is a gap of almost twenty-five years between the end of the war and the opening of the first museum listed that condemns Japanese aggression, which contradicts the notion that the Japanese people felt themselves to be personally responsible immediately after the end of the war.

Like Seraphim, Yoshida acknowledges that there are competing narratives of war memory in Japan. He discusses revisionist attempts to influence public discourse on war responsibility by analyzing the reopening of the Battleship Mikasa Memorial Museum and by discussing the role of the Yushukan war museum at Yasukuni Shrine. Both of these museums were reestablished in 1961. The Mikasa museum did not perform well initially, as a result of poor facilities and a lack of interest due to antiwar sentiment. Ironically, the museum received funding from American Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who turned over royalties to both an essay he wrote for Bungei shunju, a monthly journal, as well as royalties from the Japanese translation of a book he had written titled The Great Sea War. Additional donations were made by American sailors in Japan. The museum was supported by both the conservative Japanese government and the American government, who hoped it would help overcome pacifist sentiment in postwar Japan.[24] The Yushukan museum at Yasukuni shrine was only able to reopen a small display hall, called the Museum of Treasures Left Behind, in 1961. Incremental improvements were made and the full Yushukan museum was reopened in 1986, but it did not gain in popularity until after an expansion in 2002. Yushukan’s stated purpose is to honor war martyrs and reveal the “truth” about Japan’s military history, which gives the museum a pro-militarism perspective.[25]

In Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Undending Postwar (2015), Akiko Takenaka takes a similar approach by using a site to analyze the way that the Japanese have engaged with war memory in the postwar period. The approaches that Yoshida and Takenaka take are slightly different. Yoshida uses a series of sites to show how different collections have been curated to present a specific historical narrative that visitors from both Japan and abroad then engage with. In Takenaka’s case, she is instead discussing how narratives have been applied to a specific site, Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine, originally built in June 1869 to memorialize the spirits of 3,588 imperialist soldiers who died in the Boshin War, is a Shinto shrine and a war memorial in Tokyo where Japan’s 1868 – 1945 war casualties are collectively memorialized. In order to analyze the history of the shrine, Takenaka makes a distinction between the religious aspect of the site, the site itself as a physical location, and the war memory issues that have become tied up in the term “Yasukuni.” Enshrinement at Yasukuni was promoted as the greatest honor that a soldier could receive. Takenaka believes that this encouraged the devaluation of human life, leading to a greater loss of lives during the Asia-Pacific War. Because this idea of honorable sacrifice was promoted by the government, Japanese in the postwar period came to see it as another sign that they had been deceived by their government, further reinforcing the Japanese public’s notion of shared victimhood.[26]

When Class A war criminals were enshrined in Yasukuni in 1978, the site became a focal point for discussions related to Japan’s role as an aggressor in the Asia-Pacific War.[27] Because Japan is seen as the aggressor in the Asia-Pacific War by China and South Korea, it becomes problematic and controversial for state officials to visit the site and honor the war dead. Takenaka draws a comparison to the contradictions and problems inherent in the Vietnam War Memorial in the United States.[28] She states that many East Asian and Southeast Asian nations that suffered from Japan’s wartime aggression during the Asia-Pacific War have come to see official state visits to Yasukuni Shrine as a sign of Japan’s desire to rearm and engage in future military enterprises.[29] Takenaka argues that critics of Yasukuni have come to see the shrine itself as the source of postwar problems, rather than as a symbol of those problems and have proposed destroying the shrine or building a new shrine for Japan’s war dead, as if that will solve the underlying issues that exacerbate international tensions.

Takenaka does not believe that destroying the shrine is an effective solution. She believes that Yasukuni is being scapegoated by the Japanese public to avoid taking personal responsibility for the actions of the Japanese state during the war. Takenaka’s conception of the Japanese public’s sense of personal responsibility mirrors that of other authors reviewed in this paper. Because of the focus of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials on a select group of leaders, the transition to democracy, and the enshrinement of Class A war criminals in Yasukuni, the public was encouraged to disassociate themselves from any personal guilt. Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that as time passes there are fewer and fewer people left alive in Japan who served in the government during the war.[30] People no longer feel the need to take responsibility for something that occurred before they were born. Nor have any of the authors reviewed made a strong case for why the Japanese public should feel any responsibility for what the wartime government did in their name, either in the present or during the war. Takenaka reveals that many Japanese had no desire to be conscripted, that hardly any mentioned the emperor in letters sent home to parents, and many children mocked the emperor secretly.[31] There was some quiet dissent, but what mechanisms could the Japanese have used to halt the progress of Japanese imperialism? If elected officials were having trouble reigning in the Japanese military in Manchuria, would popular protest have accomplished anything?

In The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan (2015), Akiko Hashimoto uses three key war memory narratives – nationalism, pacifism, and reconciliation – to explore rising international tensions between Japan and China, Korea, and Russia because of unresolved issues leftover from the Asia-Pacific War, including territorial disputes, the Yasukuni issue, apologies and compensation for forced laborers and “comfort women,” and the treatment of POWs.[32] In her analysis, she attempts to understand why memories of national trauma have remained so relevant in Japanese culture so long after the actual event. She argues that war memory and defeat have become an indelible part of Japan’s culture. Like Seraphim, she identifies an increase in the intensity of war memory in public discourse after the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. Hashimoto focuses on the years between 1985 and 2015 and uses the narratives of the war that are circulated in families, popular media, and schools to examine how the Japanese public has come to terms with an inherited legacy of trauma, loss, guilt, and shame.[33]

Hashimoto argues that the trauma of defeat itself is the catalyst for revising historical narratives.[34] She positions the political debate about war memories as primarily concerned with national belonging and what it means to be Japanese.  She calls this a “project of repairing the moral backbone of a broken society,” recalling the argument made by revisionists about not wanting to promote a masochistic historical narrative mentioned in Perilous Memories.[35] She also identifies the Japanese conflict over its history as part of a larger trend where remembering the past has become part of the experience of forging a collective identity.[36] She is referring to the creation of national narratives as a force to bind a community together. In Japan’s case, this attempt to create a new national narrative is frustrated by internal divisions and external pressures from countries, like China and South Korea, as well as individuals seeking acknowledgment of or reparations for Japan’s wartime acts.

Hashimoto uses oral history, popular media and schools to analyze how war memory continues to impact Japanese society. She concludes that war memories are deeply encoded in everyday Japanese culture and are much more varied than the stereotypical claim that Japan has historical amnesia or a “history problem.” She goes a step further by arguing that there is no collective memory in Japan that promotes a single point of view. There are multiple historical narratives based on war memories that compete for legitimacy. She places these competing narratives into three general categories. The first category of narratives is the “fortunate fall” group, which justify the war and the sacrifices made as a necessary foundation for the peace and prosperity that Japan experiences in the present.[37] Takenaka references this theory as well, in the sense that the soldiers entombed in Yasukuni, and Yasukuni itself, are thought of as the cornerstone that modern, successful Japan is built on.[38] This narrative elides responsibility for starting the war by emphasizing the heroism of the Japanese and the necessity of the war for Japan’s later successes. Examples of this narrative in popular culture are the story of the Yamato, which is continually retold in films, documentaries, textbooks, and speeches. There are also popular movies, like Eternal Zero (2013) and Moon Light Summer (1993). The next category of narratives is the “catastrophe” group, which views the war as an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. These narratives position the Japanese public as fellow victims of the war. Nakazawa Keiji’s Barefoot Gen antiwar comic is a good example of this category, as well as the animated film Grave of the Fireflies (1988).[39] The third group of narratives is the “dark descent to hell,” which emphasize Japan’s role as the aggressor. This is the approach taken by Ienaga Saburo, a historian, and other scholars who promote a critical viewpoint of Japan as the aggressor in the war in textbooks, popular histories, novels, documentaries, and cartoons.[40]

Carol Gluck touches on the idea of competing narratives in an article titled “The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives” (2015). In discussing how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might approach his speech at this then upcoming event, she reflects on Abe’s previous statement that he wanted to make the past “more forward looking,” which is an interesting statement because it implies revising the historical narrative. Gluck believes that this is indeed what Abe meant by the term. His government and supporters want to produce a positive national narrative that will emphasize patriotism and downplay or not mention wartime atrocities. She notes that this is a path that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged for both Japan and South Korea, bringing to mind the arguments of other authors in this paper that note the role of the U.S. in creating and maintaining war memory related tensions between Japan and its neighbors.

In reviewing the work of these authors it becomes apparent that war memory is a very complex topic and Japanese national life has been, and continues to be, deeply impacted by the events of the Asia-Pacific War. Because of the policies of the U.S. government, both prior to and after Japan’s surrender, the Japanese public was greatly encouraged to disassociate themselves from personal responsibility for the nation’s role in the war. While there were some elements within the population that attempted to promote a collective sense of responsibility, their narrative was marginal until after the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. With the development of national histories that have competing claims on truth, Japan is coming to grips with the need to form a coherent historical narrative. How Japan’s history will be represented remains to be seen, though it is unrealistic to believe that the country will unanimously back a single narrative. The three dominant categories of “fortunate fall,” “catastrophe,” and “dark descent to hell” are in competition with each other and will likely remain that way until the events of the Asia-Pacific War fade into the distant past.

It is also unlikely that the Japanese public will suddenly assume a feeling of personal responsibility for the events of the Japanese nation during World War II. It is not even clear why they should, or whether it would be beneficial in any meaningful way. This could be an important area for further study. The authors reviewed all discuss feelings of personal responsibility among the general population, but they did not make an argument as to why the general population should be held responsible. Even in a democracy, are the people really responsible for the actions their government commits in their name? How much control did the Japanese people have over elected officials once they were in office? How much control did they have over the selection of candidates or the election process? What avenues could they have used to try to stop their government from continuing along the path to war, had they wanted to? It would also be interesting to look at comparative studies, to see how other populations have reacted when their governments have engaged in wars that are widely held to be unjust wars of aggression, like the U.S. war in Vietnam and Iraq, for example.


Footnotes

[1] Carol Gluck, et al., “The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives,” The Journal of Asian Studies (2015): 3.

[2] Takashi Fujitani, et al., Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s) (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 4-5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] James J. Orr, Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001), 2.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 19-20.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Franziska Seraphim, War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2000 (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008), 316.

[15] Ibid., 5.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 6.

[18] Ibid., 194-195, 261.

[19] Ibid., 194, 196, 204.

[20] Takashi Yoshida, From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (Portland: MerwinAsia, 2014), xiii, 14.

[21] Ibid., xiv.

[22] Ibid., 20-25.

[23] Ibid., 49, 100.

[24] Ibid., 145-148.

[25] Ibid., 148-151.

[26] Akiko Takenaka, Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 11.

[27] Ibid., 2.

[28] Ibid., 3.

[29] Ibid., 4-5.

[30] Ibid., 11-12.

[31] Ibid., 14.

[32] Akiko Hashimoto, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3.

[33] Ibid., 4.

[34] Ibid., 5.

[35] Ibid., 2.

[36] Ibid., 5.

[37] Ibid., 8.

[38] Akiko Takenaka, Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 17.

[39] Ibid., 13.

[40] Ibid., 14.

 

Bibliography

Fujitani, Takashi, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama. 2001. Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s). Durham: Duke University Press.

Gluck, Carol, Rana Mitter, and Charles K. Armstrong. 2015. “The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives.” The Journal of Asian Studies 1-7.

Hashimoto, Akiko. 2015. The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Orr, James J. 2001. Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Seraphim, Franziska. 2008. War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center.

Takenaka, Akiko. 2015. Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Yoshida, Takashi. 2014. From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea. Portland: MerwinAsia.

 

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark book cover image

Wide Awake: Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” and World War I

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an eminently readable account of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I. Written in a narrative style, but rich with detail and innovative arguments about the origins of the war, Clark’s work is meant for a general audience but will also appeal to scholars looking to broaden their understanding of the events leading up to World War I. Clark is well versed in his subject matter. He is currently the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University with a focus on European history. His prior works include a study of Christian-Jewish relations in Prussia (The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941, Oxford University Press, 1995), a general history of Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Penguin, 2006), and a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Longman, 2000).

In The Sleepwalkers, Clark attempts to fundamentally change the way the origins of the war are discussed. Rather than trying to make a claim about who bears the most responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, the author is instead more concerned with the agency of individuals within the state power structures, the decisions they made, and why. Using a wealth of primary documents in state archives as well as secondary sources, Clark brings these “characters” to life in a story that begins with the assassination of King Alexander and Queen Draga in Serbia in June of 1903 and ends with European mobilization in August of 1914.

The scope of Clark’s narrative is impressive, despite being limited. The focus is placed primarily on Serbia, the Habsburg Empire, Russia, Germany, and France. Clark goes into detail regarding meetings, conversations, letters, and press publications in these countries. Other nations that played important roles in World War I are only touched upon briefly, including Italy, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire. Does it make sense to limit the narrative to these countries? For the most part, yes. Clark demonstrates that the rivalries between Russia and the Habsburgs and between the French and the Germans were the driving forces behind the outbreak of war; the assassination of the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria-Hungary by Serbian assassins was simply a pretext used by these nations to pursue other goals. On the other hand, Clark positions the ongoing decline of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of Ottoman lands to other states as a primary cause of continuing unrest not only in the Balkans, but in Europe as well. If the loss of Libya to Italy and Russia’s longstanding conflict with the Ottomans over the Dardanelles and Bosphorus was so crucial in laying the groundwork for the events that led up to World War I, why was the Ottoman Empire (the so-called “sick man of Europe”) not given a greater place at the table in Clark’s narrative?

The role Clark attributes to the Ottoman Empire in The Sleepwalkers ties into one of his larger themes, in which he presents the alliance bloc system as a driving force behind the outbreak of hostilities. The new bi-polar system (Entente vs Central Powers) developed out of an earlier multi-polar system which hinged on the maintenance of the status quo, including the propping up of the Ottoman Empire as a vital part of the European political establishment. The formation of powerful alliance blocs coupled with the linkage of diplomacy to military power, as well as the lack of available colonial territories to barter and trade away in international diplomacy, created a situation that was inherently volatile. Clark writes that war was not inevitable, that it was the result of actions taken by individuals. The evidence Clark presents strongly supports his thesis. Clark clearly shows that the French elite were agitating for war to regain territories previously lost to Germany. Russian elites were looking for an excuse to finally capture the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. They understood that they would likely trigger a continental war, but decided to push forward with their plans anyway. These players were not sleepwalking towards war; they were wide awake, even if they were unaware of the scale of the consequences their actions would bring.

One of the larger problems with Clark’s work is that he places so much emphasis on Serbia and Serbian history when his narrative clearly shows that events in Serbia and Sarajevo were merely a pretext that France and Russia used to start a war that they hoped would allow them to achieve their own national goals. The amount of space in the book devoted to Serbian history seems disproportionate to the country’s influence on events. Without Russian backing, would a larger continental war have started at all? In his introduction, Clark writes that he is not interested in placing blame, but based on the evidence he presents, Russia is responsible for the start of World War I. Serbia was not a part of the Entente Alliance of 1907. Had Russia not intervened on its behalf, the treaty stipulations would not have been triggered. Germany, by contrast, comes across as an underdog in The Sleepwalkers.

Two minor issues stood out to me in this book. One is the mention of but lack of development of the idea that a new trend in masculinity affected diplomatic relations between the countries involved. The second is the repeated use of “public opinion” to explain events without developing the reader’s understanding of the actual relationship between the media or government and the public. Who was “the public”? The elite, or all classes? What was the literacy rate? Did people consume news by reading or through word-of-mouth in public spaces? Did people understand that some news was camouflaged diplomacy? Clark indicates that the outbreak of war surprised rural populations in Russia and France and they did not understand what was going on, so how could “public opinion” have played such a crucial role in government policy formation?

Overall, Clark’s presentation of the backdrop to World War I in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is brilliant. It is written in a way that is informative and yet entertaining. He opens an old topic to fresh discussion by revealing the complicated web of interactions between individuals in the state governmental systems, calling into question anew who is responsible for the start of World War I, even if that is not the author’s intention. More importantly, Clark’s work is a solid reminder that wars do not start themselves; people start wars and bad decisions by people in key positions can have devastating consequences.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Do They Worship the Same God?

A common refrain on message boards and in comment sections on the Internet is that Jews, Christians and most especially Muslims do not worship the same God. Is there any merit to this statement? All three religions are part of the Abrahamic tradition and find their roots in the ancient Hebrew faith. Modern Judaism developed after the fall of the Second Temple in 72 CE. Christianity as we know it today probably began with Paul’s teachings and solidified with the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, though it began as a Jewish movement around 30 CE. Islam, the newest (or oldest, depending on your religious perspective) of the three religions dates its beginning to approximately 610 CE and both draws and builds on Jewish and Christian religious traditions. All three religions share stories and in some cases texts. All three claim to be worshipping the God of the Patriarchs. All three also clearly conceive of God in different ways. Do we judge whether they worship the same God based on their own claims, or on their understandings of the nature of God?

A related video on the topic from YouTube:

In “The Perspective of at-Tawhid” (1983), Muhammad ‘Abdul Haq argues that there is a distinct difference between the monotheisms practiced by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Writing from an Islamic perspective, the foundation of ‘Abdul Haq’s argument is the differing conceptions that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have about the unity (at-Tawhid) of God. He is critical of both Jews and Christians and believes that, because of their diverging religious traditions, they have an imperfect understanding of monotheism.

‘Abdul Haq argues that, while Islam places ultimate importance on the concept of the divine unity of God, both Judaism and Christianity are based on divine manifestation in history. He links the idea of monotheism in Judaism with the concept of ‘chosenness’ and the pact made at Mount Sinai. Because of this, he feels that it is impossible to disassociate the God of Judaism from the Jewish people as an ethnic group, making the conception of the Jewish God contingent on a historical event. Regarding Christianity, ‘Abdul Haq points out that everything revolves around the person of Jesus Christ and the events of his life, which also roots Christianity firmly into history.

The author believes Judaism and Christianity’s entrance into history is important because it differentiates them from Islam, which he claims has an absolute truth versus the formers’ relative truth. In other words, Islam sees God as being utterly transcendent and beyond our conception while both Judaism and Christianity place God in history, thereby restricting his essence. One could also argue that God sending Gabriel to reveal the Quran to Muhammad was an intervention in history. However, the difference is that in Judaism and Christianity, God Himself appears in history, while in Islam He works through an intermediary, Gabriel. The result is the same: an intervention in history, but the method is what sets Islam apart. Muslims see God as being beyond history, because entering history would necessarily restrict or limit his essence.[1]

He also states that Judaism monopolizes and nationalizes monotheism and prophecy.[2] This is not actually, true, however. While it was perhaps not always the case, modern Judaism does have a conception of God as being universal. This is not a new development, either. The Noahide Laws in Genesis, which are seven rules that apply to non-Jews, provide redemption for those who follow them. Essentially, it is a path to participation in monotheism without being Jewish. There is, of course, still a difference between inclusion in the covenant community and being a part of the Noahide community, but this still contradicts ‘Abdul Haq’s point.

Christanity, like Islam, has a universal message, but the author is still critical of the concept of the Trinity, which he bluntly states is not monotheism, regardless of how the explanation is framed.[3] Returning to the idea of God’s essence, he writes that “Judaism and Christianity have failed to evaluate the true worth of Divine Unity, the incommensurable nature of which signifies that there is no common measure between the finite and the Infinite.”[4] Breaking God down into parts is counter to Islam’s idea of God’s unity, which cannot be subdivided or contained.

Another way to look at the similarities and differences between the Abrahamic religions’ conceptions of God is by comparing their revelatory and mission structures. Martin Jaffee does this well in his article, “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism” (2001). Jaffee engages with the symbolic structures of the Abrahamic religions to show that they are constructed in a way that brings them into almost inevitable conflict. He believes that their structural similarities, along with the decline in polytheism as a viable competing model of piety, explains what Jaffee calls their obsessive self-definition “over against” each other.[5]

Essentially, Jaffee looks at how the Abrahamic communities see themselves in relation to God and how they see their mission in history. For Israel, the “divine self-disclosure” comes in the form of human language via the Torah, a scriptural set of commandments passed down to man.[6] In Christianity, the divine self-disclosure comes in the form of Jesus’ historical life. This is distinct from Judaism, because it is not revelation transmitted in the form of human language. In Islam, the form of divine self-disclosure is textual, like it was in Judaism. The position that Islam takes on the previous two divine self-disclosures is that people altered the original texts and changed their meanings, which is what necessitated the third divine self-disclosure. Islam sees the Quran as a corrective that is meant to reestablish monotheism as universal and inviolable. This does not imply that Islam sees the Jewish and Christian views of God as the same or valid, however.

Writing in response to Jaffee, Yehezkel Landau attempts to bridge that gap in “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships” (2015), an article that presents Christianity and Islam as legitimate, additional covenants between man and God. Landau asks, “[C]an monotheism be pluralistic, …that is, if God is One, how can different understandings of that Oneness be valid?”[7] Landau is attempting to present the God of the Torah as the same God worshipped in Christianity and Islam. He does this by finding a precedent in the Torah and then explains how Christianity and Islam fit into that existing pattern.

When people think of God’s covenant with Israel, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the covenant with Abram / Abraham that includes circumcision and a promise to make Abraham’s descendants plentiful. Landau argues instead that there are many covenants in the Torah that apply not only to Jews, but to all nations, starting with the covenant of the Sabbath. He notes that in Isaiah 56:1-7, Sabbath observance also applies to any stranger or foreigner that chooses to “join himself to the Eternal.”[8] The next covenant Landau reviews is the Noahide Covenant, which binds God, all human beings, and other living things on Earth. Lastly, Landau discusses the significance of the Abrahamic Covenant and Abraham’s role as the progenitor of both Israel and the Arabs, linking God’s covenant to Islam. The idea is, perhaps, to imply that part of God’s promise to Abraham is being carried out through the descendants of his son, Ishmael, as well as through Jacob / Israel.[9]

Landau casually dismisses non-Orthodox positions on religious pluralism, which is disappointing in a paper written to supposedly present a Jewish viewpoint. He simply states that they are more likely to be open to religious pluralism since they don’t follow halakha as strictly. It would have been more interesting and informative to see what the major Jewish denominational positions are, rather than having them dismissed out of hand, especially since most Jews are not Orthodox. In Landau’s defense, it is possible he believes his primary audience will be those who are not yet convinced and by his reasoning those people would tend to be Orthodox.

Another problem in Landau’s article is that he draws on the work of an Orthodox Rabbi named Irving Greenburg to tie Christianity into his argument of multiple covenants. Greenburg argues that covenant develops in stages. He specifically points out the change in Jewish practice after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple as an example of an unfolding covenant. Greenburg sees Christianity as a natural outgrowth of the Hebrew faith and as a part of God’s design.[10] This argument does not make sense. If Christianity is part of God’s plan, and Christianity’s goal is to convert everyone to Christianity, then Greenburg is essentially arguing that Judaism should disappear. Landau quotes Greenburg at length. In one of the quotes, Greenburg attempts to position Christians as part of the house of Israel with the common goal of defending a unified religious tradition and the state of Israel against Islam.[11] While Landau criticizes Greenburg for taking this stance, he fails to realize that this undermines Greenburg’s entire argument, which comes across as a veiled appeal to Christian Zionists to begin or maintain support for the state of Israel.

‘Abdul Haq, Jaffee and Landau each take up the issue of whether the three Abrahamic religions are worshipping the same God from different perspectives and each comes up with different answers. While ‘Abdul Haq never states outright whether he thinks the God of Judaism and Christianity are the same deity being worshipped in Islam, it seems likely that he would say they are not. He pointedly criticizes the Christian concept of the Trinity, which he feels is certainly not monotheism. He also contends that Jews are worshipping a restricted sense of God in the form of a tribal rather than universal deity, though this is not actually the case. Jaffee points out that while each group believes they have received a divine self-disclosure, that disclosure came in different forms. Judaism and Islam received textual revelations, while Christianity believes God revealed himself in the form of a human being. This points to a difference in each religion’s understanding of God based on their belief in how He disclosed Himself. Landau makes a strong attempt to reconcile these differences by arguing for an ongoing covenantal system in which God forms many, rather than one covenant, but his solution only approaches the problem from a Jewish theological perspective, ignoring the fact that reconciliation will require a combined approach. His argument regarding the inclusion of Christians in an extended covenant is also flawed because it is based on a questionable source.

Do these three faiths have the same God? That is debatable. All three traditions clearly stem from the same source, but is that the only qualifier for having the same deity? I would argue that there is more to be said for how a person conceives of God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not think of the same God when they imagine Him/It. On the other hand, how can Man conceive of the inconceivable? For Christians, this gap is bridged through God’s revelation as Jesus, but in Christian theology that is a manifestation or aspect of the Infinite rather than the Infinite itself. It would be just as reasonable to say that each religion understands and worships God in slightly different ways because Man can never totally comprehend God.


[1] Muhammad ‘Abdul Haq, “The Perspective of at-Tawhid,” Islamic Studies 22.3 (1983): 3, accessed November 21, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20847235.

[2] Ibid., 1-2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Martin S. Jaffee, “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69.4 (2001): 756, accessed November 21, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1466340.

[6] Ibid., 766.

[7] Yehezkel Landau, “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships,” Crosscurrents (2015): 57, accessed November 21, 2016.

[8] Ibid., 60-61.

[9] Ibid., 64.

[10] Ibid., 69.

[11] Ibid., 71.


References

 

‘Abdul Haq, Muhammad. 1983. “The Perspective of at-Tawhid.” Islamic Studies (Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad) 22 (3): 1-19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20847235.

Jaffee, Martin S. 2001. “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Oxford University Press) 69 (4): 753-775. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1466340.

Landau, Yehezkel. 2015. “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships.” Crosscurrents 57-79.

 

Bible in Pop Culture Week 7: Cartman’s Favorite Psalm

In episode nine of season four of South Park, titled “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?”, we find out what Cartman’s favorite Psalm is. The episode starts with Stan, Cartman and Kenny sitting in church. Mr. Garrison is called up to the lectern to read his favorite Psalm. As Mr. Garrison begins to read, Cartman leans over his pew and tells Stan and Kenny his favorite Psalm is: “It’s a man’s obligation to stick his boneration in a woman’s separation. This sort of penetration will increase the population of the younger generation.”

Father Maxi, the church’s priest, catches the boys repeating this Psalm and delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon to the congregation, criticizing the children for not going to Sunday school and the parents for not going to confession. Father Maxi’s depiction of Hell terrifies the kids and they wind up rushing off to Sunday school to learn how to avoid swimming in the lake of fire. They learn that they must go to confession and take Communion. Problems arise when they realize that Kyle is a Jew and is going to go to Hell and that Timmy, a mentally handicapped boy that can only say his name, is unable to give a confession, meaning that he will also wind up in Hell. The boys become increasingly terrified and rush to the church to confess. On the way, a bus strikes Kenny and he is apparently killed.

Meanwhile, in Hell, Satan is celebrating Luau Sunday with his friends, Conan O’Brien, Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, John F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., Princess Diana Spencer, Michael Landon, Mao Tse-Tung, Gene Siskel, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia, Tiny Tim, Walter Matthau, Bob Hope, George Burns, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

Book Review: Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, by Kevin Kenny

Kevin Kenny’s book, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, is part of a series of short introductions on a wide range of topics published by the Oxford University Press. As a very short introduction with just 109 pages of content, Kenny does his best to avoid becoming bogged down in historical details and instead focuses on elucidating the theoretical framework of diaspora itself. Kenny argues that the term diaspora has been used in so wide a variety of situations that it has begun to lose its utility as a tool of study. To combat this trend, Kenny tries to narrow the definition of diaspora by identifying three key attributes that diasporic groups possess: movement, connectivity, and return. He supports and expands on this framework for diaspora by analyzing a geographically diverse range of population movements.

Kenny’s conception of diaspora is heavily rooted in Jewish tradition. He traces the word diaspora back to its use in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures from approximately 250 BCE. He argues that the Jewish understanding of diaspora, which was originally meant to convey the idea of spiritual estrangement from God, became conflated with galut, a Hebrew word which means physical exile (Kenny, 4-5). So, the Jews saw physical and spiritual exile from the land as being part of the same experience or process. Kenny positions this process of catastrophe, forced movement and a hope for redemption through return as the most useful structure of diaspora as a concept.

Is Kenny’s understanding of diaspora sound? Does it make sense to only apply the term diaspora if a migratory group’s situation conforms to the Jewish experience of exile and a hoped for divine redemption, or does that privilege Western understandings of history unnecessarily? One could argue that a word must have a set meaning, but the meanings of words have always changed over time. Also, for an academic study, it might make more sense to define a term in a way that does not rely on a specific set of religious ideas, especially if the goal is to make it generally applicable for groups of differing religious and cultural backgrounds. Because of how Kenny positions the idea of diaspora, at times it feels as if he is stretching the experience of the immigrant groups he examines to push them into the box he has built. He also fails to examine in any meaningful way the experiences of groups that would challenge his construction of diaspora. That may not be a fair critique for a very short introduction, but considering his conjecture that there are many opposing viewpoints of what constitutes a diaspora, including an example could have benefitted readers. Also, if Kenny is committed to the idea of scholars having the obligation to create a specific definition of diaspora and maintain it, why does he backpedal in his closing chapter by asking, “But if a given group chooses to define itself as a diaspora for its own purposes, who is the author of a short introduction to disagree? (Kenny, 109).

Kenny’s book is arranged thematically, rather than by group. He defines how he understands diaspora in chapter one and then spends the next three chapters expanding on the experiences of a handful of groups to elaborate on that definition. On the one hand, arranging his book this way makes it difficult to follow the individual experiences of the groups he reviews. In most cases, there are no chapter subheadings to orient the reader if they were interested in just one group’s experiences, making the reading experience potentially more laborious. Arranging his book thematically also leads to the repetition of information in some cases, which is space that could have been used for opposing views or the analysis of additional groups. On the other hand, organizing the book thematically allows the reader to clearly see the similarities between the experiences of the different groups, which better suits the author’s purpose of attempting to define diaspora.

Kenny’s first qualifier for a group to be a diaspora is an initial movement from a homeland. This movement must have a catastrophic element that creates a sense of imposed exile. Because of his concern for overextending the use of the word diaspora, Kenny is careful when discussing the history of the migration of different groups to differentiate between normal migration and a forced migration that creates a diaspora. His best example to support this idea is his discussion of the continuous migration of Irish to other countries over a period of hundreds of years, beginning in the 1700s. He points out that it was the potato blight in 1841to1855, which caused massive famine and a sudden, massive increase in the number of people migrating out of Ireland that was the defining moment in the creation of an Irish diaspora. The Irish who went abroad blamed England for their circumstances and for the deaths caused by the famine. They felt that England engineered the blight to eradicate them. This feeling of oppression created a sense of exile that reinforced their identity as a diasporic community. He also shows how the Jewish diasporic community suffered a catastrophic event that began a period of diaspora, though he oddly positions the beginning of diaspora in 586 BCE with the Babylonian exile. While historically accurate, Jews see exile and return as cyclical and the most recent exile, imposed by the Romans in 70 CE after they destroyed the Second Temple was the defining event for the majority of diasporic Jews. It marked the end of Jewish sovereignty for approximately two-thousand years and, unlike the Babylonian exile, removed almost the entirety of the population from the area.

Kenny’s second qualifier is connectivity. This is an interesting idea, but it does not seem as well-developed as Kenny’s explanations of either the initial migration or of the desire for return. Or rather, it seems that in each category a different group fits more neatly into Kenny’s definition of diaspora. For the initial migration, Irish and Jews clearly fit into the model of catastrophe leading to diaspora. For Africans, there was certainly a catastrophic event, but Kenny points out that Africans were victims of being sold into slavery in other parts of the world as well. Kenny attempts to downplay the experiences of African slaves in other areas of the world to bolster his claim that Atlantic slavery was definitive in creating an African diaspora. It seems more likely, however, that rather than the initial experience of being sold into slavery, it was racialization that created a feeling of commonality between Africans, which is something that Kenny brings up, but only in the sense that it created a sense of connectivity among Africans in the Atlantic world. This brings up another point. What is connectivity? Did Africans in South America actively communicate with Africans in the southeast United States or the Caribbean? Or is Kenny simply referring to a feeling of solidarity and common experience?

The third qualifier, which focuses on the idea of return, is the most interesting. Kenny focuses on the fact that many members of diasporic communities may not choose to return, even when given the opportunity. He oddly situates a discussion of this regarding Indians in South America in the chapter dealing with connectivity, but it is relevant here as well. This speaks to Kenny’s definition of the desire to return as being a desire to return a homeland that may be more imagined than real. His explanation of return focuses most heavily on the Jewish experience and the Rastafari movement. The Jewish experience was extremely informative because it shows what can happen when a diasporic group attempts to become a singular nation. The differences between the waves of immigrants that arrived in Israel shows that life in the diaspora has an effect on migrant groups. They become partially assimilated the cultures they live in. One could almost say that they stop being part of the same group in almost every sense of the word, becoming something in-between, rather like the Japanese experience in the American west. This is something that Kenny touches on when discussing the reasons why diasporic groups may choose to remain outside of their homeland. His discussion of the Rastafari movement was fascinating, though it seemed out of place. Kenny attempted to present the entire African diaspora in the Atlantic as connected, but used the experience of one group to show a general desire for return to Africa.

There were other odd additions to Kenny’s narrative that seemed out of place. One was the long discussion of the Palestinians in the chapter on return. Why add in a new group of people but only discuss them in a specific chapter, rather than as a part of the whole narrative? This may have been a limitation of the decision he made to structure his book thematically, but if that were the case, it may have presented a cleaner narrative if the Palestinians had not been included. However, since they were included in the narrative, the way they were approached feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than describing in excessive detail the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, Kenny could have examined the Palestinians as a diaspora. Even more, he could have looked at the dynamics between the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas and discussed how they affect, or possibly reinforce each other. Another odd inclusion was the discussion of ancient human migrations out of Africa. Was this necessary for a discussion on diaspora?

Despite any problems that Kenny’s book may have, he is tackling a topic that is hard to define and hard to discuss, especially in a very short introduction. With a book this short, Kenny necessarily must take a certain point of view and stay with it. His desire to give the term diaspora a set meaning is reasonable, especially if we want the term to be useful as a tool for studying migration, and he presents a definition that seems to fit the groups he chooses for analysis reasonably well. Kenny spent time on subjects that were not necessary to his topic, but they do not detract from the book in a serious way. He also seems to broaden and bend his definition based on the group he is analyzing. As an introduction to diaspora, this book is well worth the time it takes to read and, if the reader has more questions, Kenny provides a list for further reading based on chapter.

 

References

Kenny, Kevin. 2013. Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Universy Press.