Newsweek Japan recently devoted four cover stories to a series of two-hour special seminars led by Professor Carol Gluck, the George Sansom Professor of History at Columbia University. In these seminars Gluck engaged in spirited conversations with a group of around fifteen Columbia students on the subject of the public memory of World War II. The group of graduate students, with some undergraduates, included students educated in the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia. Professor Gluck’s forthcoming book, Past Obsessions: World War II in History and Memory, provided the interpretive framework for the sessions.
The resulting discussions were featured on the cover of four issues of Newsweek Japan magazine, with twelve pages in each issue devoted to the transcript of the discussion followed by an interview with Gluck by journalist Satoko Kogure on the topics covered in that particular session. Photos and brief biographies of a number of students appeared in the first issue, and the student responses to Gluck’s questions were identified by name throughout the four transcripts.
According to sources in Japan, the reception among Japanese readers and reviewers was positive, even enthusiastic, despite the controversial nature of such topics as the atomic bomb and the “comfort women,” the sex slaves of the wartime Japanese military. This response derived in part from the efforts of the group to view contentious issues of war memory in a global context rather than primarily from a single national or regional perspective. Readers and reviewers frequently commented on the frankness of the discussion, the calm openness of disagreement, and the vigorous give-and-take among students and moderator. They were especially struck by the Socratic style of teaching, which, while it may be familiar in Columbia classrooms, is not the pedagogical norm in Japan.
The four sessions appeared under these titles:
Timed to coincide with the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the conversation began by asking the students their views of Pearl Harbor, where those views came from, how the views differed in Japan and the U.S., whether such views had changed over time, and whether they belonged to the domain of history or of memory. The original war stories varied in different countries, but they were all extremely simple, black-and-white, national narratives, which reduced the complexities of history to the simplicities of memory. Whether the Pacific War for Japan, the Great Patriotic War for Russia, the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance for China, the Good War for the U.S., and so on, these simple stories lasted for decades, leading the group to conclude that memory prevails over history more often than they had realized.
The discussion focused on the way public memory is created, maintained, and altered over time. Among the four “terrains of memory,” the terrain of popular culture, media, films, and museums proves more important than official government views or school textbooks. War memory is both consumed in the popular terrain and also produced there by groups seeking public recognition for their own stories. In this regard, the group discussed the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York, the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles, as well as two war museums in Tokyo. When public memory changes, those changes often come from outside – international politics or pressure – and from below – memory activists in society bringing their story forward. In every case domestic and international politics provides the determining context for memory change, here illustrated by the misguided but frequently made comparison between war memory in postwar Japan and West Germany.
The main question in this session was how the “comfort women” in the military brothels of the Japanese army in wartime Asia “came into memory” over the course of the past twenty-five years. Their existence had been well known from the first, but because military brothels were common at the time their plight was “invisible” to public memory. Using the analysis of the “operations of memory” from the previous session, the students explored the convergence of different factors that made the comfort women so prominent an issue in geopolitical relations between Japan and South Korea, China, and other countries, and also a touchstone in the human rights of women, including the legal landmark that made wartime rape a crime against humanity in the statute establishing the International Criminal Court in 1998.
After some thoughts about the diverse war memories in China, South Korea, and the US, the discussion turned to views of the atomic bomb, noting how they differ between Japan and the United States. More generally, how do nations deal with bad pasts as well as good, and what are our responsibilities as citizens to understand our own national histories as well as those of others? The students responded to these challenges posed by public memory with a nuanced sense of how the politics and knowledge of the past can be used not only better to understand the past but also to better serve the future.
– Carol Gluck’s interview, Newsweek Japan, Session 1, “War Stories,” 12 December 2017
When asked what the words “Pearl Harbor” evoked, one American student responded “sneak attack,” while another said “surprise attack.” Where did they learn these terms and how do they differ?
This illustrates one difference between “history” as written by historians in history books and “public memory” as communicated in popular culture, mass media, national ceremonials, political speeches, and the like. A historian might use “surprise attack” to describe – accurately — the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but for any American alive on December 7 (8), 1941, “sneak attack” expressed the emotions, shock, and hostility toward Japan that spurred the US to national defense and war. For decades this pejorative term remained in common discourse, together with the negative feelings attached to it.
Every country has its own powerful war stories created either during the war or immediately afterward. Some of these stories last a long time in public memory; others change over the course of time. The Holocaust, the Nanjing Massacre, and the comfort women are examples of changes in public memory, while the atomic bombings represent a memory that has not much changed either in Japan or the US since 1945. For many younger Americans of the age of the students in this classroom, the memory of Pearl Harbor has indeed changed. What they know about Pearl Harbor – if they know anything at all – is that it was a Japanese attack that began the US involvement in World War II. The event seems to have shed its “anti-Japanese” aura, even for those who still call it a “sneak attack.” None of this happened from reading history books. It is the result of a change in public memory over time.
“Remember Pearl Harbor! was a ubiquitous wartime slogan that signified fervent enmity toward Japan and patriotic pride in America. But by 2016 Prime Minister Abe and President Obama stood together at the USS Arizona Memorial to remember Pearl Harbor. The event received more attention in Japan than in the US, where remembrance had long replaced anger.
On the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1991, you wrote that “one cannot commemorate the end of the war without the beginning; one cannot talk of peace without thinking of war.” What do Japanese think of Pearl Harbor now?
Japanese have long commemorated the atomic bombings and the surrender that ended the war in 1945, paying less attention to the beginning at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and almost entirely ignoring the real beginning of total war in China in 1937. In Hawaii Prime Minister Abe and President Obama spoke repeatedly of “reconciliation,” but their real message had as much or more to do with celebrating present-day Japanese-American relations as with World War II.
It is possible with the United States but not yet possible with China. Japanese recognize the attack on Pearl Harbor that began the war against the United States and the atomic bombings and surrender that ended it. The name “Pacific War” says it all: Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima is a Japanese-American story, crafted during the Occupation, and supported by decades of US-Japan alliance.
Missing is the China War. There is no dominant, widespread, popular Sino-Japanese story that begins at Marco Polo Bridge in 1937. Perhaps that is why some prominent Japanese find it possible to deny aggression in Asia and atrocities like Nanjing Massacre; these are not part of the main story of the war. They would scarcely think of “denying” Pearl Harbor, precisely because it is the beginning of the story that Japanese know so well. Reconciliation with China probably requires a new chronology that recognizes the beginning of the “Asia-Pacific War” in 1937 and the wartime atrocities that followed it.
What about Hiroshima? Even today most Americans think it was not wrong to drop the atomic bombs while Japanese public memory is still based on the long-ago vow of “never again.” So why is the US not required to face up to its own wartime actions, actions that initiated the age of nuclear war? Let’s discuss this curious phenomenon in our final meeting.
– Carol Gluck’s interview, Newsweek Japan, Session 2, “Operations of Memory,” 20 March 2018
You have said that the media are an important terrain of popular memory; how exactly do the media influence public memory of the war?
This is an important question for two reasons. First, because research has shown, globally, that the mass media constitute one of the main channels for views about the national past, more important than textbooks and similar to the films, television, and video games of popular culture. Views of the war are as often influenced by the latest movie or debate in the media as they are by what people learned in school.
Second, the media are often criticized for manipulating or distorting history, as if the media were free to create images of the past as they wish, without interaction with or influence from changing social, political, or moral values. In fact, the media both produce and are produced by those values. They are often quite literally the medium of memory, far less its master manipulator.
This social embeddedness accounts both for media advocacy, such as that of the Asahi newspaper on the comfort women issue in the 1990s, and media self-censorship, like the reticience of the press in regard to the war responsibility of the Shōwa emperor during his lifetime (a reticence that largely disappeared after his death).
Today, with media fragmentation and the expansion of social media, the influence of the media is less likely to reach “mass” audiences than self-selected communities of like-minded people who do not talk or listen to one another, thus intensifying bitter divisions in war memory even within one country, not to mention between them.
How does individual memory relate to the facts of the past, and how to tell the difference between what people remember and what happened?
Since, strictly speaking, only individuals can remember, any discussion of public memory must relate individual memory to the views of the war expressed in the media, popular culture, official speeches and the like. Neuroscientists explain that we do not “retrieve” our memories as if intact from a storehouse but rather that each time we remember something the brain “reconstructs” the memory from various components in different parts of the brain. This means that even the memories of events we ourselves experienced can be altered by many factors — age, psychology, social context, political trends, the latest film — which can (unconsciously) influence personal memory in the process of the brain’s reconstruction of that memory.
It is a bit more complicated than this, but nonetheless there is seldom a straight line between what the individual remembers about the war and what actually happened. We know, for example, that holocaust survivors, soldiers both victorious and vanquished, women raped by the Red Army in Berlin, and many others, chose not to talk about the violence and horror they had experienced. Some only spoke years later; and many never did. Those who did speak in later years were often responding to changes in war memory that now enabled, even welcomed, their stories. In short, the individual always remembers in a social context.
Individual memories of later generations who did not experience the war are created in similar ways, but more indirectly, remembering stories of stories rather than the war itself. Yet these “postmemories” can be as powerful as those of those with direct experience of the war.
– Carol Gluck’s interview, Newsweek Japan, Session 3, “The Comfort Women in Public Memory,” 27 March 2018
Having spent the third session on the comfort women, what did you think about the responses from each student? Did the answers surprise you, or were they within your expectations based on your idea of how memory works?
I was at first surprised by how much the students knew about the comfort women. A number of them learned about the comfort women in their university classes on East Asian history, something that would not have been true two decades ago. Others encountered the comfort women in newspaper and magazine accounts, underlining the importance of the media in the formation of public memory. Of course, this group as a whole knows more about Japanese and East Asian history than the average American, most of whose knowledge of World War II in Asia reaches little beyond Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. Although the comfort women became known to Asian-Americans, feminists, and human rights activists during the debates of the 1990s, it is only recently that the issue has reached wider publics, not least through the controversies over the statues of the comfort women erected in San Francisco, Atlanta, and elsewhere over the past several years.
Of course the views would be different for each student, regardless of nationality, but did you notice any particular differences among the Korean, Japanese, and American students in the way they approach the issue of the comfort women?
War memory is everywhere national, focusing on the experiences of one’s own country. Only over time (and not in all instances) does war memory broaden to include the perspectives of others, whether former enemy or ally. Even then, the close link between war and national identity tends to keep the nation central to the story, not only for those who experienced the war themselves but across subsequent generations. The Chinese, South Korean, Japanese, Korean-American, Indonesian, and American students in the group did indeed hold views of the war linked to their background, partly because of what they learned in schools in China, Japan, or the US, and partly because of what they learned from their parents, as in the case of second or third-generation Korean-Americans, who echoed Korean national memory by linking the comfort women issue to the decades of Japanese colonial rule in Korea. Those who seek reconciliation among the countries of East Asia have to reckon with the transgenerational force of such national memories.
With comfort women statues being erected in the United States, it seems the debate about the comfort women has reached the U.S. Have the comfort women already come into American public memory? If so, how did this happen and what is the story that is told about them?
Public memory is a process, not a thing; it changes over time, influenced by shifts in ideas, values, and political contexts. The comfort women came into public memory in the course of the 1990s as a result of a transnational process involving diverse actors in various contexts. Many people learned about the comfort women as a result of the debates surrounding them, which influenced public memory in East Asia and around the world. In short, public controversy fuels public memory. Periodic denials of the Holocaust or the Nanjing Massacre, for example, have had the opposite of their intended effect: they end up by imprinting the image of the atrocities more deeply in the public mind. Something similar is happening now with the controversy over the comfort women statues in the United States. The more Japanese officials protest the statues, the more Americans in these localities learn about the comfort women and the more the local issues are reported in the national media, thus broadening public awareness beyond the circles of activists or supporters. The comfort women have now become a part of the global memory of the wartime past as well as an example of the cause of the human rights of women in the present. Statues or no, it is therefore unlikely that they will be forgotten.
– Carol Gluck’s interview, Newsweek Japan, Session 4, “History and Responsibility,” 3 April 2018
You mentioned the moral ambiguity in regard to the dropping of the atomic bombs, and yet the dominant American story still justifies the use of the bomb. You said you do not know the reason, but can you please give us some of your thoughts on it?
As we have seen, the original war stories often last a very long time. This is true even though those stories are almost always too simple and too black-and-white to do justice to historical facts. Many Japanese, for example, still think of the “Pacific War,” from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, rather than the war in China, which began four years earlier, in July, 1937. (Take a look at the cover photo of the first and last issue in this series for evidence of the tenacity of this view.). Nearly all Americans consider World War II “the good war,” a battle against Nazi evil and military aggression. These stories began early and remain entrenched in public memory. This is also true of the simple narratives about the atomic bombs, which Americans say “ended the war and saved American lives.” For Japanese, the bomb bequeathed on Japan “its postwar mission for peace.” I suppose both stories have lasted in part because postwar history has supported them: a peaceful, prosperous Japan, the US-Japanese alliance, the threat of nuclear war, and so on. The moral question applies to area bombings as well as to the atomic bombs, since both resulted in massive and indiscriminate killing of civilians. In this increasingly nuclearized world, it would be good for everyone not only to remember the lesson of the atomic bombs, but also to understand the history of how and why they were developed and used. Otherwise, it could unthinkingly happen again.
You’ve been researching the topic of “war memory” for years. What was your motivation to start this study in the first place, and why do you still continue to do it?
I did not choose to research the memory of World War II; it chose me. Beginning with the 50th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre in 1987, followed by the 50th anniversaries of Pearl Harbor in 1991 and of the end of the war in 1995, I have been pursued by anniversaries, all the way to the 70th anniversary in 2015. When I was asked to comment on the wartime past as a historian, I found time and again that the various national memories of the war often distorted or ignored historical facts. I soon came to think of this as “good memory, bad history.” I began to research how war memory was formed and how it had changed, or not changed, in countries around the world. Understanding how public memory works was the first step toward trying to nudge it in the direction of “good memory, good history.” I would not say that my nudging has been all that successful, but I am not about to give up.
You asked each student about their takeaway from the conversation. Having concluded four sessions with students from different backgrounds, what is your takeaway and the takeaway for the future?
The students gave a very good account of what they learned from the discussions. Four words appeared repeatedly in the course of the four conversations: knowledge, perspective, respect, and responsibility. This seems to me an excellent guide to a better, fuller, more complicated memory of the Second World War. We need to know what happened, in our country and in others; we need to understand different perspectives, both nationally sand internationally; we need to respect those that are respectable and to acknowledge those judged to be wrong. And we need to take responsibility, not only to do justice to the past but also to help to create a better future. After all, the past is past; it is only the future that we can do something about.