The emergence of professional academic historians in Japan is the topic of a podcast given by Associate Professor of History Lisa Yoshikawa for the European Union-funded project “East Asian Uses of the Past: Tracing Braided Chronotypes.” Yoshikawa’s talk, titled “Professionalising Japan’s Past,” is one of 15 podcasts that focus on history and history-writing in East Asia from the 16th century to modern times.
“My episode is about how history is made,” says Yoshikawa. “History is a narrative—a story—that historians create out of selected aspects or readings of the past. I discussed how, for example, once imperial Japan colonized Korea in 1910, academic historians rewrote the history of Japan to justify the colonization.”
The modern discipline of history—studying the past through the analysis of primary sources—became common in imperial Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Introduced from Germany, the practice was initially difficult, says Yoshikawa. “Primary sources needed to be collected, organized and stored, scholars had to be trained, etc. Scholars trying to establish this field had to convince the rich and the powerful (i.e. government and business leaders as well as other elites) that the venture was worthwhile.”
They were successful, according to Yoshikawa, because their efforts coincided with Japan’s attempts to build itself into a modern nation state. Early historians supported this and “wrote narratives that made it sound natural for the Japanese modern nation-state to exist—by creating a certain kind of shared past for the Japanese,” she says.
As Japan’s leaders shifted to a period of empire building in the 20th century, historians rewrote the histories to reflect their imperialistic and nationalistic agendas, supporting Japan’s aggressive intrusions in Asia.
“By this time, academic history—the making of the past—was fully professionalized, but with a heavy ethical and moral price to pay—and not reluctantly, but with full enthusiasm,” says Yoshikawa. “Most of these historians genuinely loved the discipline of history and they genuinely supported the authoritarian and expansionist imperial Japan.”
In addition to the podcast, Yoshikawa traced the work of Japanese historians via a lecture and workshop in Zurich at a seminar held concurrently with the recording of the podcasts in September. The project is run jointly by teams from Heidelberg University, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, University of Zurich and the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.
Yoshikawa has been a member of the HWS faculty since 2006. She earned her M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees in history from Yale University, and a B.A. in history from Wellesley College.