Akiko Hashimoto. The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 208 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-023916-9; $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-023915-2.
Reviewed by Dustin Wright (University of California Santa Cruz)
Published on H-War (November, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Akiko Hashimoto’s excellent book, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan, comes at a moment when the Japanese government is, against the wishes of a majority of the population, reinterpreting the country’s pacifist constitution to allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to join military coalitions for offensive military expeditions. This summer, thousands of young people throughout the country have rallied to protest against these revisions as well as against the overall administration of the current prime minister, Shinzō Abe. Memories of the war inform all sides of the debate surrounding the push to remilitarize Japan. Thanks to Hashimoto, a longtime sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, readers will come away from her book with a greater understanding of how a nation with such “a conflictive and polyphonic public discourse” on the memory of the war has been able to maintain a nominally pacifist stance despite existing in a geopolitical hotbed of military tension (p. 14).
By drawing from a wide body of sociological and historical methodologies, Hashimoto offers us a clear and jargon-free assessment of the intellectual and political battles that continue long after the war ended, particularly in the years spanning the 1990s through the 2010s. “Today,” writes Hashimoto, “we live in an emerging ‘culture of memory’ where remembering the national past has become vitally relevant for living in the present” (p. 5). The culture of memory can be produced through multiple mediums, including textbooks, museums, manga, ceremonies, and films, all of which make appearances in Hashimoto’s work.
The book will be of great value to those who are interested in understanding how societies and states grapple with “cultural traumas,” a concept Hashimoto borrowed from Jeffrey Alexander, who defined such traumas as those that occur “when members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness” (p. 4). Cataclysmic events and moments like total war linger in the air long after peace is achieved, leaving behind a traumatized population that yearns to overcome the anguish. Understanding this process of overcoming the war is a major focus of The Long Defeat.
The introductory chapter provides a useful background into historical memory as it has been understood in academia. Hashimoto argues that “memory narratives do not render definitive truths,” but are rather “vehicles of communication that reveal the attachments and anxieties of the narrators in negotiating their self-identity” (p. 21). For chapter 2, much of the author’s data come from war testimonials collected and published by Japan’s prominent publishers, including the largest newspapers, the center-right Yomiuri Shimbun and the center-left Asahi Shimbum, as well as monthlies like the conservative Bungei Shungū. Given that there is such an immense public record of war testimonials published in Japan, we are indebted to Hashimoto for her labor sifting through these collections. That she brings these sources to an Anglophone audience is a significant contribution to the field of Japanese war memories. In the 1990s, scholars translated the war experiences of everyday Japanese, though these projects were less concerned with understanding the process of war memory and more concerned with preservation. These important collections included Frank Gibney and Beth Cary’s Sensō: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War (1995) and Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore Cook’s Japan at War: An Oral History (1992), both of which were produced out of a moment when many were recognizing that the war generation was getting older and disappearing, a fact driven home by Emperor Hirohito’s death in 1989. National dailies like the Asahi solicited letters from their readers to share their war experiences or the stories they heard from family (the translations of which became Sensō). Some of these letters, and the testimonies that Hashimoto has translated, often suggest that many people pursued some level of “biographical repair,” which she defines as a “hermeneutical reconstruction that glosses over what is difficult to talk about, and passes over what is difficult to listen to” (p. 27). This helps to explain why many children might not have pressed their fathers to tell stories about the war, or why so many people never talked of their own war experiences. It was not amnesia, but rather a desire to not know, because you understand that once you learn that your father killed civilians, everything that follows will be irrevocably changed.
Chapter 3 tells us how many in Japan have grappled with and perceived the heroes, victims, and perpetrators of the war. It can be a difficult task to assign any one label to a person who lived through the war; by the summer of 1945, many people could have been considered all three. It is the pause for historical reflection in the 1990s that opens up a new moment for the nation to reflect on these various war narratives, which is why Hashimoto chose to begin her study with this time period. It was also during this decade that surviving victims of Japan’s war and colonization of Asia—most notably, but not limited to, the military’s “comfort women”—began to voice their experiences and demands for restitution. The explosion of these “perpetrator narratives” subsequently informed the nationalistic “attempts to rehabilitate national image” that followed (p. 66).
But what do Japanese really know about the war, and importantly, what do they understand about Japan’s aggression? Many outside of Japan often have the impression that Japanese school textbooks wholly neglect to address Japan’s aggression and violence in the war, or that much of the public resides in complete ignorance of Japan’s modern history before 1945. In chapter 4, Hashimoto complicates this standard trope by putting several of Japan’s most widely read history and civic textbooks under the microscope. What we see are varying degrees of attention given to the war, including Japan’s own responsibility. Textbooks tend to differ on whether or not the war was one of choice or necessity. Regardless of that distinction, Hashimoto concludes that “the ultimate moral message taken away in both cases is that the Japanese state acted recklessly at a crucial time in history and failed its people monumentally” (p. 93). War as a right of the state is almost always condemned. Despite giving the reader such an understanding of the powerfully unpatriotic educational milieu many children experience in Japan, one cannot help but be shocked by some of the figures Hashimoto delivers: only 15-33 percent (depending on the survey) of Japanese say they are willing to fight for their country, which ranks 71st among seventy-four nations in level of professed patriotism. Moreover, only 11-13 percent of Japanese high school students take pride in their national anthem and national flag, compared to 54-55 percent in the United States and 48-50 percent in China (pp. 114-115). It is easy to see why so many thousands of Japanese youth have spent this summer protesting in the streets against the Abe government’s moves toward remilitarization, partly a reflection of the “peace education” that is common in Japanese schools.
Hashimoto is quick, however, to remind us of the other effects of such education, which often blurs Japan’s own war guilt. The attempt to blame suffering on the government and military industry often absolves the average Japanese citizen of guilt (to say nothing of the US military, which launched horrific air raids and atomic attacks that targeted Japanese civilians). The author writes, “The ritualized pledge for peace that usually accompanies the narratives often leaves ambiguous the roles of the perpetrators as colonizers, military aggressors, war criminals, and ‘ordinary’ soldiers, no clarifying whether they are meant to be ‘us’ or ‘them’” (p. 72).
In the final chapter, Hashimoto briefly compares war reconciliation in Japan with that of Germany (another place in which the author has done considerable research for other projects) and outlines “the moral recovery of defeated nations.” The three narratives that ride with us throughout the book—heroes, perpetrators, and victims—inform the similarly three different “pathways” that Hashimoto identifies as means through which people have attempted to solve the “history problem,” the term Hashimoto uses throughout to describe the ongoing geopolitical tensions regarding Japan’s war responsibility. To begin, there is the nationalist approach for overcoming the past by strengthening the nation (and national morale). For those adhering to the pacifist approach, denying the state the right to wage war is a large measure of atonement. Finally, the reconciliationist approach takes more “cosmopolitan” forms and seeks to promote better relations with Japan’s neighbors. Concluding the book with an outline and examples of these approaches leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction that, at the very least, the “history problem” is by no means being ignored in Japan.
Hashimoto has built the groundwork for new ways to understand war memory in Japan. Other scholars might take up the baton and employ her methodologies in more deeply place-specific studies. How, for example, does “the social act of remembering” and identifying victims, perpetrators, and heroes happen in places like Okinawa, where memory is deeply informed by another layer of contemporary struggles against American military bases (in other words, places where the concept of a postwar era arguably remains theoretical)? Finally, nearly a third of the world’s peace museums are in Japan and Hashimoto’s inclusion of fieldwork at a handful of such spaces lends testimony to the fact that the central government and large institutions do not have a monopoly on war memories, a fact that future studies can certainly expand upon.
. Hashimoto published an expanded version of this chapter, with particular attention to children’s war memories as portrayed in educational and popular manga. See “‘Something Dreadful Happened in the Past’: War Stories for Children in Japanese Popular Culture,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 13, no. 30 (July 27, 2015), http://www.japanfocus.org/-Akiko-Hashimoto/4349/article.html.
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Dustin Wright. Review of Hashimoto, Akiko, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan.
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