China-Japan Historical Struggle Reaches MIT

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
— Maya Angelou, Inaugural Poem

I had planned to blog on a John Dower web project cited by Alan Baumler, because it’s a fantastic collection of historical images, nicely curated. Now, if you follow the the link, you get redirected to an MIT Press Office Statement that explains that the exhibit is offline while Dower and Miyagawa negotiate with members of the MIT Chinese student community who objected to an image of a Chinese being beheaded, a classic piece of Japanese propaganda, one that sets the tone for the next half century. The problem, according to the articles I’ve seen (thanks to both Manan Ahmed and Ralph Luker) was a lack of “accessible historical context” clearly warning viewers of the violent and racist content of the imagery.

Perhaps they need something like my syllabus boilerplate:

History is about real people, diverse cultures, interesting theories, strongly held belief systems, complex situations, conflicts and often-dramatic actions. In certain contexts, this information may be disturbing. Such is the nature of historical study.

I don’t see it myself: unless you happen to read Meiji Japanese and stumble across the image by accident, and are inclined to think that we need more, not less, beheadings in the world, isn’t it pretty obvious that this is old, bad, material? (the woodblock prints should be a giveaway, if nothing else) If you know anything about the history, it’s pretty obvious that it’s racist, that it leads to great tragedy, and that it’s important visual evidence. If it wasn’t obvious beforehand, then reading the attached commentary would make it pretty clear: my recollection (Alan can throw in his two cents here) is that the accompanying text was pretty clear on all these issues (Update: Alan confirms my recollection, and adds some useful thoughts, including a look at Chinese language discussions.

This raises concerns for me. Part of the value of creating an on-line exhibit is to allow the images to be used by students and teachers and researchers as evidence in their own researches. Insisting on immediate warnings and commentary (and how, technically, they’re going to make those inseparable from the image, I’m not sure, but I am nervous) will make it harder to use the material, pedagogically.

There are those who argue that nothing offensive to anyone should be published anywhere without caveats and controls; I’m not one of those. There are those who argue that “it’s only speech” excuses everything, and that we cannot have a truly free society without license to express everything, everywhere, anytime; I’m not one of those, either. There are some who say that the classroom is no place for controversy; I reject that. There are some who say that the classroom belongs to the teacher, without exception; I reject that, as well. I do think that teachers ought to be given a great deal of leeway with regard to how they present and handle sensitive topics, particularly those with track records of balanced and sophisticated scholarship, public writing and teaching, and that attacks (and it’s very clear from the MIT President’s statement that there have been some very vigorous attacks) without context and from outside the student and scholarly community which has some understanding of the issues and people, are injurious to academic freedom and accomplishment.

Even scholars are sometimes prone to put blame before understanding, but that doesn’t mean that we should privilege this. On the other hand, I have the greatest respect for John Dower as a scholar, teacher and individual: if he agrees that these images need more context, I will respect that.

I think it’s very important for scholars of Japanese history to be clear about the impact that Japan had on its neighbors and the world in its modern imperialist phase; I don’t understand attacking a scholar who is addressing precisely these issues with evidence, publications, teaching, etc.

Update: Alan Baumler found a cached version of the text, which is exceptional, and a Letter from Prof. Peter Perdue, also at MIT, defending Dower and the project. Vigorously, to say the least.


  1. I agree with you, particularly in this instance. It is my understanding that the Japanese,
    to this day, are not generally aware of all that they have done to the Chinese and would
    prefer to simply ignore it. If they are going to try to ignore it, I think it becomes the
    job of the historian not to let them.

    china law

  2. I have to say I am rather suprised at this. Of course, I can understand why this is upsetting to the community of Chinese students at MIT, but I firmly believe that historians cannot ignore things that were ugly or evil in nature for fear upsetting certain groups. Also, I was able to see the webpage before it was taken down, and I don’t see how anyone could read it as being pro-Japanese imperialism. I think it might be attributable to a case of cultural misunderstanding. American academics are (or should be) very sensitive about issues of race and the question of equality. So much so that they may take certain values for granted, and things like this can be shown and looked upon with an unspoken sense of criticism. The Chinese students at MIT obviously don’t share the same cultural and educational backgrounds and would probably expect a louder more outspoken criticism to accompany the images.

  3. I am completely confused by this. Should the Irish insist that Paul Greengrass’s “Bloody Sunday” not be shown because it shows British brutality? Should Americans tear down the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument in Brooklyn because it is indeed disturbing that 11,000 American POWs were killed in New York Harbor during the Revolution? Should European-ancestry Jews demand the closure of the Holocaust Museum?

    It is impossible to truly understand history, and understand the depth of meaning behind it, without bringing up disturbing – often extremely disturbing – images, stories, facts. That Chinese students would object to this seems bizarre. Would they be happier if all records of Japanese brutality were wiped from the historic record? I really thought that China was aggressively pursuing the world understanding these facts. Perhaps this is simply the work of a minority of poorly educated people – as so many email campaigns are these days.

    That said, can I use your advisory on my next syllabus (with credit, of course)

  4. can I use your advisory on my next syllabus

    Feel free.

    And don’t bother with credit: Syllabi are so much boilerplate at this point anyway…. To be entirely honest, mine is adapted from a colleague here in Hawai’i, so it’s not completely original, either. Though that was from another department, so I did have to be a little creative about the adaptation.

    Would they be happier if all records of Japanese brutality were wiped from the historic record? I really thought that China was aggressively pursuing the world understanding these facts.

    It’s a fine line: they don’t want anyone to forget that the Japanese did what they did, but they also don’t want anyone doing anything which might in any way contextualize it. Perhaps that’s the real trouble here: by putting it into the context of Western Imperialism and racism, it becomes less of a uniquely Japanese sin, and harder to use as a bludgeon against them.

  5. Thanks Jonathan – that puts it into an interesting perspective for me. Am I right in assuming that “we” would frame this as the Japanese imitating the behavior of European empires? Is there a basic human desire to have been victim of “the worst” aggression? (the Irish list the 800 years, the Jews the 6 million dead, West Africans the centuries of slavery) Is this a competition? It is strange. One of the films that most affected me as a college undergrad was Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Perhaps that kind of empathy is just a fairy tale.

  6. I don’t think it’s quite so simple as to be mere imitation, but there’s no question that Spencerian/racialist ideas did play a role in the Japanese redefinition of China as an inferior other, as part of the creation of a modern (if aided by traditional narratives) national identity.

    There is a basic human desire to be unique, I think, and to have one’s wrongs acknowledged. I don’t understand, myself, why context is considered anathema to victims, but it often is. The problem of “understanding” as a form of “forgiveness”….

    I actually don’t find that empathy and justice are exclusive, but it’s complicated that way, and most people prefer their justice simple.

  7. Perhaps the reason peoples react to having the wrongs committed against them contextualized is exactly the same as a child sitting a corner, resolutely refusing comfort or expressions of empathy. They want to make sure everyone knows how hurt they got, but once context is added, understanding follows, just like the little kid, they’re afraid you might say, “We understand, but it’s over now, so get over it.”

    National apologies and reparations can not undo the deed, nor should it be thought they “smooth” everything out. Only contextual understanding and an individualized, personal change of mindset will prevent global-scale atrocities from recurring, and for that we must understand the past, in context.

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