Asian-Americans and Japan’s History Issues

Politics Society Culture

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s speech to a joint session of Congress during his recent US visit was well received, not least due to his expressions of remorse for World War II with reference to battles in which US soldiers were killed. Lukewarm statements regarding wartime atrocities in Asia, however, could also go beyond regional politics and affect US-Japan relations. Because so many Asian-Americans are among those engaged in Japanese studies, insufficient concern for Asian sentiments risks alienating potential students and diminishing future US interest in Japan.

Contrasting Responses to Abe US Visit

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s speech on April 30 to a joint session of the US Congress has been widely celebrated as a success in the US-Japan relationship, and no wonder; he hit virtually all the right notes. Consistent with persistent requests from the United States, he called for strengthening the security partnership, calling attention to his own legislative efforts to enhance military cooperation in the Pacific. Weeks before President Obama’s recent victory in securing “fast-track” trade negotiating authority, Abe emphasized his strong support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its economic promise to both countries. And, famously, he expressed remorse for World War II, noting a number of the battles in which American soldiers had perished, with the touching flourish of seating an elderly American veteran of the battle of Iwo Jima (Iōtō) next to the grandson of the same battle’s Japanese commander in the gallery. With several standing ovations and a clearly enthusiastic Congressional audience, Prime Minister Abe and the Japanese government were deservedly pleased with the outcome of the speech.

This, of course, stood in contrast to his more fractious visit to Harvard, where he was met by student groups protesting his controversial positions on Japan’s wartime history, and by a challenging question from a Harvard student about his stance on the “comfort women” debate. While the Japanese papers covered the question and the prime minister’s careful and largely unsatisfying response—neither the denial that would appeal to conservative supporters nor the full admission of responsibility that would have appeased his critics—one had to turn to Japan’s right-wing online media to learn that the student asking the question was a Korean-American Harvard undergraduate. For these nationalist writers and commenters, of course, this young speaker’s ethnic background seems to have been useful in invalidating his critique; indeed, defining him as Kankokukei emphasized his Korean lineage and suggested that he was very nearly an agent of Korean influence within Harvard, not really representative of Harvard at all. That many of the demonstrators were members of Harvard’s Asian-American community would probably only have confirmed to them that this was just an irrelevant sideshow to Mr. Abe’s more important mission and message. But in the United States, the second half of the term “Korean-American” bears equal weight and points toward the emerging politics of historical representation in the US-Japan relationship. With an increasing presence of “hyphenated Americans,” including Asian-Americans, global history is increasingly considered to be part of American history.

For many observers on both sides of the Pacific focusing primarily on East Asia, the key moment will be the Prime Minister’s statement on August 15, the seventieth anniversary of the end of the war. Will he use words like “invasion” and “coercion” to describe Japan’s behavior, or will he appeal to conservative supporters and perhaps respect his own convictions by using more equivocal language, like “advance” and “trafficking”? If he goes the latter route, of course, there will be predictable criticism from other Asian nations, criticism that the Japanese government will be well prepared to confront if unable to resolve.

Asian-American Population Expands

Leaving aside any question of what Mr. Abe should say on August 15, the Harvard incident should give more pause to the alliance’s supporters than it apparently has, because it suggests that the old dichotomy between Japan’s Asia diplomacy and its America diplomacy is no longer valid, if it ever really was in the first place. After all, for an increasing number of Americans, memories of the Pacific War revolve primarily not around the USA-vs.-Japan story but rather about the brutal conflict within the region, often reflected through recent personal experience there, as well as in films, television shows, and literature from Asian countries. The Asian-American population of the United States continues to expand and diversify, with growing numbers of Indian-Americans, Bangladeshi-Americans, Malaysian-Americans, and others joining the already large communities of Vietnamese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, and, of course, Japanese-Americans. The population is ethnically, religiously, economically, and politically diverse, but has become increasingly important across the American social and cultural landscape. Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in American higher education, with a uniquely large percentage of the Asian-American community attending a number of elite universities and entering professional careers. This has, of course, led to the “model minority myth” that tends to collapse the diversity within the Asian-American experience and imagines the young members of the community to be nerdy bookworms with “tiger moms” driving them to succeed. But the sheer number of Asian-American students graduating from America’s top universities suggests that ignoring their growing political and cultural roles would be unwise.

For many ethnic and religious identities in the United States, bonds of community have been fostered in part through shared narratives of struggle or collective memories of trauma: from the African-American groups that make moral claims reflecting on slavery and its durable and profound legacies, to the Jewish organizations that memorialize the Holocaust and its lessons about anti-Semitism’s consequences, to the Irish-American groups that famously provided support to Irish nationalists under British rule, to the Armenian-Americans who have aimed to have the early twentieth-century slaughter in Turkey recognized as genocide, to the Cuban-American groups focused on the communist revolution that had led many of them to escape to the United States. Indeed, it was partly this type of mobilization around collective memory—specifically, of internment during World War II—that allowed Japanese-Americans to push successfully for an apology and for compensation from the United States government in 1988. While these struggles are always contested—both within the ethnic communities themselves as well as by outsiders who feel confronted or aggrieved by their demands—they are also recognizable and unquestionably legitimate in today’s America: an America that is far more diverse than is the overwhelmingly white, predominantly male United States Congress. And it is therefore completely unsurprising not only that monuments to Korean “comfort women” have been built in New Jersey, California, and Virginia, but also that they have been accepted and commemorated widely, not only by Koreans and Korean-Americans.

For many of us in the United States who teach about Japan—its language, its culture, its politics, its history—the interest of Asian-American students in our courses is no secret. Indeed, it’s essential, as in many schools, Asian-American interest has helped to prevent or limit the declining enrollments that have led some universities to cut programs in Japanese or to limit the hiring of new faculty. Whether as Asian-Americans or as people who grew up with Asian-American friends, many students view Japanese stuff—sushi, Kitty-chan, Durarara—as simply part of normal everyday life. People also know dim sum is Chinese, they know Girls’ Generation is Korean, they know banh mi is Vietnamese. They all become elements in the grab-bag of Asian cultural influences in the United States, even as they retain the specificity of their cultural origins. While the American dream of multiculturalism has its limits and failures, it is nonetheless a problem and an enterprise that deeply interests our students, and that will shape the next generation of American leaders.  And it’s not surprising that students with diverse ethnic backgrounds and with broad familiarity with this grab-bag may want to study Japan in college. But it’s also obvious that mixed messages from Japan about colonial and wartime histories—vague language of sadness rather than direct apologies and acknowledgments of responsibility, textbooks that minimize or qualify wartime atrocities, even as the government issues an annual apology and pursues peaceful policies—will encounter the fraught legacies that many Asian-American and other American students discuss with their parents and pursue in their studies. These mixed messages have consequences that ripple across the Pacific and are unlikely to go away.

The Consequences of Impenitence in Asia

Both in the Japanese studies community and in Japan itself, there has been extensive concern about “Japan passing” or a loss of interest in Japan as China in particular seems to surge past it in global economic and political importance. Indeed, conservative friends in Japan have sometimes suggested to me that Japan needs to become strong again—often meaning through the development of military capability and freed from the shackles of an ostensibly masochistic history written by the US Occupation—to turn this around. But they do not see what I see, and which virtually all of my colleagues in the United States report to me as well: the difficulty that we have in maintaining high levels of interest among Chinese-American, Korean-American, even Japanese-American and other students when the American and international press reports on qualified language of remorse and even outright denials of state responsibility among leading Japanese politicians and commentators. More than once, I’ve been told by students dropping Japanese from their course line-ups that they have lost interest in going to Japan because of its perceived impenitence. The same students are enormously sharp analytical thinkers, many of them quick to criticize the South Korean and Chinese governments for statements that seem opportunistically to use historical grievances to foster nationalism and push for national gains. But they are and, I believe, will remain distinctly unsympathetic to the efforts of Japanese right-wingers to label the comfort women as unfortunate but voluntary prostitutes or to depict the Nanjing Massacre as a fiction, or to suggest that any of these were simply the consequences of war rather than of deliberate and distinctive Japanese military action.

I am not making an argument about what Prime Minister Abe should say on August 15. Particularly as an American—one who is frustrated about the American reluctance to apologize for extraordinary levels of violence against civilians in World War II, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts—I recognize how difficult and challenging these historical debates are, and how demands for apologies are often mixed with other, less salutary political goals. But I also believe that Prime Minister Abe and his advisors should be careful about drawing too clear a line between what needs to be said to the United States and what can be said to Asia. The United States, he should remember, is a remarkably mixed group of people, with a remarkably wide range of global origins and memories. Asian-Americans, like other ethnic groups in the United States, have profoundly influenced the kind of country we are, helping to ensure that the Nanjing Massacre, the comfort women, and other keywords of the “history debates” in East Asia are part of the American lexicon of human rights and war responsibility that we confront every day. More so than the last generation of American veterans from Iwo Jima, they will define America’s relationships with Asia in the coming decades. My own experience suggests that the engagement and devotion toward Japanese studies among Asian-American students could make them among the most important voices shaping the bilateral partnership in the coming years. Prime Minister Abe might decide to appease his own conscience and the views of his more conservative supporters by offering words of condolence less direct and forthright than his critics would want. But these will matter in Washington, largely because America is not the country that one might infer by looking at the age, race, and gender of its Congressional representatives. Those recent standing ovations in Washington, no matter how well-earned, could become even more distant memories than those of the war itself.

(Banner photo: Protesters hold signs urging Prime Minister Abe to apologize for Japanese war crimes as he visits Harvard University on April 27, 2015. © Xinhua/Aflo. The author thanks Anne Cheng for comments on an earlier version of this essay.)

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