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Walking the Tightrope Between History and Memory in Japan: On Harootunian’s ‘Uneven Moments’

Harry Harootunian's essays on modern Japanese history, collected in Uneven Moments from Columbia University Press, reflect a lifetime of intellectual contributions and span a wide range of topics in Japanese history. The tension between the historical and the everyday is a recurrent and vital theme in his work.

Uneven Moments: Reflections on Japan's Modern History
Harry Harootunian
Columbia University Press
February 2019

Of all the intellectual battles raging today, surely one of the most partisan surrounds the conflict between identity versus objectivity. In the social sciences, this might be perceived as a conflict between memory and history. It’s one that historian Harry Harootunian has spent a good portion of his career tangling with.

If history “is committed to the search for truth,” as he puts it (drawing on Paul Ricoeur) – a search characterized by objective facts and chronological progressions — then memory tends to be grounded in experience and perspective (or standpoint). We see at once the potential for conflict between the two. It’s a conflict which manifests across multiple battlefields of public discourse, from social media to scholarly journals. It lies at the core of struggles between objectivity and positivism on the one hand, and their identity-charged critics on the other.

Can the ongoing genocide of Indigenous and Black lives in the United States be reduced to objective facts and chronologies, when it is so viscerally present in the everyday experience of its subjects? Can the genocidal policies of Israel toward Palestinians be assessed objectively, when it is constantly counterpoised with the experience of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust? For those experiencing ongoing forms of oppression, experience and memory have an undeniable primacy; for those privileged to be experientially distanced from those same forms of oppression, it’s easy to reduce someone else’s experience to a set of objective facts put in relation with other objective facts. The end result being that category of people we call “white men”, safely ensconced in their bubbles of privilege, rarely manage to understand why it is the rest of humanity tends to hate them so much.

Yet both realities are important, Harootunian observes; neither should dominate the other. “If perspective is dominated by history and the historical, the everyday fades into an indistinct shadowed silhouette whose contours are barely visible; if the standpoint privileges the everyday, experience, and memory, the historical is blurred.”


Moon by PIRO4D (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Harootunian applies an unorthodox Marxist lens to Japanese history, always concerned with the ways in which the suffering of the marginalized is glossed over by an uncritical privileging of the historical over the everyday.

How increasingly rare, and increasingly valuable, are those dwindling ranks of scholars who are able to see the truth in both perspectives and achieve some sort of balance in their application. Yet these two different cognitive modes
must be put into constant articulation with each other, Harootunian says.

It’s perhaps easier said than done, but Harootunian makes a superb attempt at doing so in the essays contained in
Uneven Moments: Reflections on Japan’s Modern History. They reflect intellectual contributions made over the course of a lifetime and spanning a wide range of topics in Japanese history. Yet this tension between the historical and the everyday is a recurrent and vital theme.

Harootunian applies an unorthodox Marxist lens to Japanese history, always concerned with the ways in which the suffering of the marginalized is glossed over by an uncritical privileging of the historical over the everyday. It emerges, for instance, in the experience of victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima. In the provocative essay “Reflections From Fukushima: History, Memory, and the Crisis of Contemporaneity”, he demonstrates how the Japanese government’s response to the disaster lay not in helping the people of Fukushima but rather in trying to restore the historical narrative of national progress. The disaster was immediately compared to other disasters in Japanese history – the Kobe earthquake of 1995; the Tokyo earthquake of 1923; the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and those cities’ recoveries; even World War II – with the implied message that the disaster ought to be understood by everyone as a passing moment, to be overcome with fortitude and determination.

Such comparisons sought to place the disaster in the context of historical sweep, rather than dissect the ways in which the Japanese government and institutions bore direct responsibility for much of the disaster. The region that was worst struck bore a long history of economic depression, stemming from the unevenly distributed benefits of Japanese capitalism. Examples range from inadequate emergency planning to the nuclear power company (TEPCO’s) ill-fated efforts to save its reactors. It’s telling, notes Harootunian, that economically depressed regions on the periphery, like Fukushima and Niigata, were pressured into serving as sites for nuclear reactors that produce energy for Tokyo and other centres of power and wealth, keeping the nuclear risk at what the centres of capital believed to be a safe distance away in the event of catastrophe.

In the wake of the disaster, the double standard has continued. Rather than working to improve the region, help its residents recover, and access a more equitable share of the country’s wealth, the Japanese government concentrated instead on trying to persuade them they were at no risk of radiation or other forms of contamination. It focused its efforts on trying to persuade the country as a whole that nuclear energy was still safe.

The emphasis was on restoring the broad historical narrative; to return life to normal (a normal that has always been characterized by inadequate access to political and economic capital for the region). The Japanese government emphasized principles of national unity and “sharing the pain”, when in fact these were merely facades. The true sufferers were those in Fukushima, who suffered from Japan’s uneven economic development even before the natural disasters hit. This is in much the same way as racism and uneven economic development exacerbated the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana.

It’s in times of crises that the everyday comes into prominence and the historical (which is often a mask for varying forms of oppression) fades. Such was the case in Fukushima, where the struggle to survive in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami meant that everyday existence came to the fore. When you’re struggling to put food on your table and rebuild the walls of your house, government slogans and bureaucratic reassurances have a lot less substance. Comparably, in contemporary America, notions of free speech and constitutional rights mean very little for Black Americans who know that when they walk in the streets, cops can gun them down with impunity and face little to no consequences.

Harootunian’s argument might be corroborated by other writers too. Richard Lloyd Parry, in his masterful 2018 work of reportageGhosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, spends a portion of his book chronicling the lawsuits and protests organized by survivors in the tsunami’s wake. One of the most remarkable things, Parry noted, was the survivors’ refusal to accept official explanations, and instead they doggedly demanded justice in a country where strong social norms pressure against public confrontation.

Harootunian’s essays are adept at questioning the
seemingly innocuous and taken-for-granted.

Harootunian also makes the astute observation that in the wake of the Japanese government’s failure to address the material needs of Fukushima’s residents, it has fallen again – as always – to women’s unpaid labour to do the real work of recovery and survival. By reordering household practices in ways necessary to reduce the risk of radiation contamination, women wound up doing the extra work necessary for survival. Japanese women knew where to shop and what foods to prepare in what ways to reduce risk of radiation poisoning. They also applied extra care in looking after children to ensure they didn’t put themselves at risk for radiation poisoning. Meanwhile, the Japanese government focused its efforts on propaganda designed to convince everyone (quite unconvincingly) that they were safe.

Harootunian’s essays are adept at questioning the seemingly innocuous and taken-for-granted. He explores the complex worlds of meaning contained in ostensibly straight-forward terms like “post-war” (a “kind of no-time, a permanent present housing the dream fantasies of both archaists and modernizers to reconfigure”). The phrase alludes to a “timeless parenthesis”, which allows Japan to neatly elude responsibility for its pre-war (i.e., fascist) past.

It also offers fertile terrain for populists (invariably of the right-wing variety) to blame the current ‘post-war’ interlude for the country’s social and economic woes. They thereby push their project of a post-post-war, which in their imaginary bears a remarkable and not coincidental similarity to the fascist pre-war. Insofar as the present right-wing Japanese government is working to promote militarism and rein back civil rights, it’s convenient to reframe the centrist and leftist decades of the mid- to late 20th century as a “post-war” interlude, whose time, in the view of the conservative right, is nearing its end.

Temporality is a powerful tool. Time appears to offer an objective foundation for history yet often reflects incredibly slippery and malleable notions. The term ‘Restoration’ is another slippery and subjective term. It’s widely used by politicians and historians, but what does it mean? For many, it refers to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the previously symbolic Emperor took back the reins of the state from the feudal, bureaucratic shoguns. Yet it carries an emotional meaning too – restoration of imperial fascist rule, displacing the bureaucratic status quo (fascism over the rule of law).


Temple photo by JordyMeow (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

‘Restoration’, the problematic term.

It’s also used in the post-war context to delineate restoration of Japanese sovereignty from the Allied Occupation. It’s used yet again to suggest the ‘restoration’ of that brief window of pre-war democracy. At other times, the term is used to hint at the imperial (and fascist) ‘greatness’ which preceded Japan’s military defeat. ‘Restoration’ can mean many things to many people. In the present, it hearkens to the current government’s determination to abolish Article 9 of the post-war ‘peace constitution’ and restore Japan’s military presence in global affairs. ‘Restoration’, like ‘post-war’, is a widely used yet difficult concept to pin down.

Harootunian’s concern with these terms is intellectually broad yet also deeply wound up with their implication in the fascist project of the present day. His essay “The Presence of Archaism/The Persistence of Fascism” explores the myriad ways in which fascism lingered in the post-war period, in Japan and elsewhere. He blames part of the problem on western post-war scholars like Hannah Arendt, who failed to recognize how fascism and capitalism, and even fascism and liberalism, were indelibly partnered. Their perspectives shaped by the Cold War, these scholars saw only a putative relationship between totalitarianism and fascism, or totalitarianism and Stalinism, and failed to recognize or explore the deep relationship between fascism and capitalism, mistakenly taking for granted a natural kinship between democracy and capitalism.

“This allergic avoidance ignores the relationship of capital to fascism, which constitutes a part of its DNA structure and may remain dormant under certain circumstances but never fully disappears, unless capitalism itself vanishes,” he writes. In the present, it is that relationship between capitalism and fascism which is rapidly becoming the most important one in shaping our global existence.

Just as certain circumstances can constrain fascism, so can other circumstances cause it to flourish. Fascism has been fuelled by efforts to target difference and protect ‘pure’ populations from their perceived enemies; states of economic failure or distress; the enactment of political violence to enforce certain imagined national identities and to root out or eradicate otherness.

Fascism’s close relationship with liberalism, Harootunian explains, is revealed by the shared project both ideologies have in preventing interference with the price system. Economic life is prioritized over the health of a democratic political sphere. All these conditions are prevalent in the many states around the world currently struggling with fascist resurgence, Japan among them. Japan’s renascent fascism may be disguised in characteristically polite tones and neatly tailored suits, but the ruling party’s determination to remilitarize the country, revise its constitution, draw permanent closure over public discussion of its fascist past and war crimes, privilege an imagined national identity over otherness and difference, and prioritize economic growth over social development and civil rights, all reflect elements of a fascist leaning that never wholly went away.

Harootunian takes particular aim at the institution of the Emperor in Japan, which he argues encapsulates and symbolizes Japan’s lingering and powerful attachment to fascism. Although the Emperor officially ‘gave up’ his divinity at the end of the war (as a condition of being spared execution by American troops), his role remains one symbolically inseparable from Japan’s imperial (i.e., fascist) history, Harootunian argues.

Following the war, the American Occupation forces were concerned about using the Emperor to rally support for capitalism in the growing Cold War environment, and to shore up the country’s support for capitalism in opposition to a powerful post-war Communist movement. In doing so, they laid the seeds for all the ways in which the Imperial institution today upholds symbolic links with Japan’s fascist past (and present).

Indeed, the post-war Occupation obsession with promoting capitalism and confronting communism meant that the postwar Japanese political regime never truly democratized. It became “more bureaucratic than democratic”; a characteristic which binds it indelibly with the pre-war regime, which also privileged the bureaucratic over the democratic. This is also characteristic on which many have blamed the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the war. Japan will only be able to truly advance toward the democratic if it dismantles the imperial institution, asserts Harootunian. Citizens of other constitutional monarchies, such as the beleaguered Brits, would probably agree.

The Emperor is not a harmless symbolic figure, warns Harootunian. Divine or not, the Emperor symbolizes legal exceptionalism: a status which exists outside of the rules that apply to everyone else. The close ties between organized crime and political leaders in Japan constitute a spectrum of legal exceptionalism linking fascist criminality, the political right-wing, and ultimately the Emperor. On the surface, Japan is considered a democracy by its peers. But in reality, warns Harootunian, both right-wing and criminal violence have been on the rise, and it is no coincidence that those trends are accompanied by a shrinking sphere of democratic discourse and civil rights.

Here, both advocates of memory and advocates of history might find something to agree on: in Japan, as elsewhere, the present is coming to resemble more and more a terrible past which we had long hoped we’d moved beyond.

Harootunian’s scholarly essays operate on an elevated intellectual plain, but they’re immensely rewarding for those who work through them. Rooted in the historical, the lessons they offer are more vital than ever in today’s world.

* * *

Additional Sources Cited

Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. “Japan: Organized crime (Yakuza) and its political affiliations; whether it targets left-wing political activists; state protection available to those who fear they have been targeted by the Yakuza (1994 – April 2000)”. 19 April 2000.

Stapczynski, Stephen. ” Hidden gold and ‘murky’ payoffs threaten Japan’s nuclear revival“. The Japan Times. 15 October 2019.



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