Explorers Retrospective on “Between the West and the East: Public History in Japan”

Public History Interns Series

Author: Fergus Yip, Bachelors of Arts at Macquarie University, majoring in Modern history and minor in Japanese Studies.

Poster for Explorers presentation: Between the West and the East

Throughout this semester, I have learned that the “Discipline of Public History” is an area of study that many may not know of, but would definitely recognise, as the general public does engage with it on a daily basis. It can be something as simple as going to a museum, viewing and interacting with the displays and learning about the history of the objects from a curator. 

The Japanese engage in public history in a much more prolific way than other national communities especially in how they seek to interpret not only their own history, but also that of other cultures, as well as the literary sources they have produced. My own experiences engaging in Japanese media and culture, such as anime and video games, is one of the ways that myself and many others dip our proverbial toes into the lake of Japanese public history. Even now, as I write this reflection, I’m logged onto a Japanese video game which brings together different interpretations of Japanese, European, South Asian, and American cultural and historical records. One such example takes inspiration from a book called Utopia written by an English renaissance humanist about a theoretical utopian society, and taking aspects of that society’s norms, reimagine it to better fit the fantasy aesthetic while still remaining coherent to its source material

Some of my own experiences in interacting with Japanese culture is discussed in the talk “Between the West and the East: Public History in Japan,” given by the three main speakers, Yoko Yamaguchi, Jun Ogawa and Takuya Tokuhara, dives into how the Japanese have taken historical trends in both the literary and cultural spheres and shaped them into something that can be considered uniquely Japanese. This conversation is an evaluation of what makes the field of history, the limitations we face in the academic space, and how we could and are addressing these issues. In addition, it has also led me to question how I pursue history as a discipline. One of the questions raised in response to Yamaguchi’s talk asked why much of “authentic” historiography primarily views the written record as the be-all-and-end-all of history education. Personally, for example, my early interest in the discipline of history came through video games and anime. Often, the general public tends to think that other mediums aside from written records and academic literature don’t necessarily contribute to the area of public history, but would often be praised for ‘getting the history right’. In addition, it would not be surprising that, as a result of the perceived credentials that one must attain in order to interpret and interact with history, the public be largely unaware that public history is something that both exists and that they can readily contribute towards. Yamaguchi also brought up the lack of formalisation when using drawings, animations and other “unconventional” sources as tools for historical research. Currently, this is being addressed through the usage of digital tools and databases, as noted in Ogawa’s talk. Ogawa claims that this lack of formalisation around data collection and accessibility has lent credence to the notion that other mediums outside of the written form largely only contribute to the display of history; instead of being a medium that allows for the general public to participate, interact, interpret and contribute to the field of public history. 

In recent years, however, greater focus and attention has been placed on broadening the pool of sources that both historians can reference in their academic work and that the general public can use to learn about and interpret the past. This has also led those creating history for public consumption to both take reference and inspiration from primary sources and using secondary sources to further understand, refine and finally, produce works that are, at once, historically accurate to the text and easily consumable for their target audience. Two examples that come to mind when looking into the manga and anime sphere that has had an explosive response to the Japanese people both looking into history and contributing to public history in Japan would be Girls und Panzer and Kantai Collection. Both of these series had a profound impact on not only the Japanese public consciousness regarding their own history but also the history of other countries in the context of the mid-20th century. Girls und Panzer is primarily a manga-turned-anime about school girls that participate in the sport of ‘Tankery’ or organised competition between schools that utilise tanks from the Second World War as tools in the competition. Kantai Collection is a web-browser game whose overall plot is the player commanding a group of ‘cute, anime girls’ that are personifications of historical warships from the first half of the 20th century. Both of these examples have seen both private and public individuals, companies and institutions use these examples when developing an interest in history and utilising them to promote a location such as Ōarai in Ibaraki for the case of Girls und Panzer.

This, however, leads to a problem raised by Tokuhara: both the academic and public sectors need to determine the difference between “good” and “bad” public history. Ensuring consultations with historical experts and transparency throughout the process are key methods that creators can use to ensure their project is historically accurate while retaining its entertainment value, drawing in their audience in a responsible way. I could see this collaborative process between creators and historians become more prevalent as the general public steadily becomes more aware of public history. Especially, as people understand that they can participate (and have possibly already participated) in public history. The process of evaluating whether something can be considered “good” or “bad” public history could also be a way to implicate the public alongside the creators and historians. Our question now is: how will historians and creators give people the tools to do this?

To conclude, the talks have certainly given food for thought in how I personally view public history and its broader academic links. Specifically in Japan, I see that the Japanese participate and create public history on a much more publicly acknowledged scale. Mediums such as anime and video games have gained widespread acclaim with audiences across the world and have allowed Japanese culture to be widely disseminated in many different communities. They have also allowed for Japanese developers to take in the history and culture from other countries and both incorporate it into their own works and reinterpret that history and culture in new and interesting ways. This dynamic between Japanese creators and the historical resources that are available to them on both Japanese history and culture, as well as the comprehensive history and culture of other countries has allowed for a flourishing garden of public history that everyone can and has interacted with knowingly or otherwise.

Fergus Yip, is currently in his final semester of his Bachelors of Arts at Macquarie University, majoring in Modern history and a minor in Japanese Studies. His interests lie primarily in the naval military history of nations in the 18th to 21st century.

Cite this blog post
Bridging Editor (2023, October 29). Explorers Retrospective on “Between the West and the East: Public History in Japan”. IFPH-FIHP. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pvqx

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