Center Host Themed Events on the Politics of Memory in Global Context

Under Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought, scholars in the social sciences and humanities, psychologists and neuroscientist, and curators of historical museums gathered at Columbia Global Center| East Asia (Beijing) on October 15 to participate in two-day themed events on the politics of war memory in East Asia and elsewhere.

October 26, 2015
Panel Discussion

Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History at Columbia University, also the moderator of the panel discussion on October 15, made her opening remarks by introducing the goals of the project on the Politics of Memory in Global Context. “There are three purposes of this project”, she said, “the first is to bring different disciplines to work together on public memory, inviting scholars from social sciences and humanities, cognitive scientists, psychologist and neuroscientists, and curators and directors of historical and memorial museums.” The second goal of this project, as Professor Gluck pointed out, is to “make comparisons on any memory problems with similar memory issues in other places”, she added that “the best way to analyze the way public memory works is to study the commonalities with different memory issues around the world.” “The third goal”, Gluck stressed, is to “not only analyze and understand how public memory works, but to do something to help better manage the politics of public memory.”

Ping Bu, the top expert on Sino-Japanese history at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, examined public memory from an academic viewpoint. He emphasized the complexity of historical problems, saying that “politics, academic research, and emotion are intertwined in any historical problems.” With such complexity, academic research should “focus on perspectives from different sides”, and thus the cooperation among scholars from different countries involved in historical problems is essential. By noting some academic projects conducted by scholars from different countries, Bu advocated that more collaborative projects should be done to better influence and manage public emotions.

Upon analyzing the victim consciousness after the World War II, Narita Ryuichi, Professor at Japan Women’s University, divided public memory in Japan into three phases – from 1945 to 1970, 1970-1990, and 1990 up to present. “From 1945 to 1970, the war memory was imbedded in the context of the post-war phenomenon, which involves Japan and the United States” Ryuichi noted. From 1970 to 1990, “the victim consciousness (Japan was defeated) became more complicated as the witnesses not only recalled their memory as victims but also memory about what they had done in China”. And from 1990 to present, when most of those who experienced or witnessed the war have died and their children went older, “victim consciousness go beyond direct telling from parents to children, but from school learning”, Ryuichi continued that “war memory became part of East Asian relations”. Therefore, he concluded “conflicts on war memory are getting complicated as the consciousness changed, and media has played an undeniable role in it”.

Self-recognized as a “memory activist”, Jie-hyun Lim, professor at Sogang University incorporated women’s issues, forced labor and Korean civil war into his discussion of war memory. Lim stated that “the conflict on war memory results from the growing sensitivity toward neighboring countries in East Asia”. Through the analysis of the confrontation between positivism and victimism in comfort women and forced labor issues, Lim noted that the different and sometime inaccurate narrations indicate the democratization of war memory documentation. “These three issues should not be recorded simply as episodes, there are multi-layers behind these issues, which we should further scrutinize”.

Zongyuan Li, Deputy Curator of the Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, discussed the status quo of exhibitions on war memory and challenges Chinese curators were facing in order to maximally reflect historical reality. “We collected evidence from not only Chinese and Japanese sides, but also documents from a third party like the United States,” Mr. Li said, “we also objectively display the roles of the Communist Party of China and Kuomintang in the two battlefields.” He concluded that, “recently we are cooperating with museums from over 20 countries to conduct transnational studies to help the process of reaching reconciliation.”

By explaining how the European Union remembers and forgets in order to move on, Valerie Rosoux, Professor at Louvain University, proposed possible solutions to the reconciliation among different war memories. The members of European Union negotiate with double objectives – to reach agreement on both national level and transnational level. Although the war memory is “opened and re-opened everyday” as she quoted Jean Améry’s words. “We have to elaborate a narrative that makes sense for the next generation, and this has to respect the people who suffered in the war” Rousoux stressed, “This is based on empathy, not harmony. It is not a question of mythology but a question of methodology, and the methodology is negotiation”. “This means that there will not be a fixed narrative for all the people, yet this is the only non-illusionary solution.” She ended her speech with an insightful quote:” The truth we are looking for is like butterflies, in trying to fix them, we kill them.” As the discussion ended, it is worthwhile to continue to explore the remaining questions: what is the role of emotions? How historical facts affect emotions at the family, friend and individual level? How can we have a common language or narrative? How do we remember, forget and move forward to embrace our future?

Workshop: Nations and their Pasts

On October 16, the second day of the themed events, Professor Carol Gluck moderated a workshop on the subject of “Nations and their Pasts” featuring Professor Jie-Huyn Lim of Sogang University, Professor Iwasaki Minoru of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Professor Umemori Naoyuki of Waseda University, Chunyan Hou of the National Museum of China, Professor Valerie Rosoux of the University of Louvain, Professor Daniel Dayan of the Institut Européen Levinas, and Professor Armelle Viard of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. The discussion was opened with remarks from Professor Gluck on the topic of historical memory and remembrance in East Asia and the world and concluded with questions and comments from the audience.

In discussing national histories in East Asia, Professor Lim used the concept of a “memory regime”, a framework of accepted memory of historical events, to compare national remembrance in Korea and Japan following the Second World War to that in Germany following the defeat of the Nazis. He examined the role of literature and global publics in instigating discussion of Japanese colonialism in Korea and Northeastern China, focusing on the role of written memoires left by Japanese civilians living in colonized areas, and their inclusion in American public school curriculum. The result of these processes is a “Nationalized Memory” which is shared and promoted by groups within nation states and is often in contention with the nationalized memories of other states and other groups within societies.

Professor Umemori Naoyuki expanded this discussion with a focus on the subject of “Opportunities for Transitional Justice in East Asia”. Following the end of the system of formal racial segregation of apartheid in South Africa, there was a process of investigation and reconciliation through courts and political action called “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions”. However, in the case of the wars between Japan and its neighbors there was no such process of investigation, reconciliation, and healing. Transitional Justice, an approach to justice that is focused on openness and healing and reconciliation, offers a framework for doing this neglected work.

With a detailed look into the war memory in Japan, Professor Iwasaki Minoru discussed the effect of the loss of Japan’s colonies and their defeat in the war on the attitudes and memories of the Japanese people today. He linked the concepts of loss and memory, exploring how the perceived losses of Japan’s overseas empire and their loss in the war left a wound in Japanese historical memory which persists today. The effect of this wound is described as a kind of “melancholy” which is always there but often discussed as a contentious issue. This situation has given rise to a new and powerful historical revisionism in Japanese politics and society, which allows Japan to refuse to apologize for its behaviors in the wartime. Professor Minoru identified Japan’s President Abe as the “prince of revisionism”, the political head and beneficiary from this refusal to remember.

Professor Vaerie Rosoux presented her speech on the role of memory and remembrance in Rwanda following the genocide there between the Hutu and the Tutsi people three decades ago. Like the war between Japan and its neighbors, the issues of apology and reconciliation have never been satisfactorily addressed, and the role and responsibility of outside powers such as France and Belgium remain unaddressed. Rwanda’s approach to dealing with the issue of responsibility, reconciliation, and historical memory, by establishing systems of traditional community justice in which village leaders with no specific legal training judge those who were involved in the genocide, remains problematic but represents a good-faith attempt at addressing these difficult issues.

Professor Daniel Dayan discussed his comprehensive and varied work rooted in psychoanalysis, to explain issues of historical memory. His talk, “Witnessing and its Discontents”, focused on previous work on related issues such as the “restlessness of events”. The meaning of historical events is never safe or static but is always contested and in flux. Each new generation or separate group attempts to assert its own understanding of history and memory against that of previous generations or other groups. The result is historic memory and remembrance being not a final result but a continuous process. This approach is useful and important because it represents a “micro” understanding of historical memory rooted in individual thought and action as opposed to a grand narrative.

In accordance with academic explorations made by scholars, Hou Chunyan, curator from National Museum of China, took another approach to the understanding of war memory. She had a special emphasis on creating and preserving memories of the war against Japan in China from an official perspective. The National Museum has extensive exhibitions and projects dedicated to this subject, and Hou Chunyan said they took a nuanced approach to presenting the material, discussing not only the role of the Chinese Communist Party in the war but also that of the KuominTang. The museum continues to play an important role in facilitating memories of the events of the war.

In order to better understand how memory works, Professor Armelle Viard gave a speech on the mechanisms behind autobiographical memory and future thinking. By making a comparison between episodic memory and autobiographical memory, Professor Viard underscored the time-periods for autobiographical recall of recent and remote memory, including visual mental imagery, access to event, and index to neocortical regions and binds details together. “Memory of personally experienced events, associated to a precise spatio-temporal context, is characterized by autonoetic consciousness, which enables us to project ourselves in time,” she further concluded that “Overall, a joint neuropsycho & neuroimaging approaches can shed light on the complex & dynamic processes at stake in past & future thinking”.

This comprehensive workshop was well-attended and well-received by the Columbia Global Centers East Asia and concluded with a lively discussion and question and answer session.