Every society has its own historical trauma and shared memory of events it may or may not want to face, be it war, colonial experience, or internal conflicts. As outsiders, we often criticize nations that are reluctant to admit historical events. We warn them of consequences to this resistance as if we know better. Japan is a striking and controversial example. Its current government refuses to acknowledge historical trauma it inflicted and experienced in World War II. Yet, I wonder how things truly play out for people whose nation has, on a national level, rejected historical events. To this question, Kanako from Japan shares,
Instead of turning away from historical trauma, my family has always taught me to address it straight on. In fifth grade, when I brought home a letter from a well-meaning history teacher who wanted my family to know it was okay for me to skip history class covering Pearl Harbor, my mother made sure I got on the bus the next day to go to school.
In high school, when I came back from my two-week exchange program to Singapore, which included a trip to Changi Museum, my mother made me spend hours over dinner recounting, in detail, what I learned. And last semester, even when I sobbed over the phone with my parents as the toll of the language fair flag fiasco*, “Japanese colonialist” jokes made at the expense of my comfort during literature class, and the pressure of having to do a presentation about Singaporean colonial history finally got to me, I was told firmly to keep my head high and my mind open.
So whenever someone asks me, “You don’t know about the history of World War II, right?”, a part of me breaks a little inside. On one hand, I want to shout: “Yes! I do know! I read things and I talk to people and I watch movies and I do independent research! I even tried signing up for a level 3000 history course on the expansion of the Japanese empire this semester!”
But a little nagging voice inside my head stops me from doing that. It asks me, “Is my knowledge, not taught within the confines of a classroom, ever enough?” “Is my knowledge, never tested on an official exam, truly accurate and unbiased?”
Caught between self-doubt about my flawed education and confidence in my active pursuit of an unbiased history, I am forever torn between my love for my country and a frank acceptance of its historical actions.
Kanako Sugawara is a sophomore who has spent an almost equal amount of time living in suburban Chicago and Kanagawa, Japan.
Kanako’s sentiment resonates with my experience. Up till the age of 14, I was educated under local Taiwanese schools, where, of course, I learned about Chinese History. When I first transferred to an international school, my history teacher from America was so proud to teach us about the communist and nationalist alliance against Chinese warlords**. “Something you won’t learn in local Taiwanese schools,” he said with such pride.
I was surprised. My Taiwanese history teachers never hid the historical fact that the communist and nationalists were allies at some point, nor did they paint the Chinese communists as some “evil opposition”. By assuming that Taiwanese history teachers present a biased history to students, my international school history teacher was also imposing his own biases on us.
Despite this, I could hardly blame my history teacher. These historical memories carry such strong implications on modern Taiwan-China relationship, it is difficult for outsiders to imagine that it can be widely spoken within confines of classrooms and family dinners.
Many people probably share similar struggles. On the one hand, their national government may choose to address historical events in a certain way, but on the other, these national approaches may not reflect their personal take on history. I wonder if one can truly reconcile these conflicting feelings.
*Saga Language Fair in March 2017 put up the Imperial “Rising Sun Flag” instead of the contemporary Japanese flag. **My American teacher assumed that Taiwanese teachers would conceal the 1920s alliance between the Chinese communist party and nationalist party given the current tension between China, governed by the communist party, and Taiwan, where the nationalist party remains.