Book Spotlight: The Long Defeat – Akiko Hashimoto

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In The Long Defeat, Akiko Hashimoto examines the origins and manifestations of war memory in Japan, and its implications for the country’s future.

What I liked:

  • I think every Nikkei reader who has ever felt conflicted or curious about how the war affects their identity will find The Long Defeat an interesting and relevant book. Although Hashimoto focuses on what war memory means to Japanese nationals, I personally think Nikkei identity exists on a continuum with Japan at one end and non-Japan places at the other (or maybe a Venn diagram; I think the shape probably depends on the topic being discussed). In other words, our (Nikkei) understandings of how the war affects us are incomplete without taking into account how our families and ancestors in Japan were/are affected.
  • Hashimoto’s work verified and validated much of what I previously suspected or inferred about war memory in Japan. It’s difficult to put this into words, but I think any Nikkeijin with close ties to Japan will understand when I say it’s part of the known but not really discussed aspect of being Japanese. I don’t know if other Nikkei readers will experience the same feeling from this book, but personally it’s very comforting to know Japanese/Nikkei in various fields are thinking deeply about these topics.
  • Several times in the book, most notably in the final section on moral recovery and reconciliation, Hashimoto notes how so-called “global” methods of postwar recovery are actually heavily Euro/US/western/white-centric, with Germany as the base model, and raises the question of whether and/or how effectively such methods can be applied to peoples and nations whose cultural ideologies are non-Euro/US/western/white-centric. She also includes a (deliberately provocative?) one-liner, in which she observes China and South Korea are increasingly utilizing the so-called “global” framework to demand war reparations from Japan, but refrain from casting their own histories through the same lens. Hashimoto’s observations were particularly interesting to me insofar as they highlight yet another way white/Eurocentric/western influences create tension in Japanese culture, and the degree(s) to which these influences and tensions are/aren’t acknowledged by Japanese people.
  • Hashimoto’s writing is relatively accessible, though I think the format of the information might need to be changed to appeal to pre-college readers. Comprehensibility and accessibility are, I think, sometimes undervalued in academia, with its self-perpetuating aura of exclusivity. Readers outside academia should know scholars come with their own backgrounds, biases, opinions, etc., none of which should be automatically negated simply because someone has a doctorate or two. (This seems really self-evident to me, but I’ve learned “PhD” intimidates a lot of people into thinking they can’t or shouldn’t argue. That’s bullshit – having a degree does not make anyone immune to being wrong.) Likewise, those within academia should, if they really wish to change how people think, consistently gauge the needs and knowledge of their audiences. Just because someone doesn’t have the educational background or linguistic capability to wade through a dense volume on critical theory, doesn’t mean they are less worthy of being exposed to that knowledge. Is decolonization only for the privileged? I suppose this seems like a tangent, but Hashimoto’s book feels extremely relevant to any JA/Nikkei interested in identity formation, and I would hate to see any fellow readers miss out because of accessibility issues. To clarify, I’m not criticizing Hashimoto directly; I would be interested in knowing what she thinks about making her work more readily accessible to Japanese/Nikkei audiences outside academia.

What I learned:

  • Memory, specifically war and postwar memory, is significant to both Japanese and Nikkei writers. I suppose this is self-evident if one stops to think about it, but even though I’ve been reading up on camp memory in Nikkei communities, and I vaguely knew about the ongoing impacts of the war in Japan, I hadn’t connected the dots. I would love to see Hashimoto co-write a companion volume about war memory in Nikkei communities with one or more Nikkei scholars who specialize in camp memory. What would that be, transnational memory studies? As Eiichiro Azuma demonstrated in Between Two Empires (see my post here), Japanese and Nikkei history are not mutually exclusive.

Questions I had:

  • What is Hashimoto’s background and how did it shape the writing of this book? Based on her CV, it looks like she is probably 日系 (as opposed to 日本人), but I’m not sure. Fiction writers are often asked about the inspiration behind a particular book, but I don’t see this asked of academic writers nearly as often, even though I feel the question applies to any writer. Too often, I think, academic writers’ backgrounds go unexamined because of how academia conflates itself with a myth of omniscience, so to speak, and readers outside academia (or even within it) assume citing an academic source is tantamount to having the final ‘authoritative’ word on something. To me, it’s more useful to situate academic texts, like any book, within a broader context of materials dealing with the topic in question, as well as relative to the writer’s background, and to not be complacent (or complicit) in reading solely through the institutional hierarchy. (I would especially remind fellow USian readers and anyone else whose formative education was based in Eurocentric academia to keep this in mind. Forest versus the trees, right?) This isn’t a criticism of Hashimoto, by the way – rather, as a Nikkei reader interested in Nikkei writing across genres and forms, I always want to know why individual Nikkei writers choose to explore Nikkei-ness, or Japanese-ness, or whatnot, via a particular medium or field. In this case, since I’m uncertain of Hashimoto’s background, I mostly focused on what I perceived as the strengths and limitations of her analysis, and I tried to avoid interpreting the text based on assumptions about her ties to Japan. Her CV lists her languages as English, Japanese, and German, so I’m reasonably confident of some cultural and linguistic breadth to the sources she drew upon for this book (this is also supported by the notes and bibliography sections).
  • How would Hashimoto apply her analysis to the Shin-Nikkei generations? In community spaces, I often see lines (whether solid or dotted) drawn between 日本人 and 日系人, and while these distinctions are certainly real and important, I think sometimes they result in unnecessarily narrowly bounded definitions of each term. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, a Yonsei whose family came to the US before the war and had relatives incarcerated in concentration camps will have different experiences and understandings of Japanese-ness and Nikkei-ness than a Shin-Issei or Shin-Nisei whose family history doesn’t include the camps at all, yet both could technically claim the term 日系人 if they wished. That said, a Shin-Issei who came to the US in the 80s will theoretically have grown up absorbing the various forms of (post)war memory Hashimoto identifies in Japanese textbooks, pop culture, and national media…and it therefore follows that they will in some capacity be affected by the ambivalence Hashimoto observes to be the overarching Japanese approach to remembering the war. They will, of course, also be subject to the same forms of racism experienced by JA/Nikkei who have been in the US for much longer. Additionally, depending on the spaces they choose to occupy, they may or may not begin to perceive topics like history and social justice from a 日系 rather than a 日本 perspective, insofar as the two can be differentiated. I wonder, then, what Hashimoto might infer about the nature of transnational war memory in this case?
  • I read the paperback edition of the book, and as far as I can tell, the blurbs on the back are all by white people. I’m not sure how blurbs are acquired for academic texts, but I can’t help wondering why Hashimoto and/or her editor/publisher couldn’t find any POC, much less Japanese or Nikkei scholars, to blurb the book. In fiction, I know the bigger the blurb writer’s reputation, the better it is for the book from a marketing perspective, but I’m not sure the considerations are the same in academia. I suppose white supremacy’s continuing stranglehold on academia might also be the answer – I imagine the support of white men is useful and maybe even indispensable to WOC/POC in the ivory tower. At any rate, as someone who could easily never again hear a white-person-with-degree’s Opinion on Japan (and don’t get me started on the expats, much less the degreed expats), I’m disappointed not to see at least one Japanese name on the back cover.

Follow-up:

  • I hope Hashimoto continues to study and write about war memory in Japan. The holistic feel of this book is, I think, an extremely solid foundation for ongoing work on the nature of war memory in Japan, especially as successive generations in Japan are affected by increasing chronological distance from the war and changes in East Asian geopolitics.
  • I wonder if any non-Japanese Asian writers living in Japan, particularly Chinese or Korean writers, have produced a similar book. It would be interesting to read a Chinese or Korean perspective on war memory in Japan, especially from a writer who has grown up surrounded by the references to war memory in Japanese culture which Hashimoto identifies.
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