Volume 1(2012)

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Historiographic Reminiscences
Akira Iriye

Charles Warren Research Professor of American History Emeritus, Harvard University, U. S. A.

The history of history – that is, the development of the study of history – has recently become a particularly active subject among historians. It is no exaggeration to say that they are now far more “self-conscious” than their predecessors, reflecting the fact that historiography, namely scholarly traditions and changes, has become very much part of the study of history. Obviously, we do not want simply to repeat what others have written. There must be something innovative about the subject one researches on and writes about, the conceptual framework in which it is discussed, the methodology used, and, above all, the work’s relevance to the future of the field of study.

This, of course, has always been characteristic of scholarship. Whether in science or the humanities, one tries to “go beyond,” “add to,” or “revise” the existing knowledge and perspective. Without such self-consciousness, there will be no advance in scholarly work. Historians have been no exception. They have always been interested in making an original contribution to scholarship, each speaking with an original voice, so to speak, so that altogether the chorus will be the richer.

The historipgraphic chorus has become not only richer but more divergent and even assertive in the last decades. This can be seen in the frequency with which words like “global,” “transnational,” and “hybrid” are used in the titles of books and articles. We may also note the popularity of themes like consumption and memory, the former referring to what people consume and the latter to how they remember the past. These are disparate subjects, but they all enrich our understanding of history, inducing us to pay closer attention than scholars used to do both to global interconnections and to individual “agencies.”

Before describing these recent historiographic developments, however, I would like to give a personal overview of what the study of history has meant since I first became interested in the subject nearly seventy years ago.

The realization that history is malleable, that there is no one “past” that everyone can accept as the truth was brutally brought home to me when the Asian-Pacific War ended in August 1945. Until then, history was what one learned at school. At least that was my perception – and I believe that of most people of my generation. For those, like me, who had been born during the 1930s, the first years of life coincided with the war that began in China in 1931 and lasted for nearly fourteen years. The long conflict was the background in which we went to school where we learned the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Somewhere during our primary school years, we also studied history. But to me and our classmates, who were in first grade in 1941 and fifth grade four years later, history almost exclusively meant Japanese history, and Japanese history consisted of the list of emperors, going back to the legendary Jimmu emperor who had ascended the throne, so we were told, in the year 660 BC. We tried to memorize the names of all the emperors who followed him, little aware that they were all fictitious characters and that the first imperial line was not established till more than a thousand years later. But no one, not even our teachers, questioned the “unbroken line” of the imperial institution, something that made the country unique – and invincible. If this was “history,” it was little different from propaganda.