Ethical Inquiry and the Teaching of History: Conversation with Carnegie Council Fellow Takashi Yoshida

Mar 20, 2003

"Teaching history can be a tool for encouraging students to be critical, and think about how they can tolerate a plurality of views about what is right and what is wrong," says Takashi Yoshida.

Edited transcript of a 03/20/03 interview with Takashi Yoshida.

CARNEGIE COUNCIL (Lili Cole): What courses do you teach at Western Michigan University?

TAKASHI YOSHIDA: This semester I'm teaching "Modern East Asian History" and "Japanese History Through Film and Literature."

CC: I am wondering about the special challenges of combining ethics with history and the main challenges for historians who want to encourage their students to use history to promote ethical inquiry. What influenced your decision to become a historian and your choice of topics?

TY: Originally, you know, I wanted to be a politician! My first degree, in Japan, was in law. I was always very interested in questions of war and peace. When I was very young I had a vision of a top-down approach to making a difference in the world. But as I learned more about international affairs, I began to realize that a top-down approach would never make much of a difference. Also, Japanese politicians have to deal with issues of money and influence, and I gradually got to realize that historians have far more freedom. There are constraints on what they say and do, too, of course, but they are far more free than politicians who have to remember those to whom they owe favors.

At one point I after I came to the United States I interned at Human Rights Watch Asia and considered becoming a human rights activist, but the option of being an activist was finally not as interesting as being a teacher in the end; the range of topics I could work on as an activist was too limited.

When it came to choosing an academic topic in which to do my research and teach, I first tried to enroll in a PhD program in political science. The fact that my first application was rejected made me rethink political science as my subject: I realized it focused too much on policy and leaders for my tastes, not enough on ordinary people. But historians today can try to study the history of nameless people. And historians can study and try to make students understand how the issues that historians have studied have changed over time; for example, if we look at historical records of slavery, which today is considered an absolute moral wrong, we can try to show how changes in beliefs about slavery changed over time. We can also try to illuminate the diversity of opinion that existed at different times about an institution like slavery; once the view that slavery was wrong may have been very much a minority view, but we can still try to show the different groups who held that view, and why.

And if you're a historian, you can study history through so many different kinds of issues and institutions; I could teach Japanese history, or East Asian history, or even the history of dance, if I wanted to.

The main point is that teaching history can be a tool for encouraging students to be critical, and think about how they can tolerate a plurality of views about what is right and what is wrong. I have a strong belief that I should not impose my own views on students; I want them to form their own views. But for that very reason I believe I should be open so that my students know what my own beliefs are, and then make it clear I expect them to be critical thinkers and decide things for themselves. I've found that as a history teacher I can feel I am part of the process of change over time. Maybe I am too optimistic!

CC: How do you think ethics fits into the study of history?

TY: The history teacher today has the ability to draw students' attention to hitherto excluded, unrecognized people. We can try to get our students to bear in mind that there will always be excluded people—for example, as hard as I try I know I don't include the historical experiences of everyone who ever lived!—and so always to ask themselves whose viewpoint is included in the history they are studying. How does that affect our interpretation of history, our view of truth?

CC: Historians today are beginning to talk about "international" history rather than nation-state based history. What are the ethical implications of this tendency?

TY: Many historians who consider themselves "internationalists" still focus too much on the nation-state—they may consider the history of more than one nation-state, but the main object of interest is still the nation-state. That's not what I’m interested in. Geography, in the sense of where you're born, still shapes the views of the historian, but I want to focus on ordinary people as much as possible, and to look at certain events [from various viewpoints, including ethnic minorities and perceived traitors living in a state]. In my dissertation, which looked at how one incident, the Nanjing Massacre, has been remembered in three countries—China, Japan and the United States—I tried to give voice to many different people, moving beyond the limits of the nation-state.

CC: Your scholarly focus is mostly on Japan, although I know you teach about the East Asian region as well. Are there ethical considerations in teaching United States students about a country with which the U.S. once waged a fierce war, memories of which still linger in both countries? Do you find that American students carry stereotypes from the war period, perhaps learned at home from their parents, or more likely these days, from their grandparents?

TY: Many students are interested in the Asia Pacific region right now, but it's true that when World War II comes up there's even more interest. Some of the students' images are shaped by popular culture, like the recent film Pearl Harbor, but my students seem to be ready to learn rather than resisting what I have to say or else relying on stereotypes. I find that younger Americans carry very few negative stereotypes about Japan—I assume that's because of Japan's current status as a strong ally of the United States. I know from history that this could change easily: China was an ally during World War II, but once the country became communist the old status of ally was quickly forgotten and the country was seen as part of the enemy block.

CC: I know, because we've talked about this often in the past, that you feel it is very important to challenge students' innate sense of nationalism and tendencies to use stereotypes. Could you tell me how you go about this in the classroom? You've said before that you start off by introducing yourself as an "international homeless person." For the purposes of combating ethnic stereotypes, how does your identity as an American-based academic born and raised in Japan shape how you teach?

TY: As I said earlier, I've found that students are generally open to learning. The students seem to know generally that stereotypes are wrong, and they take my classes to learn more about an area they don’t know well. It does depend on what kind of students you have, how international they are, whether they come from a background where they've been taught foreign languages, exposed to different cultures and given the opportunity to travel. Students who haven't had these opportunities are more likely to begin their sentences with "The Japanese…" or "The Koreans…." One thing I have always done is use personal stories to challenge stereotyping, like telling the students how I've been called "Jackie Chan" in the United States, and how often people make references to kung-fu movies when they talk to me. Generally I try to break down the students' tendencies to see other countries in monolithic terms by showing them a variety of perspectives on an historical issue. Sometimes my technique doesn't work, though—recently I asked my students whether they could define what is an "East Asian." One student's answer was based on racial definitions, which I countered. Apparently he didn’t like it because he walked out of my class in the middle of the lecture and never came back. I have to say that ethnocentrists do not like my approach to teaching history.

CC: In terms of tools, resources, and techniques for teachers, do you have any suggestions on how the study of history can be used to promote ethical development? What kind of teaching tools do you use? Do you take your students to war memorials, or have them read personal testimonials, for example?

TY: The use of film in the class I'm teaching now has been very interesting. I've shown at least eight films so far this semester. To complement the films, I ask students to do presentations on any theme reflected in the film we're discussing that week—for example, if the film is Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, a student could talk about the samurai-peasant relationship in early modern Japan. But I always insist they need to find conflicting views of historical events. I tell them not to trust the film's director, or a single author of a history book. They need to be critical, consider many sources, and form their own opinions. In my course on modern East Asia I use a lot of images, for example, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean guerrillas to complement discussions of Japanese fascism during the Pacific War [1931-45]. I use old photos, newspaper articles from the period, posters, etc.

I use a lot of personal testimonials, as long as they show multiple perspectives. For example, when I teach about the Nanjing Massacre, I use memoirs written by victims, by bystanders, and by soldiers. As you know, I've been doing a project on war and peace museums in East Asia. I do a presentation with the photos I've taken at all those museums, to make students think about how history is represented. But I have to say that this technique works better for more advanced history students and less well for freshmen and sophomores, especially if they haven’t already written a history paper. For example, many business majors take East Asian history, and they want to know "the answer"—"the truth." Many of these students are not interested in learning conflicting views of when "Japan" began. Rather, they want me to tell them that Japan emerged in the year X, as if I know the truth. So this teaching technique doesn't often work so well with them.

Also, I taught a course at Yale last year focusing on the most difficult issues of the World War II period—the Nanjing Massacre, the "sex slaves" (so-called "Comfort Women"), other atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Southeast Asia, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. This was a seminar for history majors, and it was very small. I believe that for a larger or less advanced group of students, it would have been too difficult: the material was too emotional, and I believe I would have run the risk of creating negative stereotypes. So class size can be an important factor.

CC: Do you approach your teaching any differently from the way you taught before 9/11?

TY: The war started today (March 20), and I expected the students to think I should support the U.S. administration's policy. I was more careful about pushing students to think critically about the war when I taught today. I decided to speak today about the concept of the "white man's burden" among the European colonial powers and the parallel view among Japanese nationalists before and during World War II. I asked the students whether they think this idea is relevant today. I expected the students to challenge me—but no one did! Of course I need more time to see if this continues to be the case. So far the students on my campus are only moderately active in anti-war activities. One of the anti-war groups organized a walk-out today, but no one walked out of my class.

CC: Do the students make comparisons with 9/11 and events since them, especially the war on Iraq, with historical events from World War II, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

TY: No, they don't make these comparisons by themselves, and I haven't brought them up.

CC: Do students seem conscious of your being a foreign-born teacher in ways they weren't before 9/11?

TY: No, not at all. And I haven't experienced any suspicion or mistrust of my views. I have always found people who are good and bad everywhere, people who can and can't accept me, and I haven't found that 9/11 has changed that.

Interview conducted by Lili Cole, Carnegie Council

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