Monday, June 1, 2015

The understanding of modern history that Shinzo Abe lacks

May 2012

INTERVIEW/ Akira Iriye: Transcending the logic of power

First published in the Asahi Shimbun's Asia Japan Watch July 5, 2014
By HIROKI MANABE/ Correspondent

The Abe administration focused on the logic of “power,” as in state and military strength, as the Cabinet on July 1 approved the reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow the exercise of the right to collective self-defense.

But Akira Iriye, professor emeritus of history at Harvard University, who has been studying history since moving to the United States 60 years ago, says such a state-centric view is outdated in today’s globalized world.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Iriye says we need to view the world through the lens of “sharing” and “connecting.”

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Question: How does Japan under the Abe administration look in the eyes of a historian who has lived in the United States for so long?

Iriye: I think the country has become ensnared in a Japan-centric view. The state-centric thought symbolized by phrases like “our beautiful country” and “defend Japan’s pride” shows ignorance of what the world is like in the present day.
Q: Are you saying it does not suit the times?

A: Yes. Recent historiography focuses not only on great power relations, territorial issues and power games, but also attaches importance to the presence of non-state actors, such as multinational companies, NGOs and religious organizations, as well as to interpersonal connections that transcend national borders. This is because most issues, like environmental problems and terrorism, cannot be understood or solved within the context of a single country.

In the past, I used to study history by looking at different states, such as British history, American history, Chinese history and the history of international relations. The trend of viewing history in non-state terms came about among researchers in the late 1980s or so, and I, too, began to think that way.

In a speech I gave upon stepping down as president of the American Historical Association in 1988, I argued that historiography must have a more global perspective. I received support from many more people than I had expected.

Until then, historiography was an idea that even applied the chronological periods of Western history to other countries, but then came the line of thought that stepped away from the Western-centric view and decentralized historiography.
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Furthermore, we have made advances in global history, which makes the Earth the framework rather than states, and in what we call transnational research, which has a focus on relationships that transcend national borders, rather than on relationships between states.


Q: Arguments premised on power politics are still prominent in international relations theory and political science. When you say “transcend national borders,” don’t people tell you that it is unrealistic?

A: On the contrary, I think realist perspectives on international relations are shallow and hold little meaning in today’s world. Paul Kennedy, who wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” was a great scholar, but many “realists” who stress that national interests move the world are being extremely narrow.

Realist views became widespread in Japan in the 1960s. I was acquainted with Masataka Kosaka, the scholar of international politics, who wrote “Genjitsushugisha no Heiwaron” (A realist’s perspective on peace), and at the time my thinking was similar to his.

I felt uncomfortable with ideologically driven opposition to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, and I thought that a close partnership between Japan and the United States was important. That is because when I studied the history of international relations, I tended to concentrate on the arms race and other policy decisions.

Since we focused too much on balance of power considerations, however, not a single researcher, myself included, predicted the end of the Cold War that came around the year 1990. I think you could say that realism lost its standing.

For it is now believed that the 1975 Helsinki Accord, in which the Soviet Union recognized respect for human rights, spread democratization hopes in the Eastern Bloc, while at the same time the global economy exerted a greater than anticipated effect on the Soviet Union.

If you do not understand such deep connections going beyond the state framework, it would not be possible to anticipate an end to the Cold War. Realism is an idea that does not recognize global changes caused by cultural, social or ideological forces.

Inter-power relations are important, but many historians now believe that these are not as fundamental as transnational connections. The transnational approach to the study of history focuses on phenomena that transcend borders, for example, migrations, cultural interactions, environmental problems, women’s movements, terrorism and so on.

It has been said that it takes 30 years for historians to catch up with forces leading up to the present, so our conceptions may have finally caught up to reality.

Q: In Japan, there are growing fears over Chinese expansionism, so we seem to be preoccupied with the state as the basic framework in discussing Japan-China relations.

A: That is an old-fashioned geopolitical idea. I think Chinese expansionism is just one aspect to consider. To only emphasize territorial issues, despite the fact that so many things, people and money are moving across national borders, goes against the global trend.

And China will inevitably undergo further changes. It is wrong to assume that the whole country acts at Beijing’s command. The Chinese researchers and exchange students I know have ideas different from the government's. There is much Japan and China, and Japan and South Korea, can share with each other.

I think that just clamoring that “China is going to invade another country,” even though all the world’s countries are heading in a direction of a shared fate, is to ignore the bigger picture. Such people seem completely preoccupied with territory issues and are making the situation graver for all of East Asia.

Q: Some are of the opinion that Article 9 of the Constitution is unrealistic. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.

A: I think such realism is out of date, whereas Article 9 of the Constitution is not. For nearly 70 years, there has been no world war, and the majority of the world agrees with the idea that armed force does not settle international disputes. Even the idea of getting the United States to protect Japan instead of Japan's exercising the right of self-defense is an old-fashioned geopolitical idea of the sort that predates World War II.

There is no easy answer to the question of whether it is the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty’s nuclear umbrella or rather Article 9 that has kept Japan in peace, but at the very least, Japan has not posed a threat to its neighbors. This has been a necessary precondition for its economic growth, which has been undertaken in conjunction with the development of a more globalized world.

These days, even the United States under President Barack Obama is attempting arms reduction, and it may be said that Japan has been the global leader when it comes to this development. This is nothing for the Japanese to feel humiliated about or entertain self-doubt. It is also in Japan's interest to pursue such a policy.


An exclusionist movement has begun to rear its head in Japan.

A: Right-wing parties are also making great strides in France. I think this is a transitional phenomenon common to many countries, and it is very serious. I believe people are beginning to feel impatient because they are being left out by economic stagnation, and it is steering them toward a bigoted nationalism.

Speaking of nationalism, some people say that looking squarely at our past is a masochistic way to view history, but if we are going to truly take pride in Japan, then naturally we should start by accepting the past.

A lesson that has been drummed into my head from studying history is that you cannot arbitrarily change the past. It is important to thoroughly explore and look at things from many angles, but you cannot alter the facts themselves. There is only one history, no matter what country of the world you are from, whether you are Japanese, Turkish or Brazilian. A history that you cannot share with others cannot be called history.

Q: You say going “beyond the state,” but in a globalizing economy there is a negative side, such as the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

A: That would not mean, however, it would be wise to return to the Cold War or to protectionism. I think it is erroneous to perceive of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in a traditional manner, or as a contest of national interests. Basically I support it. Rectifying its possibly negative aspects would require closer global, non-economic links transcending national boundaries.

We cannot stop the flow of money and people anymore. Humanitarian connections such as non-state actors and international NGOs will be playing greater roles in the globalized world.

Q: So how should an individual face globalization?

A: My granddaughter who graduated from a public high school in Illinois this year has a Japanese mother and an Irish American father. And my last graduate student, a very fine scholar who received his doctorate recently, has a German father and a Chinese mother. These are the sort of inter-racial blending that is happening in American society as well as elsewhere. President Obama is another example, of course.

People and society are becoming “hybridized,” so to speak. If there is to be hope for the world’s future, then I think that is where it lies.

There was cultural hybridization in Japan during the Meiji Restoration. I cannot understand why, despite this history, there is an anti-foreign sentiment today seeking to close off the country from international contact. That is ridiculous. Japan can never be an exception to globalization. We cannot go back to the "good old days," which never existed any way.

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