WEAI Author Q&A: Lee Pennington’s “Casualties of History”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Casualties of History: Wounded Japanese Servicemen and the Second World Warpublished by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Lee K. Pennington, an associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. In this book, Professor Pennington relates for the first time in English the experiences of Japanese wounded soldiers and disabled veterans of Japan’s “long” Second World War (from 1937 to 1945). He maps the terrain of Japanese military medicine and social welfare practices and establishes the similarities and differences that existed between Japanese and Western physical, occupational, and spiritual rehabilitation programs for war-wounded servicemen, notably amputees. 

We thank Professor Pennington for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

How did you become interested in the topic of wounded Japanese soldiers?

Studying the visual historical record of the Second World War sparked my interest in depictions of combat and its consequences that existed within Japanese wartime culture.  I came to realize that wounded soldiers commanded a prominent presence within the wartime mass media, and as such, began to investigate the realities that lay behind such representations.  While mucking about in archives in Japan, the world of the wounded serviceman began to grow more apparent and more consequential than I had previously thought!

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this subject?

It was very important for me to examine not only the institutions created to support wounded servicemen but also the views and experiences of those men as depicted in their own words.  Also, I wanted to include popular images of battle casualties as well as official discussions of them.  Important archival sources included the National Diet Library and the Japan College of Social Work.  Then, the Shokeikan archive opened in Tokyo during the later stages of my research and I benefited from its vast collection of historical materials related to wounded Japanese servicemen and Japan’s disabled veteran community.

Could you provide an example or two of ways in which Japanese cultural norms created a different experience for returning soldiers than for American soldiers?

A key difference was that local communities in wartime Japan energetically rallied themselves in support of wounded servicemen.  That’s not to say that such did not happen in the United States during the war years, but in Japan providing aid to battle casualties was in many ways a grassroots rather than a national endeavor.  To tell the truth, I was more struck by the similarities rather than the differences between the two national contexts.  No community wants to see its men (and women!) in uniform suffer, and both Japan and the United States mustered great resources for the benefit of wounded servicemen and disabled veterans.


What surprised you most in the course of your research?

I went into this project expecting to find little in the way of support services for repatriated battle casualties in wartime Japan, but I discovered that historical conditions differed greatly from my preconceived ideas.  I think that for too long we have bought into the wartime propaganda produced in Japan that asserted that it was disgraceful for Japanese servicemen to do anything but die in battle.  In actuality, the same state that spouted such jingoism also created a sophisticated social welfare system that trumpeted the heroism of war-wounded men.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of Japan’s wartime experience?

One hope that I have for Casualties of History is that it leads readers to reconsider many of their beliefs and assumptions about how Japanese society experienced war and reacted to its effects.  Years ago, during my first year at Columbia as a graduate student, I remember Professor Carol Gluck stating one day in class that we need more social history about Japan during the Second World War.  As I found out during the course of my own research, there’s much about wartime Japanese society that we historians have yet to explore.  A lot of valuable material is out there in the archives, just waiting to be uncovered and unpacked!


WEAI Author Q&A: Akiko Takenaka’s “Yasukuni Shrine”



We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwarpublished by The University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Akiko Takenaka, an associate professor of  history at the University of Kentucky. Professor Takenaka’s book offers the first extensive English-language study of Yasukuni Shrine as a war memorial. It explores the controversial shrine’s role in waging war, promoting peace, honoring the dead, and, in particular, building Japan’s modern national identity. It traces Yasukuni’s history from its conceptualization in the final years of the Tokugawa period and Japan’s wars of imperialism to the present.

We thank Professor Takenaka for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What is the significance of the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan? How did you become interested in focusing your book on it?

Yasukuni Shrine is one of the main focal points in the international debates on how Japan remembers its wartime past. It is also deeply intertwined with Japan’s domestic politics in the postwar decades as a result of the strong ties that the Liberal Democratic Party has forged with the shrine and all its meanings.

But most writings on Yasukuni Shrine treat it as a political problem rather than a war memorial and an actual space, an actual shrine, with a long history. I wanted to examine its history as well as the spatial practices that took place within the shrine grounds as a way to think about how it became such a complex political issue. I was also interested in the ways the shrine contributed to the making, strengthening, and transforming of Japan’s national identity.

Brian Connors Manke Photography (c) UK College of Arts & Sciences

Brian Connors Manke Photography (c) UK College of Arts & Sciences

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult during your research for the book? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this history?

Key primary sources include publications by the shrine, including a number of photo albums produced for bereaved families’ visits, newspaper and magazine articles, and memoirs. I conducted interviews and held discussions with numerous people who lived through the Asia-Pacific War in order to better understand the experience of a total war and of the loss of a family member on the battlefront. I also interviewed shrine personnel, and visited the shrine grounds and the Yūshūkan museum numerous times for fieldwork. Secondary sources are countless and continues to appear. I find that they are driven by politics for the most part, but wanted to make sure that I incorporated the arguments that had been made previously. Weeding through as many of them as possible was an enormous task.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding about Japan’s postwar history?

I think that a key contribution that my book can make is its coverage of the entire history of Yasukuni Shrine from its pre-Meiji conceptualizations to the present. I attempted undertake the history in a way that would highlight the varying roles and meanings the shrine has had for different people, and how the meanings have transformed over time. My goal here was to demonstrate why Yasukuni Shrine became, and still is, such a political problem, rather than to offer critique or solution, which is what most publications on the topic do. This attempt also involves a critical understanding of the reasons why both supporters and critics of the shrine strongly believe what they do. I took this approach because I believe that a resolution to such a complicated and contentious issue must involve an understanding of beliefs of the other side. I hope that this approach will also be useful in thinking about other pressing matters that Japan faces, including the recent controversies over the “comfort women” issue.

China and the Environment Panel Discussion



A Report on the March 31, 2014 China and the Environment panel discussion featuring Chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton, Georgetown University professor Micah Muscolino, Yale University professor Peter Perdue, and moderator Eugenia Lean. 

Audio for the event is available on iTunes here:

In an in-depth conversation, three of the leading experts in the field discussed the importance of looking to China’s past in order to address the country’s present environmental situation. The conversation, moderated by Columbia’s Eugenia Lean, featured Yale history professor Peter Perdue, Georgetown history professor Micah Muscolino, and Chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton. The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Center on Japanese Economy and Business, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Study Center.

Peter Perdue spoke first about China’s long environmental history. He began by placing the history in its global context, where nature and humans across time have been united in a “global contribution for better or worse” to the climate. In his remarks, he focused on the need to present a “longer term view” of China and the world’s environmental challenges. In an illustration of this point, he spoke about the rise of CO2 emissions three or four thousand years ago as a result of deforestation in China and East Asia. Deforestation also occurred as a result of war and even of Buddhism, in which monastic centers of production were also forces of deforestation. Efforts on behalf of the state to industrialize during the Self-Strengthening Movement of the late nineteenth century led China on a search for coal. The state focused its efforts on the coast, neglecting the central and Northern provinces, which contributed to the Great North China Famine of the 1870s. Perdue argued that the Great Leap Forward famine was also the result of both ecological phenomena and state policies. He concluded that the environmental crises are deep seeded and very hard to reverse. The good news, he said, is that there is information in the past that may help us learn how to address present and future challenges.

Micah Muscolino encouraged people to incorporate many disciplines and all regions of the world into the discussion of environmental history. In his own research, he has looked at the legacies of how people in China have perceived and responded to environmental change. He asserted these perceptions and responses will “shape the options available to China as well as the rest of the world, as we grapple with environmental change on a global scale.” Muscolino’s most recent book on the ecology of war in China centers on Hunan during World War II and the subsequent civil war, during which the Nationalist Army breached the dikes of the Yellow River in a the  attempt to block a Japanese military advance.  He characterized this event as “possibly the most environmentally damaging act of war in world history.” The diversion led to mass flooding and precipitated a famine. These events tied together war, flood, and famine. They were strategic decisions made by the state and its military leaders, which had a massive impact on environmental change.  Muscolino said that “literally everything in China’s history has environmental components,” emphasizing the need to make the environment a central focus of the discipline and of the discussion of China’s present challenges. “China’s past may be the world’s future,” he concluded.

Isabel Hilton, the founder and editor of Chinadialogue, a website that reports on China’s environmental issues, spoke about the journalism profession, which she characterized as having a “short-term memory.” Hilton questioned the narratives of modern environmental challenges, which often view stories in terms of a start, middle, and end point. She argued that “the difference with climate change is that it is not going to end” and warned that the opportunity to build effective policies to address climate change will diminish as societies are put under increasing stress. According to Hilton, the short-term roots of China’s environmental crisis are the past thirty years of development where the government pursued a policy of “develop first, clean up later.” Now the repercussions of this sort of policy are beginning to appear, yet the state faces the difficult situation of these problems being embedded in the economic model. While there is political will to confront the environmental issues, Hilton explained that the enforcement of top down policies is likely to fail “without the proper horizontal checks and balances.” There must be freedom of the press and social media, she said. There is a spread of civil society, Hilton said, but it is weak because citizens are denied avenues of activism. She explained that the Chinese government now regards environment problems as a “security issue.” With that mindset, Hilton explained, government efforts to fight pollution cannot be effective because they are tied to the larger ambition of maintaining party power.