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

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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.

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WEAI Author Q&A: Shellen Wu’s “Empires of Coal”

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We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920published by Stanford University Press. The book’s author is Shellen Xiao Wu, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In this study about the international battle over control of China’s coal reserves, Professor Wu argues that the changes specific to the late Qing were part of global trends in the nineteenth century, when the rise of science and industrialization destabilized global systems and caused widespread unrest and the toppling of ruling regimes around the world.

We thank Professor Wu 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 first drew you to the topic of Western interests in China’s coal reserves?

I first read the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen’s writings years ago and found them fascinating. Here’s a Prussian aristocrat traveling extensively in China right after the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s with his Indian tea (he didn’t like Chinese tea, thought it too weak) and American whiskey and writing down all his impressions, as well as long reports on mineral deposits in the interior to send to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. His expeditions took place at a time when very few Westerners went beyond the legation quarters of Beijing. Richthofen eventually coined the term “silk road” and correctly hypothesized the origin of loess in the North China Plains, the two things for which he is most known for today.  He also wrote a lot about coal in China.

I made the connection between Richthofen and the turning point in Western interest in Chinese coal, and realized that he was pivotal to a changing perception of China by the late nineteenth century. We know the expression “not for all the tea in China.” Richthofen and his writings led many in the West to see China not just as a source of luxury goods like tea and silks, but also as a place with vast reserves of coal. This shift in view in turn led to a Great Race between European and American companies and Chinese interests to be the first to develop these mineral reserves and reap the profits.

What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in researching this study? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this topic?

I used a number of archives and published documents, including the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing, the Hubei Provincial Archives, eight volumes of Qing documents related to mining published by Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and the German Foreign Ministry Archives. It turns out that the Germans kept extensive documentation of expats in China and records of German engineers who worked at one of the earliest iron foundries and modern coalmines established in China. Everyone, the Germans, the British, and Qing officials, were keenly aware of the importance of coal to the process of industrialization.

Doing these kinds of new global histories requires language skills and a lot of travel. Research for the book took me to three continents, Europe, the US, and Asia, and turned up massive amounts of materials. The very abundance of archival and published document sources turned into the main challenge. Mining engineers’ reports don’t make for the most exciting reading. It was a very unwieldy process to weed through all this material and distill it into a 200 -page monograph.

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During your research, did any of your findings surprise you or change the way you thought about the history of China—or about the history of the West–during this era?

We take for granted now that we live in an age of globalization, but it’s quite surprising how much ground people covered in the nineteenth century. Europeans and Americans traveled extensively in China before the railroads were built; at a slightly later period, Chinese students and Qing officials traveled abroad to Europe and North America. Far from one sided, everyone was observing and studying everyone else and people were open minded in a way that I don’t think many of us are even today.

How are the global trends detailed in your book relevant for our contemporary times? 

I detail in my book the process of industrialization and the creation of a new mindset necessary for China’s switch to a coal based economy at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It was apparent to officials, intellectuals, and writers then that if they didn’t seize control of Chinese mineral resources, they might lose it to the acquisitive expansion of Western imperialism. Today we are living with the consequences of that transition. The intensive exploitation of coal and other natural resources to fuel the Chinese economy has resulted in extensive environmental damage. Even studies conducted by the Chinese government show that up to 20% of the farmland in the country to be dangerously polluted, much of it from heavy metals and the run-off from ecologically damaging mining practices. The global trends begun during the period covered in book are extremely important to understanding these contemporary problems.

How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about China’s history?

I’ve always found China to be similar to the US in that it’s a very big country and a place where it’s very easy to focus exclusively on local and, at a stretch, national concerns. My book is part of a growing movement taking place in Sinology. More and more of us are examining the various connections both within and beyond China’s borders, as part of particular global turns in history. I would like my book to help open up the horizons of people’s understanding of Chinese history and to see China in the context of global changes in the way we use and exploit natural resources to produce the energy that makes modern life possible.

April 1 Event: “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the April 1, 2015 event “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy.” The event featured a lecture by Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute.  His talk was moderated by Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University.

During the event, Dr. Pillsbury, who earned his Ph.D. from Columbia, talked about his new book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, published by Henry Holt. He also discussed his background as an adviser about China to several presidential administrations, from the Nixon presidency to the Obama presidency.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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February 24 Event “Sound and Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation with Artist Xu Bing:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the February 24, 2015 event “Sound and Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation with Artist Xu Bing.” The standing-room only event featured a stimulating discussion between internationally acclaimed artist Xu Bing and five renowned Chinese poets: Bei Dao, Ouyang Jianghe, Xi Chuan, Zhai Yongming, and Zhou Zan.  Their conversation was moderated by Lydia H. Liu, Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, and John Rajchman, Adjunct Professor of Art History at Columbia University.  Eugenia Lean, Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Associate Professor of Chinese History at Columbia University, introduced the discussion.

The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Confucius Institute at Columbia University, Xu Bing Studio, the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, the Department of Art History and Archaeology,  the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia Global Centers East Asia, and Literary Translation at Columbia (LTAC) of the School of the Arts.

On Wednesday, February 25, 2015, the five Chinese poets–along with five eminent American poets– read poetry in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Xu Bing’s soaring “Phoenix” sculpture is on display. For a discussion with Columbia University professor Lydia H. Liu about Xu Bing’s “Phoenix,” please click here.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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February 23 Event: “Speech and Media Freedom – New Lessons of the Umbrella Revolution:” Photos and Audio


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Photographs and audio are now available from the February 23, 2015 event “Speech and Media Freedom – New Lessons of the Umbrella Revolution.” The event featured a lecture by Margaret Ng, who is a noted politician, barrister, writer, and columnist in Hong Kong. Dr. Ng’s lecture was moderated by Benjamin L. Liebman, Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law, Columbia Law School, and Director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, Columbia Law School. 

During the lecture and the discussion afterward, Dr. Ng addressed current legal issues in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, Columbia Law School.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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February 5 Event: “New Directions in Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy:” Photos and Video

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Photographs and video are now available from the February 5, 2015 Tenth Annual Lecture on Japanese Politics, titled: “New Directions in Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy.” The event featured Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science, Columbia University. The lecture by Professor Curtis–an internationally known expert on Japanese politics–was moderated by Hugh T. Patrick, R.D. Calkins Professor of International Business Emeritus; and Director, Center on Japanese Economy and Business, Columbia Business School. A report about the event is available here.

The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and The Center on Japanese Economy and Business.

To view the video, please click here.

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December 9 Event: “Modern China Studies and the Digital Humanities:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the December 9, 2014 event “Modern China Studies and the Digital Humanities: An Introduction to Computational Methods, Tools, and Data. ” The event, co-sponsored by the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, featured Richard Jean So (PhD Columbia), an assistant professor of English at The University of Chicago.  His presentation was moderated by Eugenia Lean, associate professor of Chinese history and Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute

This event was the first installment in the series “Digital Humanities in the Study of East Asia.”

To listen to the event, please click here.

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