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  • 史学 Shigaku/History
  • Thomas Keirstead (bio)

Introduction: Shigaku as Discipline

Histories of the historical discipline in Japan regularly refer back to a pair of inaugural moments. One is the imperial edict of 1869 that named history a national priority and established an office for the compilation of national history.1 The other is the arrival in 1887 of one Ludwig Riess to take up a position in the department of history at the newly established Tokyo Imperial University. The first moment, throwing the state behind the production of history, seemed to fulfill Hegel’s dictum that the state was the proper subject and object of history, while the second is seen as marking the beginning of the fully academic study of history (shigaku) in Japan. The embarrassing denouement of the first opening—the project was aborted when instead of producing a modern history of the nation, the compilers opted for a national history in Chinese on the archaic model of the Six National Histories (Rikkokushi, 720-901)—sets the stage for the second, successful instantiation of shigaku. Though a remarkably undistinguished historian, Riess brought with him a connection to the godfather of modern academic history, Leopold von Ranke. Variously described as secretary, acolyte, or member of Ranke’s seminar (in fact, Riess was too young to have been any of these things in any serious way; he could only have encountered a very elderly and long-retired Ranke), he provides a link in a genealogy tying the modern study of history in Japan to its fabled foundations in Ranke’s seminar.2 In this way, Ranke’s determinedly objective, archival, document-and-seminar-based practice of history became enshrined at the Imperial University (as at much the same time it was being established in the United States and elsewhere). This framework for the study of history was completed in 1889, two years after Reiss’s arrival, with the formation of a Historical Association, the Shigakkai, and the founding of its journal, Shigakkai zasshi (Journal of the Historical Association), later Shigaku zasshi (Historical Journal), still a leading historical journal in Japan. [End Page 21]

This is, of course, the story of one particular version of shigaku, a story that identifies history with its modern disciplinary infrastructure and methods and that slights other configurations of history or possible meanings of the term. In this telling, shigaku means historical science in the German sense; indeed, rekishigaku entered Japanese as a translation of the German Geschichtswissenschaft (historical science).3 But this account excludes from its purview earlier, broader understandings of the term such as, for example, the sense that crops up in dictionaries in which shigaku connotes simply knowledge/study of history without any suggestion as to how that study should proceed or where the study properly takes place.4 This account obscures as well the fluidity of boundaries in a pre-disciplinary age, the ways in which what we have come to identify as history and literature mingled, for instance, in the historical fiction of Takizawa Bakin or Santō Kyōden. And what are we to make, on this account, of the following curious history? In 1879, history, shigaku, was dropped as a course of instruction at Tokyo University. For the next eight years—until September, 1887, when Tokyo University was reorganized into the Imperial University—Japan’s premier university had no history department and no course in shigaku. As Katō Hiroyuki, president of the university, explained it, this was because in Japan, “history requires something different from the history taught in the schools of Europe and the United States. It cannot consider only the history of the West, but must treat the histories of Japan, China, India and the several countries of the Orient.”5 The daunting range of expertise required to teach such a course meant that no qualified instructors could be found, while the equally intimidating range of competencies required to pass the course meant that students were hard to come by. During this period, history was taught, not in a department of history, but in the faculties of Chinese and Japanese literature, where it was a fixture of the curriculum. Even after the reconstitution of the University’s history department...


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