- Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan's Colonial Peoples by Kirsten L. Ziomek
Names matter. Playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues) has said, "I believe in naming what's right in front of us because that is often what is most invisible."1 The Naïve Idealist, contributor to the web site The Good Men Project, adds, "A person's name is the doorway into their world; a [End Page 505] person's name has the power to open a connection into their world, a connection to show them who you are, a connection to pass your feelings of that person through and a connection to show them how you see them."2 Onlookers apparently feel less connected to victims of genocide, refugees crossing treacherous seas, or migrants packed into detention camps unless and until they learn the names of individual sufferers who come to emblematize larger plights. To the extent the world came to care at all about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, it was because we learned the name of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who was washed ashore on a Turkish beach in 2015.3
People subjugated by colonialism have been generally treated, by both colonial regimes and later historians, as discursive objects and subaltern "ethnotypes" whose individuality is effaced. Noting and recording individual names is one of the most powerful ways in which we can acknowledge their existence, singularity, and historical importance. Unfortunately, colonial archives rarely disclose those names. Therefore, when we find names we must treasure them, not just for the information they can provide for our books and articles, but for the potentially transformative encounters we might have with the bearers of those names.
If, as the Naïve Idealist says, "a person's name has the power to open a connection into their world," Kirsten L. Ziomek's Lost Histories demonstrates that power. Her dogged pursuit of the names and life stories of people who lived within Japan's formal empire is truly impressive. In several cases Ziomek circumvents the limitations of the "colonial archive" to provide us with portrayals of people whose lives were certainly affected by the "oppressive nature of Japan's colonial policies" (pp. 8–10) but were nevertheless full and fascinating. Her investigations do not always yield "uplifting stories of power and agency," yet they do reveal some of the ways that "colonial subjects acted within that oppression" (p. 11). Several times throughout the text, Ziomek recounts her sleuthing process, sharing with the reader the excitement of discovery.
The author sometimes overstates the originality of her insights and themes. For a couple of decades now, historians of Japanese imperialism have been crafting more "complicated" (p. 6) and "nuanced" (p. 11) depictions of colonial relationships; they have recognized the "precariousness of Japanese rule" (p. 6) and that there was no simple "one-way process in which [End Page 506] the Japanese always controlled their subjects" (p. 5); they have worked in multiple languages to understand the thoughts and experiences of colonial subjects and to create accounts that de-center (while not understating) the fact of Japanese domination. Ziomek is hardly the first to tell us that colonial identities were protean, or that Koreans, aboriginal and Han Taiwanese, Ainu, Okinawans, and Micronesians navigated imperial relations cleverly and turned the material and nonmaterial conditions of colonial modernity to their own personal and collective advantages. We know that Japanese officials relied extensively on connections and alliances with compliant local elites, whose own interests and motivations were complex and malleable, and who did not hesitate to invoke their status as "children of the emperor" to assert their own dignity. Historians of Japan are aware that there were multiple conflicting imperial theories, justifications, and visions, and that in certain contexts "ethnoracial difference" was celebrated as an asset rather than an indication of the failure and futility of assimilation (dōka) and imperialization (kōminka) policies (pp. 5–7). Ziomek is thus contributing to what have become mainstream trends...