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October 10, 2019

Riddles of History: Researching the Lives of Japan’s Indigenous Peoples

Kirsten Ziomek, Ph.D., is co-director of Adelphi’s Asian Studies program and the author of Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples (2019). She is currently working on her second book about World War II and Japan’s colonial peoples.

Every book of history is based, in large part, on detective work. The historian sifts through various pieces of evidence to construct a narrative of what happened. This task is hard enough when recent, well-documented moments are concerned, but when a historian sets out to chronicle obscure events from the distant past, writing history can border on the impossible.

Kirsten Ziomek, PhD, associate professor of history, co-director of Asian Studies and author of the new book Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples (Harvard University Asia Center, 2019), took on a subject so challenging she wondered if some “histories are essentially unknowable.” A reasonable concern, given that most histories of the Japanese Empire wholly reiterate colonial narratives.

Yayutz Bleyh pictured when she worked as an instructor at Neihengping Aboriginal Language Institute.

Credit: Taiwan sōtokufu banzoku chōsakai banzoku chōsa hōkokusho 6, no. 3. Taipei: Taiwan sōtokufu banzoku chōsakai, 1920.

Preparing to embark on the project, Dr. Ziomek also wrestled with questions of academic ethics. Who has a right to write histories of indigenous peoples? Is there a danger of reinscribing violence on indigenous people by misrepresenting their history? But, Dr. Ziomek realized, staying silent ran the risk of letting colonial narratives go unchallenged, so she resolved to right the historical record and document the experiences of the Ainu, the Okinawans, the Micronesians and Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, including the Paiwan. Among all the disparate populations in the Japanese Empire, these four “fit the least easily into the [colonial] concept of dōbun dōshu (common culture, common race).”

Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples mixes conventional sources with unconventional ones. Dr. Ziomek applied a critical eye to records from Japanese colonial sources “to make sure [I] was not replicating Japanese imperial rhetoric and propaganda.” This process involved cross-checking information in the colonial record with information in other sources and languages, especially interviews and oral histories when possible.

Karafuto Ainu Participants at the 1912 Tokyo Colonial Exposition. This card is unique as it shows spectators in the shot.

Credit: Author’s collection.

Dr. Ziomek also drew on smaller, more personal artifacts. For instance, she received permission from the descendants of Pete Gorö—an Ainu man who came to America in 1904 as part of the human display at the World’s Fair—to show photos from his sightseeing tour of St. Louis. She also included postcards showing the Paiwan in London in 1910 for the Japan-British Exhibition. Through the accounts written on these cards, Dr. Ziomek was able to construct a sense of what the Paiwan experienced in England. No other book in the Japan studies field has made such extensive use of photographs.

Dr. Ziomek’s book exposes the errors in conventional histories of colonized populations, which largely present them as passive victims of Japanese expansion. Colonized people were empowered to shape their experiences, she believes. Because the Japanese colonial effort was weak throughout much of its territory, “the Japanese needed men of influence and chiefs [in Taiwan] to act as facilitators to the point they would grant the rebels immunity,” Dr. Ziomek said. “This disrupts conventional notions of the ‘civilized Japanese’ ruling the ‘savages,’ and instead shows how, in fact, the Japanese relied on and worked with the very people they maligned in media.”

Thanks to its unique scope, the book brings readers closer to a neglected time and culture. “Looking at four areas of the Japanese empire, I described the local administrative apparatuses the Japanese put in place for each as well as ethno-racial hierarchies specific to each region,” Dr. Ziomek said. “This gives a real sense of the vast expanse of the Japanese empire and the sheer complexity involved in governing such diverse peoples.”

Still, Dr. Ziomek stresses, the book is not the “definitive” account of these colonial cultures. Rather, it’s an attempt to deepen our understanding of cultures that have too long been marginalized, helping to right present-day wrongs. “How we think about the world and the political and current events is informed by the past and what has happened,” she concluded. “If our understanding of past events is skewed, it affects how we view certain people and their ability to shape their own lives in the past and today.”

Photo caption 1: Kirsten Ziomek, PhD, is co-director of Adelphi’s Asian Studies program and the author of Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples (2019). She is currently working on her second book about World War II and Japan’s colonial peoples.

Photo caption 2: Top: Bottom: Karafuto Ainu Participants at the 1912 Tokyo Colonial Exposition. This card is unique as it shows spectators in the shot. Credit: Author’s collection.]


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