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Letters to the Editor

In Support
Of Visualizing Cultures

On Sunday and Monday this week, there was a spotlight on the MIT homepage about Visualizing Cultures ( After viewing the Web site created by Professors John Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa, many contacted Miyagawa expressing distaste for an image of Japanese atrocities. As a student in the Visualizing Cultures (21F.027J) course taught by the two professors, I would like to help clarify their likely intent.

Visualizing Cultures consists of both an academic course and an OpenCourseWare Web site, and the layout is in the form of a virtual museum. The goal of the site is to enable students to learn about history by reading texts (primarily by Dower, a Pulitzer Prize-winner) and viewing images created by the cultures discussed in the texts. The site is not about art appreciation, but instead using visual records as a tool for understanding history. In fulfilling this aim, the site included some illustrations of Japanese atrocities at the turn of the 19th Century. The image which sparked the recent controversy was shown on the site for its historic rather than artistic value. It is unfortunate that the image was distributed on the Internet without its caption and accompanying context, as it appears that this has been the cause of much of the confusion.

Adam C. Powell ’06

Chinese Students Association Offended By Homepage Art

Although we are the Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA), we value the diversity within our group, and we are most grateful for the support and benefits of the culturally-diverse MIT microcosm. However, the “Throwing off Asia” exhibit recently Spotlighted on has shaken our confidence in the cultural sensitivity we have come to associate with this accepting environment. We were disappointed with the nonchalance with which this emotionally provocative and demeaning material was presented, and we struggle to understand how such negligence could have been overlooked at the Institute.

In particular, the vivid images of the wartime atrocities inflicted on the Chinese conjured up haunting emotions of loss and rage, not unlike those emotions many feel toward the Holocaust. Already, the outcry from MIT’s Chinese community has been thunderous and the distress levels severe. We do understand the historical significance of these wood prints, and respect the authors’ academic freedom to pursue this study. However, we are appalled at the lack of accessible explanations and proper historical context that ought to accompany these images.

Phrases featured prominently at the top of the page under Old China, New Japan include “Still, predictable patterns give order to this chaos. Discipline (the Japanese side) prevails over disarray (the Chinese),” and “In short, the Chinese are riotous in every way — disgracefully so in their behavior, and delightfully so in their accoutrements.” These racially-charged statements would be acceptable if they were being used to describe the images. But at first glance, that purpose is far from obvious; instead, the text seems to suggest that the statements are reporting history itself. The issue of the blatant racism so prominently exhibited in these images and descriptions is not addressed until the end of the article.

In light of this, we at the CSSA would like to request the following:

1) The authors should provide the proper historical context for the prints as an introductory paragraph at the top of the page. This text should include warnings stating that the images are graphical in nature and could be emotionally damaging, and also address the racist sentiment and provide the historical perspective (the wood prints’ wartime propaganda nature). The readers should be encouraged to bear this in mind when browsing through the pages.

2) MIT should pay special attention to the presentation of culturally-demeaning content — particularly its potential to be emotionally damaging. As materials in MIT’s lauded Open Course Ware, this online exhibit is accessible to anyone. Is this disregard for cultural sentiment what MIT’s “visualization” of cultures represents?

While we are particularly sensitive to the exhibit’s contents, we are confident that the authors do not endorse the wood prints’ contents in any way beyond their artistic and historical value. Nevertheless, we cannot condone the irresponsible manner in which such material has been presented. An exhibit should provoke discussion, but in this case, it could have been done in a more delicate manner.

Huan Zhang G, President

Lin Han G, Vice President

The Chinese Student and Scholar Association

Stressed Racial Relations

I am confused about how racial relations are viewed by MIT’s administration, which I once believed to be caring of its students. Certainly, if there were ever “an exhibit of Swastika and other anti-Jew hate propaganda,” it would be summarily condemned, unless it was run with a clear declaration of denouncement of the exhibited items. Even then, it would not be welcomed by the MIT community. Why, then, should the “Throwing off Asia” exhibit be different?

Edward Chin Wang Lee G