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Context of Images Was Sufficient

Clyde Law ’02, Tao Yue ’04

Recently, there’s been an outpouring of uninformed rhetoric attacking the Visualizing Cultures commentary on Japanese artwork from the First Sino-Japanese War. We can only imagine the vitriol flung at Professors John W. Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa, for in the blogosphere and on terra discussion foruma, rumors spread faster than wildfire, and research is an unnecessary qualification for discussion. It is particularly distressing, though sadly unsurprising, that the fiercest attacks were directed towards Professor Shigeru Miyagawa primarily because of his Japanese heritage.

But there are always hotheads in cyberspace. We address, rather, the calmer voices, those who have seen the images in their original context but who nevertheless criticized the project on other grounds. Some took issue with the tone of the commentary surrounding the pictures. Others, as the Chinese Student and Scholar Association officers did in their reasonably measured letter (, condemned the authors for providing insufficient historical background.

We do not agree with these criticisms. When we looked at the project Web site, we felt that the accompanying text adequately explained the historical context in which these prints were to be viewed. When scrutinizing a controversial work, it is easy to find ambiguity which can be misconstrued to give offense, but it is just as easy to discover the exact opposite. Indeed, the commentary on the Web site already discusses the “harsh racist charge and an undisguised edge of pure sadism,” the “unusually frightful scene,” the “poisonous seed … planted in violence in 1894-95,” and the “explosive outburst of Japanese condescension towards China … [which] seems all the more stunning.” The commentary explains particularly poignantly that “this was the war Japanese wished to see” (emphasis added), and that the anti-Chinese racism displayed in the pictures “would burst into full atrocious flower four decades later, when the emperor’s soldiers and sailors once again launched war against China.” These passages are very critical of the Japanese militarism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in our opinion are sufficient to place the works in context.

Context should place a work of art in its historical milieu; it does not need to present the history itself, nor should it present judgment. Showing first-hand evidence of historical wrongs is a good thing. Who will fight harder against genocide — someone who was taught “The Nazis were evil, they tried to wipe out the Jews,” in elementary school, or someone who listened to Hitler’s rages in college and watched footage of die Kristallnacht? Who will fight harder against racism — someone who knows only, “The South had segregation, Blacks were terrorized,” from elementary school, or someone who was shocked by the casual depiction of Ku Klux Klan terrors on the movie screen? The professor should guide the student in his explorations, but need not present the student with fully-baked opinions. Dispassionate discussion is not to be confused with nonchalant flippancy. People are not so clueless that they must be taught to deplore hatred and violence — anyone with a shred of decency will do that for himself. If we find it necessary to preface all controversial topics with a disclaimer, we risk turning it into a mantra, a shallow understanding of cause-and-effect.

It is also counterproductive to confine depictions of unpleasant historical facts to the classroom for fear that it may be misinterpreted by the easily-corrupted. This would be antithetical to the mission of OpenCourseWare, whose goal is to promote free and open knowledge to people around the world. We cannot learn from history if only a select few are taught. Indeed, the woodblocks and their racist caricatures of Chinese carry particular weight at present, with the recent emergence in Japan of anti-Chinese manga comic books, which also caricature the Chinese people and express similarly dangerous nationalistic sentiments. It is vital that the lessons of history, such as presented in the Visualizing Cultures project, be made available for us to learn from today, so that history does not repeat itself.

As Chinese MIT alumni, we would like to express our dismay at the manner in which the situation transpired and convey our support for the work done by Professors Dower and Miyagawa in bringing an important part of our past into light. It is understandable that MIT would wish to follow academic trends and protect itself in these times of (geo)political correctness, but we are nevertheless disappointed that our alma mater has not yet taken the lead in standing up for academic freedom. We look forward to seeing the return of the Visualizing Cultures project on the Web.

Ronojoy Chakrabarti ’02 contributed to this article.