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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg August 23, 2018

Public History in Japan

  • Michihiro Okamoto EMAIL logo


This article introduces the history of historiography, specifically public history in Japan in recent times. Although the use of the word public history has not a long history and there have been only a few books and projects with public history as their titles, it does not mean that public history has not attracted wide concerns in Japan. On the contrary, there have been plenty of histories for the public through museums, theaters, television and printing matters because of the high standard of education and literacy rate of the people since the modernization of Japan. In this sense, we can discuss optimistically the future of public history in Japan. However, we should notice the problems of history among the public in that it is often too entertaining and sometimes tends to be abused for arbitrary purposes.


Public history is a neologism. According to Thomas Cauvin, the term public history became popular when the public history movement clearly emerged in the United States in the 1970s.[1] It indicates history that is created and studied outside of academia: in and through museums, heritage sites, commemorative buildings and such sites or cultural forms such as historical novels, films, television programs, comics, games, and increasingly nowadays, on-line histories. Many recent international discussions and debates about public history focus on such manifestations. This article, exploring the current situation of public history in Japan, will also discuss these areas.

Before turning to the state of public history in Japan, however, it is important to trace the history of historiography as practiced by professional historians as well as non-professional publics in Japan. Influenced by the Chinese tradition of writing national histories under the command of dynasties, the enterprise of writing national histories has a long tradition in Japan. Such histories, written by professional courtiers and intellectuals, entailed the massive collecting and rigorous reading of documentary sources, a practice known as Kōshōgaku, or a kind of hermeneutics of documentary sources first developed in China. In addition to the Rikkokushi, Japan's Six National Histories (like Nihon-shoki and Shoku-Nihongi), edited by the mandate of the Emperors in ancient Japan, both the Azuma-kagami, promoted by the Kamakura government in the medieval age, and the Dai-Nihonshi, promoted by Mito-Tokugawas[2] in the early modern period, were compiled using this method and still influence the study of Japanese history among professional historians.

However, the degree to which historical knowledge, accumulated through such practices, affected history as understood among and by the general public is unclear because historical records that reveal their historical consciousness are quite rare. And there is little historical research on it. Therefore, whatever may be said here about public history in Japan is limited to its contemporary condition. This article will discuss public history in relation to academic history pursued after the modernization of Japan which is said to have begun with the Meiji Revolution of 1868.

After the Meiji Revolution, the new government endeavored to modernize Japan in every sphere. Academic study was no exception. Many foreign scholars were invited to reform existing methods of learning. Ludwig Riess, a disciple of Leopold von Ranke, was invited to Tokyo Imperial University in 1887 in order to establish a department of history. Following that, departments for historical research were founded at universities throughout the country. Many were divided further into three sub-departments: national, eastern and western history. In this way modern academic history began in Japan. The academic historical study that came to be promoted was based on positivistic methods influenced by Ranke’s thought as well as traditional Kōshōgaku. At the same time, as was observed in many countries, the framework of the nation exerted a strong influence on the basic structure of history as a branch of learning in academia and as a consciousness that developed among the public. In Japan, the approach was called Kōkoku-shikan ‘Imperial nation view of history’, which regarded Japan as a sacred country ruled by the Emperor without interruption since ancient times.[3]

At the same time that modern academic historiography was developing in Japan, society in general was being modernized under the slogan 'Prosperous Country and Strong Army'. One of the main pillars was the system of compulsory education. Compared with other countries, the level of education in Japan was quite highly developed: Japan quickly achieved a strong level of school attendance and the literacy rate surpassed 80 % of the adult population by the end of the nineteenth century. It reached nearly 98 % in 1925. This expanded the number of readers of literary works, which included historical novels read by the general public.[4]

Japan's defeat in the Second World War fundamentally changed the nature of history as established after the Meiji Restoration. The influence of Kōkoku-shikan in academia was swept away as the scientific approach to the study of history came to be emphasized. Although the framework of the national was still strong, a new emphasis was placed on relations within world history. Marxism, which regarded historical research as a branch of science, expanded its influence at the time. Such impulses also led to the emergence of the new people's history which made the people not only the object of history but also its subject.[5]

Movements to create histories of workers, peasants, common people and women, who had been left out of conventional history, began to take shape with the support of professional historians. Mainstream historical study, however, was still dominated by professional historians and the fact-focused histories constructed by them were conveyed to publics by history teachers as objective truths. Histories in the public realm, conveyed through novels, films and other media, were likely to be regarded as a mixture of fact and fiction made for piquing people's curiosity about the past. Such histories were regarded as being beyond the sphere of proper history.[6] From the 1950s to the end of the 1960s a great cultural transformation took place in the world as the result of the spread of television broadcasting. Although the shift of information technologies from the written to the visual had already taken place with the appearance of films, the emergence of television, which moved the place of viewing and listening from public theaters to private homes, expanded the viewing audience to include all members of the family. The period of high economic growth in Japan also started in the 1960s, producing in particular an extensive middle class receptive to the new culture that television produced.

Taking advantage of this situation, Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK), the largest television station that is para-public, produced a series of historical dramas called 'Taiga-drama' and aired them during weekend primetime. These programs dealt with famous figures and events in Japanese history.[7] Private broadcast stations soon followed suit, and historical dramas became one of the most popular types of programing, though most were more entertaining and fictional than 'Taiga-drama', which was based on slightly more authentic representations.[8] In any case, the stories provided by these programs contributed to the construction of a broader and deeper national historical consciousness.

Although not directly connected with the deepening of historical consciousness, manga and television animation deserve attention because of the important role they played in the construction of visual culture in the public sphere in Japan. The pioneer of the genre was Osamu Tezuka, who devised numerous radical innovations employing various cinematic techniques. He gave manga a clear narrative structure that paved the way for television animation. Although many of Tezuka's works and those of his successors were science-fiction oriented, manga and television animation have had no small influence on popular public history.[9]

The transition from the written to the visual raised a serious issue with regard to the nature of history. These new forms challenged the hierarchy of history, which had placed higher value on academic history than history in the public sphere. The more people gained historical knowledge through the new visual media, the less professional historians exerted influence through written texts. This also enabled abuses of history as when reactionary groups that included deniers of the Nanking Massacre of 1937 and the system of so-called comfort women (women and girls forced into sexual slavery) run by the Japanese military during the Second World War, started a movement aimed at publishing an extremely nationalistic textbook that omitted any reference to such historical events, and campaigned to have it authorized as the primary text for use in schools.[10]

Supported by the conservative government, the movement succeeded in receiving support in the public sphere in the 1990s, and later, as nationalistic thinking was making a comeback. Contrary to the argument of professional historians that history education should be based on facts established by scientific research, the promoters of the movement for a new history textbook insisted that history textbooks should more properly focus on the narrative because their purpose was not to teach academic truth to students but rather to construct a common national consciousness among them.[11] This led to a debate known as the Rekishi-ninshiki ronsō between the supporters and opponents of the new history textbook over how to recognize the past and teach history.[12] Certain similarities corresponded with the debate among German historians about the Holocaust and the Second World War.[13]

The debate was not necessarily advantageous for academic historians. One consequence was that several local governments and municipalities gained the power to decide which textbooks should be adopted when the time came to choose new history textbooks, a situation encouraged by contemporary social and political conditions shaped by strong nationalistic thinking. But more important for the discussion here is the question of why the new history textbook began to be used despite the opposition of professional historians.[14] The answer surely lies in the upending of the hierarchy of history noted earlier, namely that academic history had lost its ascendancy over history in the public sphere. It should also be noted that the spread of the internet played an undeniable role in this reversal. While the internet undoubtedly, and positively, helps the average person join the historical debate by making available a wide variety of sources and interpretations thus expanding knowledge of history; on the other hand, historic knowledge diffused through the internet sometimes has negative aspects such as being biased, arbitrary, and egocentric, not to mention its frequent departure from established truths. Consequently, we cannot uncritically celebrate the democratization of history enabled by new media and the internet, because it tends to support revisionism, neglecting the truth established by professionals. Public history has thus raised many issues that need to be considered, which is why it has become the focus of so much attention, including the planned publication of this new international journal.


Regrettably, there are only a few books in Japan that use public history in their title. The first periodical was the annual journal Public History, published since 2004 by the Department of Study of Occidental History at Osaka University. However, its focus is global history, the area promoted by the department, and so although it discusses the methodology of history, what we know as public history or history among and by the public is not its main concern.[15]

Two books with public history in their subtitles have been published in Japan. One is Shooting History: Linguistic Turn, Cultural History, Public History, National History (2015) edited by Michihiro Okamoto et. al., and the other is Historical Consciousness beyond Borders: the Attempt at Public History in Europe (2018) edited by Hisaki Kenmochi.[16]

Okamoto's book is the outcome of the projects 'Transnationalization of History and its Problems and The Futures of Transnational Cultural History'. As the titles of these projects and the book's subtitle suggest, the main theme of the book is the trend of transnational history. Okamoto is critical of national and transnational/global history because he has doubts about history that is commonly shared by “unitary” entities such as nationalities, ethnicities and religious groups, arguing instead that we need to recognize the differences in histories among individuals. In this sense, he believes that the linguistic turn, often criticized for having admitted too relativist a view, can be appreciated in two ways with regard to the subsequent development of historiography. First, it made history open to the public by criticizing conventional history as being monopolized by professional historians. The History Workshop is one example of such a movement. Its leader, Rafael Samuel, was influenced in no small way by the linguistic turn, as were the feminist historian Joan Scott and the postcolonial critic Edward Said. These thinkers were advocates of history from below or, in other words, history of the public, by the public, for the public. Second, the linguistic turn paved the way for the visual turn by criticizing history based on written sources and representation. This also made history open to the public because visual media have become more influential than written media in recent times.[17] From these viewpoints, Okamoto edited the book by collecting Japanese translations of "Historical Events" by Hayden White, "Historians and History Writing" by Peter Burke, "History and Films" by Robert Rosenstone, "History and National Memory" by Stefan Berger and Bill Niven,[18] and other essays by non-Japanese historians. The book also includes essays by younger Japanese historians on 'History and Manga' and 'History and Games'. As these titles indicate, the book considers public history in the flow of the development of historiography from the linguistic turn to cultural history.[19]

Kenmochi's book is the outcome of three projects: 1)'An Experiment to Share the Acknowledgment of History: Range Capability of the Franco-German Common History Textbook'; 2) 'Acknowledgement of History beyond Borders and The Making of the Public Sphere in Europe: Academic Exchange, Dialogue on Textbooks, Museums, and Media’; 3) ’The Practice of Public History in Europe: History Museums, Media for the Representation of History and History Textbooks’. As these titles reflect, Kenmochi's book derived from concerns about the transnationalization of history in the public realm. Kenmochi is a researcher of modern French history between and after the two world wars when France and Germany were rivals and later reconciled. Akiyoshi Nishiyama, one of the chief partners in the projects, works on questions of language and memory in the borderland between France and Germany. The two scholars are interested in how history and memory were/are constructed before and after the wars in public places through education, museums, films and television programs. The book includes Kenmochi's Public History in Images and Nishiyama's War Memories and historical museums in a European borderland.[20] As Kenmochi's latest project has an international connection, the book also includes the translated essays of international scholars on public history such as Annette Wieviorka's Shoah, Fabris Virgil's War Museums in Japan, and Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau's Peronne War History Museums’.[21]

In addition to the projects that have published books with public history in their subtitles, a separate project led by folklore professor Yutaka Suga of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia of the University of Tokyo also promotes public history. As mentioned above, historical study traditionally has been classified into national, eastern and western history in academia. Eastern history tends to refer to Chinese and Korean history because of the geographic and historic position of Japan and subsequently, the history of other Asian areas has tended to be overlooked. The Institute was founded in 1941 in order to cover the gap; it gathers researchers specializing on east, south and west Asia or, in other words, areas outside of “modernized” regions. Moreover, the fields of research widely vary to include history, area studies, anthropology and folklore. As the name of the institute suggests, some researchers are concerned with issues connected to postcolonialism and orientalism.[22]

The person who has most influenced Suga's project is Minoru Hokari who studied the Aborigines’ practice of history under Greg Dening and Dipesh Chakrabarty at the Australian National University,. After researching the way Aborigines of Gurindji country do history by means of oral history, Hokari insisted: “It is true that the historical practice of history that takes place in the Gurindji country is conducted according to different rules from those of the academic mode of history. But that doesn't mean that past events are fabricated at will. … It’s true that their historical practice doesn't meet modern academic history’s criteria of positivist historical factuality, but to dismiss it as a free-for-all is too barbaric and quick a judgement.” In other words, Hokari regards Aborigines not as the object of history but as the subject of history. He insists that history should be considered from doers, not viewers.[23] The folklorist Suga, who was interested in the way people perform everyday practices in different regions of the world, was attracted to this way of thinking. This is why Suga started a project of public history in order to look into the everyday practice of doing history among the public in the past and in the present.


As mentioned earlier, few books or research projects in present-day Japan use the expression “public history.” However, this does not necessarily mean that what we know as public history does not exist. For example, Japan has many museums that are thought to be important to public history. Each prefecture has a history museum of relatively large scale, bursting with historical artifacts and documentary sources. Historical museums are also located in many cities, towns and even villages. Furthermore, specialized museums whose exhibits focus on highly specialized historical subjects such as commodities or food exist in great abundance. There are also many conservation and preservation institutes that safeguard ruins and heritage sites. The number of people working at such institutions is no less than that working as professional academic historians.[24] However, these people are not necessarily held in high regard in comparison with those working as professional historians in universities. The explanation for this lies in the system used to produce professional historians. Only a limited number of universities, such as the former imperial universities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka or the leading private universities such as Waseda and Keio, offer postgraduate courses that can produce professional historians and enable them to work in academia. It is very difficult for graduates of history departments of ordinary universities to obtain posts as professional historians, such as history professors, unless they enter postgraduate courses in one of the above-mentioned universities after graduation. The graduates of departments of history in other universities have to engage in other occupations if they want to utilize the knowledge they have acquired at university. Becoming a museum curator is one choice open to them; another is to work as an archivist or a history teacher. In order to help them, the departments of history at many universities offer a course or classes providing curatorial and similar qualifications. Museology and museum history are consequently popular subjects at Japanese universities that have a history departments. However, this has not led to the development of public history in Japan because historians in academia have not shown much interest in museology and museum history as a kind of public history. Although there are some scholars who study museology and museum history as a field of academic historical research, they are a significant minority in the profession.

Far more people work in positions of history education than in museums. As discussed above, this is because education was considered tremendously important in the formative period of the modern nation state when the slogan 'Prosperous Country and Strong Army' was adopted. In order to promote first and secondary education, normal schools for teacher training were founded throughout the nation. History was regarded as one of the more important subjects. This policy did not change after the Second World War. Normal schools were reorganized as departments of pedagogy within the newly built national universities and began once again to train teachers. These universities employed professors engaging in such pedagogical work; sometimes they themselves were historians. The number of history teachers engaged in lower and upper secondary education is no less than that of professional historians in academia. Even if their status is lower than that of professional historians in terms of academic standards, their influence on the public, as purveyors of common knowledge about history, may be considered greater.[25]


To conclude, as I pointed out at the beginning, public history is a new term that has only recently started being used in Japan. Examples of its use are still exceptional. This is not an indication, however, that history in the public sphere has not existed or that interest in it has been shunned. History in and through public places such as museums, heritage sites, historical sites, monuments and classrooms has been robustly practiced and has played an important role in constructing historical consciousness among the people of Japan. Moreover, people's history has been very popular in the country, in part because of the influence of Marxist history. In addition, histories of the ordinary lives of people dating back to an earlier period — partly in connection with folklore and the development of social history and cultural history by the influence of the Annals school — have produced a great deal of research on the history of the public.[26] The concerns with historical consciousness created by popular culture have been strong as well. The historic novel has been a favorite topic of debate among novelists and historians.[27] Movie culture became popular in the 1930s in Japan. Historical films were among the people's favorites. But most historical films were made purely for entertainment so they were dominated by fictional stereotypes of baby-faced heroes and evil villains.[28] In this sense, they were similar to historical novels written for mass consumption. Even so, we can still imagine the past through films, particularly through realistic films which, as Robert Rosenstone argues, can be useful tools in helping us to understand the past as it really happened.[29] Recently some historians have begun to take up film as a tool of historical research in Japan. A representative example of such scholarship may be found in Jun Yonaha's work on Yasujirō Ozu's films dealing with everyday life of postwar Japan.[30] Scholars have begun to show interest in manga, games, television, music as well as film, especially with respect to their role in the construction of cultural consciousness among the public. Younger generations in Japan, who are highly adept in digital media, continue to show a great interest in information conveyed through the internet.[31] While historical knowledge conveyed through digital media is often fragmentary, and a space where the true and the false coexist, there is no denying its influence on the public. It will be an important topic of public history in the future.

As I have shown, there are numerous attempts to include public history in Japan even if the term is only of recent origin. This suggests that there is great potential for the development of public history in the country. Public history as a field of historical research will develop in tandem with its international development. However, we have to keep in mind the problems raised by public history as well as its merits. Although it opens history to the public by criticizing the field for having been frequently monopolized by academia, public history itself has problems. For instance, public history as practiced in museums is often institutionalized and has a top-down structure. The same might be said about history education and history conveyed through mass media. Moreover, history among the public is likely to have certain biases in that it is not strictly based on the rigorously researched historical truths established by professional historians. We have a lot of things to consider about public history in the future. Nonetheless, it is certain that interest in public history will continue to develop and deepen in Japan as it will throughout the world.

  1. In the footnotes the titles of the books and articles published in Japanese are translated into English for readers’ convenience. I thank Charles Cabell and Mamiko Ito for their proofreading of my English and for providing me with useful knowledge about the history and present condition of museums in Japan.

Published Online: 2018-08-23

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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