Intellect Spring 2017 | Political Science


Collective Memory & How We Remember The Past

A political scientist brings subjectivity into his study

by Patricia Allen ’13 (M.A.)

A 2015 Pew Research Center poll queried American citizens about U.S.-Japanese relations and concluded that despite being “adversaries in World War II [and] fierce economic competitors in the 1980s and early 1990s, Americans and Japanese nonetheless share a deep mutual respect.”

This mutual respect was illustrated by two news items from 2016. Almost 71 years after the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to go to the city and pay respect to the dead. In December, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor to honor the sailors lost when the U.S.S. Arizona sank under the surprise Japanese attack.

While Obama did not apologize for the bombing, many Japanese saw the visit as an important step in acknowledging formally what happened. Kazuya Fukuoka, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and director of the international relations program, says a minority, for reasons embedded in the event's “collective memory” — a group of memories shared by a culture — voiced disappointment that the president did not apologize.

"Youth nationalism in Japan is a good place to help us confront ideas about national belonging and identity in the global era."
Kazuya Fukuoka, Ph.D.

Born and raised in a Tokyo suburb, Fukuoka studies the socio-political implications of collective memory and nationalism in Asia, particularly in Japan. He spent time in the United States as a visiting student at the University of Georgia where he returned to pursue a doctorate in political science. While finishing his master’s degree thesis on democracy and nationalism, he took a course in the sociology of culture with Barry Schwartz, known as the father of collective memory in American sociology. “I realized then that the work I had been doing was really about collective memory,” he says.

Fukuoka joined Schwartz’s research group and earned his first publication credit (as a second author with Schwartz) on a book chapter titled “Collective Memory: Why Culture Matters,” published in The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture (Blackwell, 2005).

His interest in nationalism and collective memory stems in part from a post-World War II narrative developed by the Allied Forces and Japanese elites who were trying to rebuild the country that portrayed the populace as not being responsible for the war and its outcomes. “The Japanese people bought into this idea that they had been deceived by and were victims of ‘bad leaders,’” says Fukuoka, who also teaches in the Asian Studies program. “It was very convenient for them. They were encouraged to blame Japan's condition on war criminals — similar to how the German people blamed the Nazis. This allowed the Japanese to start anew without being burdened by the past.”

In reality, though, Fukuoka says, “If you think about what was going on in the 1930s and ’40s, the people enjoyed the emotion of that moment — the nationalistic movement that led to aggression and atrocities in China and Korea and war in the South Pacific. There are photos and news reels of citizens celebrating victories at parades and festivals.” Struck by how easy it was for the Japanese to be swayed by narratives produced by the powerful, Fukuoka chose to focus his work on discovering how ordinary people receive their leaders' narratives and how their reception plays out in society, injecting an important dose of subjectivity into the study of collective memory.

In “Between Banality and Effervescence?: A Study of Japanese Youth Nationalism” (Nations and Nationalism, 2016), Fukuoka uses two sociological concepts to explore how Japanese college students experience national pride: 1)"Collective effervescence” refers to a society or culture joining together to communicate the same thought and participate in the same action, like attending the Olympics or World Cup Soccer and rooting for the national team; and 2)“Banal nationalism” refers to the ways national symbols, like flags and anthems, show up in everyday contexts like sporting events, promoting national belonging.

The students were asked a series of questions about their sense of nation, Japan’s past wrongs, and events in Japanese history that evoked honor, esteem and pride.

Though Fukuoka notes that recent headlines tout a growing nationalistic fervor among Japanese youth, his study reveals several findings that refute this media narrative. His subjects were defensive, if not apologetic, when they revealed a “strong sense of nation”; they had trouble citing historical events of national honor, but were “aware of Japan’s past aggressions ... and highly critical of them”; most emphasized the almost “apathetic nature of their national flagging” at international sporting events, which “do not necessarily provide a place for the outburst of nationalistic expression"; and they distanced themselves from how their Chinese and Korean neighbors wave flags at games, reminding them of “pre-War state-nationalism and the political usage of national symbols for mobilization.”

The study results support Fukuoka’s assertion that it’s essential to understand “what ordinary people believe, or how they feel about what they believe about the past,” he says. “Youth nationalism in Japan is also a good place to help us confront ideas about national belonging and identity in the global era.”