Dazaifu: People’s History?

History as an academic subject was transformed in Britain in the 1960s and 70s by people like E.H.Carr, E.P Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm among other great academic luminaries, but largely remains staid and conservative for the general public. At least that is my impression judging by the fare available on mainstream TV and streaming broadcasts and from visiting museums and places of historical interest. In Japan, history is fiercely contested, represented and misrepresented and in general, rendered dull or even fictitious, not least because a section of the ruling elite refuse to calmly and honestly assess what went wrong for their country in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. However, my topic here is not Japan per se and certainly not its right-wing historical revisionists. I just want to make an elementary point about how people’s history is still denied in national narratives from Britain to Japan and pretty much every other country.

On a recent visit to Dazaifu in Fukuoka prefecture, I visited the Kyushu National Museum and was struck by the modern architecture of the building. The sheer size of the entrance hall which made use of traditional aspects of Japanese building techniques and features was really impressive, but did it suit its purpose? When I left the museum after perusing the permanent exhibitions, I realised that it was the architecture, not the contents of the museum that had impressed me more than anything.

There are standard ways of presenting artefacts to the public that can be seen the world over, but more often than not, the social history, the social relations of production and the conditions in societies which gave rise to the production of the objects are omitted or brushed over superficially. The lives of the people who did the work are, for the most part, treated as secondary to the objects on display. If that is not the case, the way the people who did the work lived is sanitised. This is quite understandable because the things that people produced are claimed by the nation state (the imagined community) and presented as somehow representing the spirit of the nation, and so the cleansing of inconvenient information is a consequence of this. At Dazaifu, the objects on display are presented in a matter of fact way, without much historical context at all.

Despite my feelings about how history is conveyed in museums in general, I like to visit them occasionally because they are the places where examples of past human works of wonder are kept. It is just a pity that it is only because of my training in History and Sociology and my reading of specialist texts that I am able to see beyond the displays. Whenever I find myself in one of these places, I apply the same method of thinking about them as I do when I am elsewhere. I always look for traces of information about the workers, but rarely explicitly find it. Sometimes, like at the Tagawa City Coal Mining Historical Museum I can find things like Sakubei Yamamoto’s paintings of pit-life alongside sanitised versions of what workers did and how people lived. The notion that they were forced to live as they did by rules and regulations being imposed by the owners of the workplaces and their governments is barely hinted at. If it is, it is expressed as being as something past and without having any bearing on how the children of former mining communities live today. In the case of Tagawa’s mining museum, the name of the museum itself gives the game away when it comes to the version of history that a visitor can expect to find.

All this is not to detract from the interesting experiences to be had at museums, the purpose is to say, whenever we visit these places, we should always ask ourselves, ‘Where are the workers?’ Increasingly, the workers in the museums themselves are unpaid volunteers.

The entrance tunnel to the Kyushu National Museum