Loading icon

A Follow-up: History isn’t Hypothetical

Campus | March 25, 2019

Note: the following personal narrative details events that, ironically, occurred during the weekend of Japanese Culture Club’s Day of Remembrance (DOR) events. The author has included this narrative to be printed alongside an account of JCC’s DOR in this week’s Observer’s issue in order to further readers’ understandings of the historical depth of anti-Asian racism at Tufts, on domestic and transnational terms. In writing this piece, the author hopes to contribute to ongoing discussions and actions among Asian and Asian American students to center their experiences with anti-Asian racism. Histories of anti-Asian racism can’t be extricated from what happens within institutions like Tufts, an elite private research university with historical ties to oppressive regimes domestically and abroad.

A few weeks ago, against my better judgment, I went to the first meeting of the Tufts “Hypothetical Historians” club. “Hypothetical history,” also known as “counterfactual history,” is a genre of thought experiment used by historians and social scientists that changes a single variable in a historical narrative and tracks its effects on global trajectories through “evidence-based systematic analysis.”

I entered a room filled with students who had decided ahead of time that we would discuss a history in which the US had never discovered nuclear weapons technology. I didn’t know anyone in the room, but they all seemed to be friends with one another.

Naturally, the first point of the group’s discussion was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945: what would have happened in World War II if there were no nukes?

“I’d like to call to attention the existence of US Bat Bomb Technology,” one student announced. “During the war, the US was testing the use of timed incendiary devices strapped to bats that would be released from planes and fly down and nest in the attics of Japanese houses.”

“Just confirming what was said: these things are real!” another student on his laptop said. “Holy shit!” He could not contain his laughter.

“Japanese houses at the time,” the first student explained, “were made of wood and paper. So the bats would fly into these houses—unnoticed under the cover of night—and after a little while, boom, an entire city would go up in flames. Might this have been the alternative to nuclear technology that the US would have used to end the war?” A frightening energy filled the room. It came with the hoots and laughter of young men plotting the alternate demise of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people.

I wasn’t laughing. My heart was throbbing and I could feel the blood in my neck. What kind of fucked up history club is this? I thought. All I could hear was their laughter. The conversation began to escape me as I stared at the floor, drowning unnoticed in White noise. But soon, I struggled back to the surface and was able to speak.

“As someone whose grandparents were children in Japan during the war, and saw entire cities leveled by bombs, I don’t find bat bombs very funny,” I said. My voice was quivering and I was shaking. You know when you’re trying to say something, and it feels like your voice is a person running down the stairs, almost missing its footing at each step, each step becoming more and more out of place? That was the feeling.

As if to compensate for my lack of contribution to the discussion, I added, “And I think it’s important to consider what was said earlier about biological weapons tested by the Japanese—maybe the US would have used those instead of nuclear bombs?” By the end of my tiny speech, my voice fell down the entire flight of stairs, completely bruised.

The room went quiet. The first student who had brought up bat bombs had apparently gotten up from his seat on the floor while I was speaking; I didn’t notice him approach me. Suddenly he was right there next to me, patting me on the fucking shoulder.

“I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.” I turned to face him, startled. He looked really sorry.

(This next part of the story, I really don’t like.)

“It’s okay,” I said.

Despite my attempt to speak up and interrupt the “business-as-usual” of the moment at this stupid club meeting, I caved into the fragility of the people in the room. I’m a part of some really amazing communities at this school that have encouraged me to speak up at exactly these moments; but despite their support, it is still difficult to practice this in the day-to-day, on the “micro” level. These moments often flash past in an instant.

So weeks after the incident, I’m writing this as a self-addendum: no, what happened in that room was not okay, and no, I am not willing to take what was said at face value as unintentional “disrespect.” To the student who apologized to me again after the meeting for showing lack of “verbal restraint,” I wonder: what really was it that you had to restrain? Was it your language? Or was it a structural violence that shapeshifts through centuries of historical contingencies?

To everyone in the room that day: was it Whiteness?

In US geopolitical terms, war, imperialism, and colonialism were and are pillars of anti-Asian racism abroad. As Ernie Pyle, a journalist on the Pacific front in February 1945 writes, “In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches.” Anti-Asian racism enabled and obscured the incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “military necessities” against a racialized “subhuman” enemy. Any historian, hypothetical or otherwise, should know this—but navigating these forces is another story. More than 70 years later, they persist in rooms today, where laughter drowns the suffering of war dead, survivors, and their families.

As a student of History, I’m also trying to balance the responsibilities of an institutionalized power that can create historical objects out of its human subjects. History colludes with Whiteness to literally define and redefine the realities in this country, even in what it considers to be strange, foreign racialized worlds abroad. When we try to understand what happened back then (and over there), it is History with a capital H that mediates our understandings, amplifying or destroying them. History’s project is not innocent—it is hegemonic. Its project was something that I saw—and felt—play out through the racial dynamics in that room that rendered me, and an entire nation of people, invisible.

It is for these reasons that I remain deeply troubled by the dangers that lurk in this contested terrain called History. But I won’t surrender its subjects—some of them my own grandparents—to bratty, entitled, and racist “Hypothetical Historians” who get to set the terms of the debate before my people even arrive. I am not speaking hypothetically: our histories are not your possessions. Get the fuck out of my textbooks and stay the fuck away from my grandparents.

Recommended reading:

Cold War Ruins: Transpacific Critique of American Justice (Lisa Yoneyama)

Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb (Ron Takaki)

Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (John Dower)