The US-Japan alliance: Doing more than the bare minimum

President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida meet in Akasaka Palace, Tokyo, to discuss space cooperation, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (image credit in endnote)

Unlike the US’s alliance with its western European allies, America’s alliance with Japan has never been tested in a world war — or really, any war that has posed a direct threat to US territory. I think this makes Japan the US’s most important ally, and certainly the one worth the most effort across the board.

At the beginning of this year, I published an interview op-ed entitled “Don’t neglect Japan-U.S. friendship ‘garden’” in The Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese daily newspaper for which I work. In this article, I discussed the way both countries take the relationship for granted with Ryan Shaffer, president of the Japan-America Society of Washington D.C.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s visit to the US last week only reinforced my beliefs that the US should be doing more than it is for the alliance. The Biden administration granted Kishida only one short morning of engagement — a breakfast at Kamala Harris’s house at the US Naval Observatory, a short meeting and joint press conference with the President in the Oval Office, and finally, a Biden-Kishida ‘working lunch’ — before Biden hopped on Marine One to fly back home to Delaware for the weekend.

The last and only other time President Biden has welcomed a Japanese leader was in April 2021, when he granted PM Suga a bizarre 20-minute burger meal seated at opposite ends of a long table. Sure, the COVID pandemic was peaking at the time, and on some level it makes sense that the two leaders stuck to a brief, distanced, mask-on meeting.

But the story is more complicated than that. At the annual US-Japan Capital Gala in September 2022 (which I attended for Asahi), NSC East Asia specialist Dr. Kurt Campbell and Japanese Ambassador Tomita Koji gave remarks on the extreme lengths to which they had to go to get Biden to sit down with Suga at all. Dozens of desperate last-minute calls, reschedulings, and insistences from the President’s aides that Biden was simply too busy to accomodate the Prime Minister, finally gave way to this meager 20-minute ‘working lunch’ in which neither leader even ate their meal.

I do not doubt that the President is a busy man, and yes, the US has dozens of allies. But how many treaty alliances does it have anywhere within operational range of East Asia? Five: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and Thailand. The ROK’s army is currently larger than Japan’s, but the country has barely 1/3 of Japan’s population and a similarly proportionate GDP. No other country on that very short list compares in operational ability. Meanwhile, the US National Defense Strategy, as released in October 2022, names China as America’s greatest threat by far — and much ink has been spilled on the “New Cold War” emerging between the US and the PRC (whether you agree with this denomination is a different question — Biden, and many others, don’t see it this way).

How does this relate to history? Grand strategy is always rooted in the past. The US has tested its other major alliances — Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia — in global wars for well over a century. Americans share a deep and common sociocultural and philosophical background with those allies.

The same cannot be said for Japan. As recently as the 1980s, the US fought a trade war with Japan that political scientists compare to the US-China trade war of the 2020s. The US and Japan have substantive ideological differences and a variety of overtly uncomfortable tension points in the relationship, paramount among which is the massive US military presence leftover in Japan. The Okinawa base is most infamous, and rightly so for the egregious crime of three US service members raping a 12-year-old Japanese girl. Other locations also contribute their share of disgrace: the Yokosuka US naval base, for example, pollutes the surrounding waters with catastrophic amounts of toxic “forever chemicals.” Regarding the latter issue: I have been working on an extended, multipart project on PFAS/PFOS (the offending “forever chemicals” at Yokosuka) contamination with my foreign correspondents since I started as a reporter at The Asahi Shimbun in early 2022. These issues loom large in the Japanese collective conscience.

And let us not forget the acts that began and ended the US-Japan war in the 1940s. Pearl Harbor remains one of the greatest points of US national trauma in the nation’s history, as do the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima for Japan. Nearly 80 years later, those bombs remain the only nuclear weapons ever used in combat. The implications of this are profound. Sociologist Gi-Wook Shin illustrates the lasting discomfort:

“In contrast to the moral clarity and nobility of purpose associated with the war in Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the path to war with Japan and its conclusion is far less clear and many Americans still feel uncomfortable talking about the use of atomic weapons – even if it was militarily necessary but morally questionable. Also, it was during the war that about 120,000 people in the U.S. of Japanese ancestry (62 percent being U.S. citizens) were incarcerated in concentration camps.”

Both countries continue to practice a “sweep it under the rug” approach, more fragile than harmonious — rather than forcing a deeper reconciliation with these difficult histories.

It was barely over a century ago when Japan joined the Euro-American-centric League of Nations (yes, the US did not formally join the League, but President Wilson and his helped create it) as one of the Big Five great powers. Even this apparent triumph came with its own humiliation. In the time since then, Japan’s relationship with the US and Atlantic allies has been, in short, tumultuous.

And yet, in 2023, Japan has the third-largest GDP in the world, and the second largest among democratic nations. Japan is an American friend and ally in culture, trade, politics, and — theoretically – in war. It would behoove the US not just to fulfill its obligations in the partnership, but to go out of its way to cultivate the friendship. Maybe President Biden can start by inviting Prime Minister Kishida over for dinner.


Featured image credit: Fumio Kishida and Joe Biden, May 2022.

日本語: 令和4年5月23日、岸田総理は、迎賓館赤坂離宮でアメリカ合衆国のジョセフ・バイデン大統領と首脳会談等を行いました。両首脳は、会談を行い、続いて日米宇宙協力関連展示を視察しました。その後、共同記者会見を行い、続いて拉致被害者御家族と面会しました。次に、都内でIPEF(インド太平洋経済枠組み)関連行事に出席し、夜には、非公式夕食会を行いました。
Date Taken on 23 May 2022
Source https://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/101_kishida/actions/202205/23usa.html
Author 首相官邸

This work is licensed under the Government of Japan Standard Terms of Use (Ver.2.0). The Terms of Use are compatible with the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 International. For terms of use this work, see this license page.

On video games as historiography, part 1: geopolitical diversity and homogeneity

Over the weekend, I spoke with a friend of my roommate about the blockbuster role-playing video game Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I mentioned that Skyrim was one of the reasons I decided to study history. Below, I will reflect on my thoughts and experiences on the connections between games and the study of history.

Connecting video games and history is something I do often — as do other history enthusiasts and scholars. As I have written previously on Project Edinburgh, I grew up playing games like Fire Emblem and Age of Empires III, which introduced me — with fantasy in the former and abstraction in the latter) to the color and feeling medieval and early modern world.

In late March, I will drive (with Project Edinburgh cofounder Zach) to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, to give a presentation entitled “Europa Universalis IV: Historical grand strategy simulation games as history (and historiography),” based on a paper I wrote as a graduate student at Columbia.

Video games are a complicated tool for engaging with history. They are like maps, and in some cases such as Europa Universalis IV (EU4, for short), they are maps (Figure 1). Because they are visual, immersive, and sometimes even tactile, they have immense power to present a seductively real-feeling narrative of the past.

Figure 1: The title screen of the map-based strategy game Europa Universalis IV (source: Me, screenshot of Europa Universalis IV)

Like maps, video games represent a selective reality. Obviously, nobody playing a video game would think they are experiencing history “as it really was,” but the real connections are often made at a subconscious level. The joy of games like EU4 is precisely that they seek to give the player, in some way, an accurate experience of history. The problem is that none of us, looking at or playing the game, have the capacity to know or remind ourselves exactly where history ends and fantasy begins.

Playing thousands of hours of Europa Universalis IV, as I and many others have, may eventually instill within us some beliefs disguised as truths. For example: in the game’s map, which seeks to ‘accurately’ portray world political geography in 1444 AD, Europe is a veritable kaleidoscope of countries. Literally, as well as in its gameplay diversity, the Holy Roman Empire (central Europe) is infinitely more colorful than its contemporary Ming dynasty China (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Asia in 1444, according to Europa Universalis IV (Source: u/Not_a_Krasnal, Reddit https://www.reddit.com/r/eu4/comments/xlds2g/ming_faced_death_and_said_no/)

And it makes sense, right? Ming dynasty China was, in the 15th century, a remarkably consolidated, centralized, even authoritarian state — with an unrivaled administrative bureaucracy, and a military and economy on the cutting edge. The empire had just sent admiral Zheng He all the way across the known world to southeast Africa, well before the Europeans had made it to the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, in the Holy Roman Empire, kingdoms and duchies were feudal, decentralized, awash in local identities and rulerships, languages and governing traditions. It would be silly to represent 15th century England and contemporary Lithuania as anything but profoundly different colors on the geopolitical rainbow.

The issue, of course, is that what looks right–representations that we come to believe are realities–is not necessarily right. The Ming capital in Beijing had about as much administrative and extractive power over Sichuan and Guizhou (far southwest China) as the Austrian emperor had over his nominal subjects in Lübeck or Hamburg — that is to say, very, very little. This is not to mention the extreme sociopolitical and ethnic diversity of the Ming territories in this period, which the game erases by painting everything the same color — not terribly far off from current PRC President Xi’s own campaign of Han supremacy and suppression of minorities.

This is all not even to mention the incredibly complex, vaguely feudal system of rule practiced by Chinese dynasties throughout history but particularly prominent under the Ming and Qing: the Tusi system. The Tusi system allowed the dynastic administration to establish nominal extractive rule over far-flung territories, and created at most a distant feudal relationship between the local Tusi (translated as local chieftain) and the far-away central administration (see, for example, “The Cant of Conquest: Tusi Offices and China’s Political Incorporation of the Southwest Frontier“).

As a Ming player in EU4, you have functionally equal power over every province you own, from Hainan in the south to Shenyang near Manchuria. The faraway provinces may have more “autonomy,” an in-game province modifier, but this affects very little: in any province of your color, you can build and station troops, construct buildings, extract resources, and force-convert the people to Han culture — you could even relocate your imperial capital all the way across China to Qinghai, if you wanted!

The Holy Roman Empire in EU4, while still rife with its own inaccuracies, nevertheless captures one of the simplest truths of late-medieval and early modern Europe: centralized states did not exist. Empires, kingdoms, even duchies and counties were built on a frame of deeply fragile political agreements between autonomous or semi-autonomous ‘local chieftains.’ For example, as I have written, the Hanseatic League of German towns — perhaps the most powerful commercial organization in late medieval Europe — paid functionally no allegiance to their overlord, the Holy Roman emperor.

I wrote my application essay for my graduate studies at Columbia on the historiographical value of Europa Universalis. I am no stranger to its strengths as a way to experience and explore all the colors of history. But it also reveals, and perhaps only to the more critical eye, the difficulties of telling history: it is hard, nay, impossible to represent the kaleidoscope of culture, politics, and political geography as it really was. There are as many histories as there are people — there are as many Holy Roman Empires as there were principalities within that empire, and there were as many Chinas, Mings, Zhonguos as there were nominal subjects of the dynasty. It would serve us well to remember that, in video games and beyond.

An unfortunate history: on the January 6th committee hearings

I attended in person the 7th hearing of the House January 6th Committee on July 12, 2022, and then attended the final hearing — which was technically a business meeting, not a hearing — on December 19. Below are my reflections on the July 12 hearing, which I originally wrote for my own personal website.

My feelings here are very mixed — as a historian, I take a certain fascination in watching these historic hearings in person as they happen.

However, I also find my experience to be at best voyeuristic; I, as a journalist, was not there to provide any value. Journalists, with their twisted ethics and personal moralities, created the Trump monster themselves. Journalism as its first principle seeks to profit from spectacle, and as a tertiary concern only occasionally seeks to empower people with knowledge to make their own decisions and come to their own conclusions.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I hold no great respect for the United States government nor the general status quo in the US. January 6 is not a story of heroes (the US government) versus villains (the insurrectionists); it is a story of safe villains versus unsafe villains, respectively. It is a lesser of two evils story. I greatly respect Michael Fanone and his hundreds of fellow Capitol Police officers who were either injured or killed as a result of the events of that day, but I do not respect the US government as an institution that maintains systemic racism, violence, and abuse; as an institution maintained by such awful, slave-state systems as the Electoral College; and as an institution that thrives on the profound financial corruption of lobbying, campaign ‘donations,’ and the innumerable other forms of complete ethical bankruptcy that feeds government officials both elected and appointed.

Thus is is with great gratitude that I witnessed the January 6th Committee’s work in bringing down Trump — one of the many government corruptors-in-chief. But I reflect, with great discomfort, that what was protected here was in large part the status quo, which does not work. Trump is a criminal, and should be prosecuted as such. The People lose when Trump wins. But so do They — Black People and white People, queer and straight People, People from all walks of life (except the rich) — lose when the status quo wins.

Below, please find my full reflections on the main January 6th hearing I attended: one of a series of hearings that I believe, for all sorts of reasons good and bad, will be well remembered in American history

I left my office at 11:15 on Tuesday, July 12, and went straight to Cannon House. Cannon is the oldest congressional building on the Hill (built 1908), and I had been advised to arrive an hour before the hearing started.

I was on my way to the 7th hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol. That is about the longest committee name I have ever encountered, but I will abbreviate it from now on to its most common name, the Jan6 Committee.

I had never been to a congressional hearing before. Actually, although I grew up just across the river in Virginia, I had never been inside any of the Congress buildings, other than the Capitol once. You would barely even know these buildings housed the most prominent lawmakers in the United States, as their only noteworthy feature is their quintessentially bureaucratic sobriety.

In April, I began work as the Congress reporter at the DC bureau of The Asahi Shimbun – what my supporters graciously call the New York Times of Japan (it actually is the second or third largest newspaper in the world by paper distribution, at over 8 million total copies sold per day as of 2017). One of my primary roles has been to cover the Jan6 hearings. Until July 12, I had done so only via live-stream, but I just finished a graduate degree in history and I realized chances to be there “on the scene” do not come around too often. The previous hearings had increasingly been reminding me of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate in All the President’s Men, with all of its luscious and intimate play-by-play detail. The Watergate comparison has, of course, been made a million times already. But as Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said in this July 12 hearing, the January 6 attack makes Watergate “look like a cub-scout meeting.”

So I arrived at Cannon House at 11:45, 15 minutes earlier than the one-hour suggestion, leaving no room for error. After a half-hour wait outside the visitor’s door (pictured below), during which Jan6 Committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson walked right by me, I received a text message from the Committee’s press chief instructing me to enter the building and meet her on the third floor. I went through the airport-style security checkpoint (they let me keep my water bottle, though) just inside the door, and rode a very packed elevator two floors up.

The visitor’s entrance to Cannon House

The hearing was to be in the ballroom-esque 390 Cannon, but before I even got close, I could already feel the buzz. The main foyer at the center of the third-floor hall overflowed with interns, reporters, camera equipment, and security — and a bunch of guys in suits. At some point, it can become really hard to tell who is who.

In her text, the press chief had told me to pick her out as the woman “wearing a blue dress by a column,” and the first woman I saw in a blue dress standing by a column kindly pointed me to the press rep, who was standing nearby in a lighter blue dress next to a different column. The press rep gave me my official January 6th hearing, Day 7, badge (pictured below), without which I could not enter 390 Cannon.

The Jan6 Committee Day 7 press badge, as it now hangs behind my desk at Asahi

No further instruction was provided and I did not know where to go to find my assigned seat. After I meandered about aimlessly for a few minutes, an older reporter overhead me asking an equally clueless security card where I was supposed to go, and directed me toward my section. Because my outlet (Asahi) has not attended the previous Jan6 hearings, the press staff told me we could not get a table seat because those are reserved for the regulars. Instead, I found my seat closer to the back, with all the other initiates. Pictured below is the sign that hung from my seat when I arrived — I kept it and will get it framed.

The sign attached to my reserved seat in 390 Cannon

The room was abuzz. The tables for the press elite overflowed with computers and cameras, and journalists from all over the world crowded around. Along with some Japanese reporters from other outlets, I saw a table reserved for BBC — and my seat was placed in the foreign media section between a TV reporter from a German outlet I did not catch the name of, and a reporter from the Swiss publication Tages Anzeiger. At the table in front of me, I could see a woman with a reserved sign next to her computer that said Die Zeit (‘The Times’).

390 Cannon about 30 minutes before the hearing’s start

After about five minutes of awkward silence, I introduced myself to the woman sitting to the right of me (unknown TV news reporter). I told her I spoke nur ein bisschen deutsch–just a little German. She had been in DC for a year and a half, and said she knew most of the German reporters in the city. She was not unfriendly, but seemed little interested in talking. There was a seat a few down from mine reserved for an NHK (Japan’s main public media outlet) reporter, but I do not think I ever saw someone sit there. Meanwhile, I could hear a gaggle of excited interns chattering in the row behind me.

The nine members of the Jan6 Committee marched into the ballroom at at around 1pm. I could barely see them beyond the sea of table reporters in front of me, but I did snap a lucky picture of all nine of them sometime before the hearing ended.

The Jan6 Nine

It turned about to be a long hearing. It was actually the longest of any of the hearings I have covered, clocking in at around three hours. But I admit I was quite enraptured, and the time passed like a dream. My primary job here was simply to listen and take notes for later use by my bureau chief, Mochizuki-san, who is the correspondent primary responsible for covering the Jan6 proceedings in my bureau.

Below are the notes recorded from Chair Thompson’s opening remarks. I am moved by his of warm, disinterested speaking style.

We settle our differences at the ballot box. Sometimes my choice prevails, sometimes yours does. When you’re on the losing side, you don’t have to be happy about it. You can protest, organize, get ready for next election. But you can’t turn violent, can’t achieve your desired outcome through force, intimidation. Dec14 2020, presidential election was officially over. By that point, many of Trump’s supporters already believed election was stolen. Trump was required to say we tried and we came up short, but he seized on the anger he’d already stoked, and urged them on. As part of his last ditched effort, he summoned a mob and spurred them to violent attack.

The proceeding hour and a half contained an onslaught of information. Some of it was delivered directly by Reps. Cheney, Raskin, and Murphy. Much of it came from clips from recorded interviews and depositions with what felt like over a dozen witnesses–ranging from Trump’s White House Counsel and Jan6 Committee star witness Pat Cipollone, to Ivanka Trump, to former Trump admin prosecutor and noted bad actor Sydney Powell (who played a key role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results in Georgia, Arizona, and other states). The committee played audio snippets (edited for anonymity) of a Twitter employee, who said, by early January 2021, if it [Trump] was someone else, he would have been permanently suspended a very long time ago.

On the evening of December 18, Trump held a key meeting with his closest allies, among whom were disgraced General Michael Flynn, and Powell. In that meeting, Trump tried to appoint Powell as a special counsel with the legal ability to seize voting machines. Below is an image from the hearing of an excerpt from the executive order he had drafted on that December night.

Trump’s executive order draft, which would grant Sidney Powell authority to seize voting machines

Now, please enjoy Cipollone’s reaction to the idea of seizing voting machines (from his recorded interview with the committee):

Note that Cipollone was a key Trump administration official and ally of the president, but it has come out over the last few months that he was opposed to Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. If only he had told us then what he instead waited two years to tell us now. These guys may have been the last line of defense between us and the collapse of our republic, but they make for a better Maginot Line than a firewall.

The committee showed this tweet that Trump drafted but never sent, sometime in the weeks leading up to the insurrection:

A draft of a call to arms, seen by Trump but never sent

The hearing went into a 15 minute recess around 2:30. I think I just sat in my seat in silence for the whole time, and sent a bunch of pictures to my friends and family.

When they reconvened, they marched that day’s witnesses into the room with them. Unlike all previous hearings, they had made no prior announcement of the identity of the witnesses–I amm not sure if this was for the shock factor, or for the witnesses’ own safety. I imagine that everyone who participates in these hearings–panelists and witnesses alike–have encountered major personal security concerns as a result. I know Rep. Kinzinger and his family have received numerous death threats.

Their two witnesses for this hearing were: Mr. Ayres, a man from northeast Ohio who participated in the Capitol breach and occupation on January 6, and Mr. Van Tatenhove, a former member of the Oath Keepers. They both recounted their stories in great detail. Mr. Ayres was an ‘average’ Trump supporter, and had been addicted to social media and fully bought the stolen-election narrative in the run up to January 6. He joined some buddies heading down to DC, responding to Trump’s call to arms for January 6; by mid-afternoon on that day, he had helped storm the capitol. He has since been convicted, renounced his support for Trump and the stolen-election narrative, and volunteered to speak as a witness for the committee.

Mr. Van Tatenhove had been a lead media person for the Oath Keepers (a group that played a major role in the insurrection on January 6). He had renounced his membership prior to the election, citing a conversation he had overheard among other Oath Keepers in which they said the Holocaust did not happen.

In Mr. Ayres’s testimony, he argued for the power Trump’s words and directives have on people. Mr. Ayres’s testimony served as good if anecdotal evidence that, to Trump’s supporters, Trump’s word (in tweet or press briefing or Ellipse speech) is law. I do not think any of us needed convincing of this. And, regarding these witnesses, certainly it is hard to differentiate between theatrical repentance and genuine sentiment. But if you are going to have a series of hearings on an insurrection against the federal government, I guess you might as well bring in one of the guys who was actually there.

As an aside: I feel bad for both of the witnesses. Press photographers have to be some of the most clinically antisocial people in this poor excuse for a society. I cannot imagine being such a sociopath as to excitedly shove a giant camera right in the face of some guy who just recounted his story of ruining his own life, and spend five minutes firing away with my industrial-strength flash triggering on every click. Journalists in general have a lot of questions to answer about how well they were socialized as children. Press photographers, in their behavior, have already answered all these questions, and none of the answers are good.

And then the hearing ended. The witnesses, and committee members, were escorted out of the room by security. All of us in the gallery got up, and the room was once again abuzz. I ducked out quickly to try and catch a ride back to the Asahi office before the full weight of the press corps spilled out onto the street and overwhelmed the ride-sharing bandwidth, but I ended up walking across the Capitol campus and down the main walk before hailing a car.

In the meantime, Project Edinburgh co-founder Zach sent me the pictures below. He had been watching the hearing live-stream, and snapped some lucky shots as a certain muckraker stood up and barely into view of the TV cameras at the close of the hearing.

Where’s Waldo?

Yes, it is me. I am Waldo. Black mask, spectacles, white button shirt, slightly ill fitting blue blazer, and Jan6 hearing Day 7 press badge around my neck: reporter chic

I made it back to the office with an hour left in the workday, and I pinned my badge to the cork-board behind my desk (seen earlier on). The badge was so nicely laminated I figured the Jan6 committee press team would confiscate them at the end, but they did not. It makes for a good artifact.

Thanks for reading. Never in a hundred years would I have seen myself attending a congressional hearing about an insurrection against the federal government, as a member of the press. But here we are.

Publication: Japanese “Western Learning” From Tokugawa to Meiji

I’ve been working on a couple different historical articles to be published lately, so this will a short “stand-in” post for my weekly reflections.

On Friday, my article “Against a Rupture Narrative: Japanese ‘Western Learning’ from Tokugawa to Meiji” was published in the Columbia Journal of Asia. I encourage you to read it here!

Here’s the abstract:

Throughout the 19th century, Japanese elite society simultaneously expanded its interest in affairs beyond its borders while reaffirming its distrust of foreigners and foreignness (jōi). This paper examines the variety of ways in which Japan engaged with the outside in the tumultuous 19th century.

Scholarship on 19th century Japan so often treats the Tokugawa period and the Meiji period as absolutely separate entities, between which occurred a complete shift in thought and ideology. Even scholars who argue that Sakoku was a myth still tend to leave the Meiji period well enough alone; likewise, Meiji scholars often fail to address the similarities in thought between the two periods. In terms of the ideological and scholarly currents about Japanese relationships with the exterior, the late Tokugawa period and the Meiji period were actually quite similar.

I intend to create a discourse on Japanese external relations that synthesizes a number of temporally narrow scholarly works in order to show not a rupture but a continuity in Japanese national thought throughout the 19th century— in the transition from the Tokugawa to Meiji eras, views on the outside world did not change nearly as much as most scholars have presumed. (END OF ABSTRACT)

I originally wrote this paper as an undergrad in 2016, for a class on early modern Japanese science, philosophy, and “western learning” (rangaku, literally “Dutch learning” because the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed in Japan for 250 years). I ended up discussing a lot of the same themes and writers (Aizawa Seishisai primarily) in my BA thesis, which I completed in 2017.

I think this is one of the better, higher-effort papers I wrote as an undergrad, and I thought it would be fun to bring it out again and work it into an article! The time period covered, the 19th century, is a bit out of my main interest range now that I’m more focused on the early 20th century — but I enjoyed going back and remembering where I started. And I always find interesting the dynamic of Japan building up its arsenal and administration with Euro-American technology and ideas specifically to resist Euro-American imperialism. Thanks for reading.

Those who do not learn from history…

are condemned never to repeat it.

There’s a myth that we have nothing to learn from history but how to avoid its mistakes, distilled in the famous aphorism from philosopher George Santayana. This myth is very attractive — it tells us we who know the rules can be better than our misguided and morally bereft predecessors.

This myth is a fallacy. We cannot look around us and reasonably claim we are much smarter than our predecessors. But more importantly, it’s already obvious that we all learn, and want to learn, to repeat the past. We may lie to ourselves that history was all bad and to love it is repugnant — and then we have the audacity to go home and join communal traditions, search out old music, and collect books, art, and memories. For the historians among us, we have the audacity to study history.

Despite all the untruths we tell ourselves, every single student of history loves the past in some way. Of course, it would be dangerous and anti-humanist not to; people throughout time have felt all the same happiness, love, stagnation, fury, and devastation that we do; if we refuse to understand them in this, we erase their voices.

I don’t seek to claim that we refuse to learn from the good parts. We all do, and we’re not good at hiding it. The real issue, which I believe deserves more recognition, is that many of us go around pretending to believe in the absolute bankruptcy of the past, in order to gain moral or intellectual clout.

Yes, it is clear to me that history is full of awful events and institutions: some more obvious, like slavery or genocide, and some that require the good-faith work of historians to uncover, like redlining or the dog-whistling of bigots. But it is equally clear to me, as a person and as a practitioner of history, that there are parts of the past that call to me.

This comes in many forms. For example, when I look at the books or the stereo I bought in early January 2021, part of me longs for the warmth and color and sounds of that moment in time — to lie under my electric blanket as I did then, and watch the snow fall outside the window of my tiny Cambridge apartment. I long for this despite the fact that in January 2021, I was miserable and alone. I had not seen anyone for months thanks to the pandemic, I would not see them for many months after, and I lived in constant fear of accidentally catching and transmitting that deadly virus to the immune-compromised family members with whom I stayed.

A very different example comes in the form of hearing my grandfather recount memories of his childhood. He and his family were, and still are, survivors of the German Holocaust against Jewish people. His father escaped a Vichy internment camp. His family barely escaped Europe with their lives, and some didn’t make it at all. Those who did — including my grandfather and his parents — settled in Quito, Ecuador, arriving in the country from Spain after an absurd 6,000-mile boat ride across the Atlantic and all the way around Cape Horn. When they settled in Quito, they had little money, experienced occasional tragedy, and carried the immense trauma of survivorship.

And yet, when my grandfather tells me stories of the old days, sometimes he smiles, and I do too. I love his story, passed down through the generations, of my great grandfather as a child in a Fin d’Siècle western German cafe asking for ein bier und die zeitung, bitte — “a beer and the newspaper, please” — because he’d seen his father ask for the same. We both smile when my grandfather recounts his fledgling crushes as a small child in Chateaubriand in occupied France. I truly love hearing about him borrowing vinyl records from clients of his electrical-engineer father, and listening to BBC on his jury-rigged short-wave radio.

I feel comfort in all these stories, and a drive to learn from his experiences and choices, good and bad. If I didn’t, that would only mean I wasn’t listening well enough.

We all live through the miseries of history. For some, like those who experience genocide, slavery, or systemic bigotry, these miseries become cataclysms of despair.

But do we not also live through some of history’s pleasures and frissons? No side of the past needs to erase or drown out the other: to study history is, after all, a relentless pursuit of nuance. We are all students of our own history — we can allow ourselves to enjoy the good parts, while we also hate and learn from the bad.

(Featured image: Photograph from the grounds of Edinburgh Castle)

Cities, records, archives

I’ve often toyed with the idea of becoming an archivist as a career. I almost applied to the dual history MA/Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Maryland in 2019, but I had a change of heart when I visited UMD’s campus and found it absolutely awful. It was perhaps the most unattractive university campus I’ve ever visited.

But this is not a polemic against the otherwise great institution of Maryland’s premier public university—this is my reflection on working in the archives.

I grew up in an archive, of sorts. My mom was the ceramics and glass curator in the National Museum of American History for all of my childhood, and I used to spend many hours (during summer vacation, many days) every week in the museum. I frequently played with 200-year-old marbles, toured collections filled with pottery and artwork from late-19th-century Louisiana, and frequently wandered among the museum’s document archives.

When I was 18, I did my high school “senior project” in the form of a one-month internship on the team designing the forthcoming “American Enterprise” exhibit at the museum. For that, I spent the majority of my time in photo collections, patent libraries, and advertisement archives in the museum. My job during this month was to design a scale model of a typical Nebraskan wheat and corn farm from the 1920s, featuring period-correct patents and design on everything from windmills to agricultural machinery (this model, and other labels I helped write, are now on display in the museum!). I learned a great deal about the evolution of the combine harvester during that month.

But I am not a student of cultural or material history, and while these experiences did show me the magic of historical collections, they also left me with some mixed feelings. The archive can feel like—and frequently, is—a cold, stuffy, and antisocial space. It’s amazing to me that a place that contains so many historical voices, recorded on so many different media, feels so lonely and deprived of community and interaction—like being alone in a megalopolis.

It doesn’t have to be exactly like that. The archive particularly feels like a lonely place if it doesn’t contain work that really moves you as a historian. American cultural and material history may not be my cup of tea, but many other types of history are: modern political and diplomatic, medieval European monastic, or borderlands history certainly all are. As an undergraduate student in Chicago, my classes frequently did field days to the UChicago special collections and the archives of the Newberry Library; seeing an original copy of Abraham Ortelius’s Teatrum Orbis Terrarum rolled out of its archival wrappings in the Newberry remains one of my most excited moments ever as a student.

Later on, as a graduate student, I spent a great deal more time in the archives. I collected photos in the Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts library for this book on Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard. I also collected and processed letters and other documents in the same RBML for a follow-up [forthcoming] to this article on the advent of social security in early-20th-century America.

For my own MA/MSc thesis on German merchants in London in the late 16th century, I spent two days in the London Metropolitan Archives and one day in the UK National Archives at Kew, handling original letters, bills of sale, and court proceedings from the 16th-18th centuries. However, as my friend and colleague Zach illustrated in his piece this week, the researcher often does not find the documents they seek within the archive. Unfortunately for me, I found literally no documents of use to my project during these visits (the documents I did use ended up being from digital collections).

But what stands out in my memory of these experiences is not the failures (in London) or even the successes (in Columbia’s RBML); what stands out is the physicality of the archival journey, as Zach also argued.

Nearly every day for two months during the summer of 2021, I would wake up and take the 2 train or walk from my apartment to Columbia’s campus, settle in to the 6th-floor archival reading room in Butler library, and sift through hundreds of documents or photographs for many hours. Despite my ancillary role on both projects for which I did research in that library, I found myself growing deeply attached to the ‘main characters’—of the stories—both of which took place in part in Manhattan—that played out in front of me as I was reviewing materials. I felt real joy seeing the NYC addresses to which 1920s social security crusader Abraham Epstein sent thousands of letters, outlining his work in and movement across the city. Likewise, I found myself empathically projecting myself into novelist Shirley Hazzard’s shoes while looking at photos of her and her husband in Bryant Park or the Upper East Side. I loved these stories: because I traveled to the archive in person every day, because I often sat in Riverside or Central Park, because I went to Lower Manhattan every weekend, these stories came alive. The same is true for my own research in London, albeit with much less time spent in-archive there.

These stories, and millions more of their kind, can’t come alive if you as the historian don’t live them. Being a historian is not about reading or modeling history after yourself, it’s about entering into a genuine conversation with past voices and, in a sense, modeling your own life after those of your main characters in order to understand them. History is not a science, and it does not contain within it any universal models or philosophies; history is dialogue and community. If you don’t put your human self in the same (or in some sense similar) position of discomfort and awe and stimulation that your ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ felt, then you can’t really feel the humanity of the story you’re telling, and your work won’t add much value to the world. Traveling to the archive—its city or town or countryside place and being there—is the most readily available method by which we as historians can ‘speak’ with those whose stories we seek to tell, and let them speak to us.

On learning history – Aidan’s introduction

Hello! My name is Aidan. In 2022, I graduated from the MA/MSC program in international history at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, where I focused on medieval northern European commercial history and, very unrelatedly, British and American diplomacy and empire in East Asia in the early 20th century. I really just threw everything at the wall, and those are what stuck. I also studied history at the University of Chicago, where I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on British and Japanese isolationism in the 19th century. Anyway, this isn’t really supposed to be a cover letter, but where I’ve gone to school and the people I’ve met continue to be really important to me.

When I was 8 or 9, I remember showing Fire Emblem (a medieval fantasy tactics game) on my Nintendo Game Boy Advance to my grandmother, who studied medieval history at Barnard College in the 1950s. This is one of my first memories of caring about world history (to the extent that a medieval fantasy video game can be considered ‘world history’), or being aware that others around me cared about it. Ironically, I continued to have a mixed relationship with the field all the way through the end of high school. I got my worst AP exam grade in history (a 3) and got a lot of Cs and Bs on history exams generally. I did do well on research papers—in my American studies class, I wrote one research paper on taverns as political organizing points in pre-independence America, and another on barbed wire as the commodity that brought an end to the American West as the FJT “frontier” space.

But really, what always had me coming back to this field was video games and fantasy books, and I think this is quite appropriate. There is no ‘objective’ view of history, because there are as many voices and perspectives and narratives of history as there have been people. So, the study of history really isn’t so different from books and video games: it involves heroes and villains (any good academic adviser will ask you who these are in your thesis), world-building, subjective extrapolation, and a colorful imagination.

I fell in love with the academic study of history at Chicago. I took classes across nearly every historical field I could find, from the Carolingian Renaissance to the Islamicate ‘gunpowder empires’ of early modern Asia, from 19th-century European diplomacy and empire to the evolution of Greek identity over the past 3,000 years, to Japanese science and foreign learning in the 18th century, and the list goes on.

During this time, I also started playing the early modern history video game Europa Universalis IV. I ended up writing about this game for my personal statement to my graduate program, and then I wrote about it for a paper at Columbia, and now I’m giving a conference presentation on it at Virginia Tech in spring 2023.

I’m not precisely sure where I want to take my work next. My stock answer, when people ask, is that I’d like to continue studying early 20th century British and American diplomacy in East Asia. Something particularly about the period of 1894-1914 sticks with me. It’s such an absurd global twilight zone, right before the apocalypse of the 20th century, that I keep going back to.

As time goes on, I’m also becoming more interested in post-WWII Japanese and American history. I currently work as a reporter at the Japanese daily paper The Asahi Shimbun, which is a sort of stepping stone/window for me into that mid-late 20th-century world–a world so close to me and still so evident today and yet, because I was born in 1995, still infinitely far away.

My goal on Project Edinburgh is to continue exploring, and bringing humanism into history. Thanks for following along, and see you around.

Project proposal: Rehumanizing history

This proposal/abstract was submitted for the 2023 Global History Conference at the Weltmuseum in Vienna, Austria

“Scientification.” “Objectivity.” These words miraculously distill many of the most pervasive flaws of global history-telling. Historians are taught that we pursue the absolute truth of grand, civilizational narratives. This can be seen in innocuous cases like Twitter accounts that highlight common misconceptions about history, such as that medieval people didn’t bathe. But it emerges most prominently, and dangerously in magisterial works of academic global historiography as well. Annales school champion Marc Bloch, in his The Historian’s Craft, entreated historians to practice more like scientists; 60 years later, Jürgen Osterhammel tried to reduce almost to an encyclopedic science the profound diversity of 19th -century humanity in his The Transformation of the World. Historians operate under the fallacious pretense of
objectivity to the detriment society—one need only look to McNeill’s The Rise of the West to see teleology and western exceptionalism disguised as ‘objectivity.’

What these historians fail to understand is that history contains as many truths as it does people. The craft of academic history must evolve to address rather than obfuscate this multiplicity. After a review of examples of global history-telling across the spectrum, this paper will argue that subjectivity should be centered in historiography—whether the historian sets out to write a history of a martyred woman mystic in the hills of 16 th-century Kham, or a history of the diplomacy of the late-Victorian Foreign Office.


The challenge is supremely difficult: academic rigor and honesty remain paramount principles in the field. But by returning humanism to the craft, as Walter Mignolo began to in Local Histories/Global Designs, we can add light and depth to the many truths of the past—not with a false scientific hardness, but with a melting-pot of narratives as personal and subjective as we know history itself to be.

Aidan Lilienfeld