Letter to the Editor: Context Matters

To the Editors:

Daniel Kim ’21’s op-ed, “On the Offensiveness of the Rising Sun Flag,” criticizes the use of an image of the flag of the imperial Japanese army and navy in a promotional poster for “Hist 1023: Japan in Asia and the World,” which we co-teach. We wish that Kim had reached out to us — or, better yet, enrolled in HIST 1023 — before writing his op-ed. He might not have changed his mind about the flag even if he had taken the class, but we expect we could have had a productive discussion about the complexities of modern East Asian history and the ways nationalists on all sides — certainly including those in Japan — have invoked that history, and the symbols of that history, to support their positions. We also might have had a fruitful dialogue about the extent to which students need to be protected from encountering provocative images during their careers at Harvard College. We plan to offer the class again in the spring of 2021 and we will be delighted if Kim joins us during his final semester at Harvard.

We also believe that context is everything in thinking about the use of images such as this flag. We would never wave it at a Japan-South Korea sporting event, where it functions as a provocation to Korean fans. We condemn those who do so. But we see a course poster as a different sort of speech act, comparable to the cover of a book. Probably the most widely read book in English on the rise and fall of Hitler’s regime, written by William L. Shirer (published in 1960), puts the swastika front and center on the cover of its many editions. A fine book by Michael A. Barnhart on the Japanese navy’s preparation for “total war” in the 1920s and 1930s emblazons the imperial navy’s flag on its cover. To say the least, neither book is written to celebrate the regime it examines. Rather, like our poster in relation to our course, the covers are intended to give readers an instantly recognizable image of the subject of the book. We believe that is appropriate.

Finally, we agree that the current conflict between Japan and South Korea has developed into a dangerous downward spiral of recrimination and retaliation, rooted in the history of harsh colonial rule that we cover in the course. Harvard’s Kim Koo Forum at the Korea Institute, its Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, and the Harvard Asia Center on Tuesday co-sponsored an event titled “The Perils of Populist Nationalism: Japan and Korea in a New Era,” that we hope Kim and other interested students were able to attend.

Andrew D. Gordon ’74 is a Professor of History. David L. Howell is a Professor of Japanese History and East Asian Languages. They are the instructors of HIST 1023: Japan in Asia and the World.