Archival Agility: Some Preliminary Observations

In: Journal of American-East Asian Relations
Peter MauchSenior Lecturer in Asian History, School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University, Sydney, Australia,

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History does not stand still. Historians in the 21st Century ask questions of the past—and reach at least preliminary answers—that had not even occurred to an earlier generation. To borrow the words of Harvard historian Akira Iriye, there has been, in recent decades, a “significant new development in the way in which historians conceptualize and seek to understand the past.”1 Among the few disciplinary constants is the primacy of the primary source, even if each individual historian’s choice of research materials is locked in a mutual embrace with the questions that they are asking.

Historians of American-East Asian relations are no less reliant on primary sources than any of their peers. East Asian sources present unique challenges. Not the least of these challenges, especially for the uninitiated, is discerning what is available, and where to find it. The author distinctly recalls his graduate-level advisor, the late Sadao Asada, laughing off his frustrations at being unable to locate a set of World War I-era naval attaché’s reports at the National Institute of Defense Studies (nids) in Tokyo. The nids Military Archive collection includes an extensive set of naval and military attaché reports, but alas, the reports for which he was searching were nowhere to be found. Asada likened this graduate student’s task to the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack. He added two sobering thoughts—first, there were very many haystacks, and second, there was no guarantee that the needle was indeed in any haystack.

Asada was right. The author located the occasional report that an archivist had placed, seemingly at random, in otherwise unrelated folders and files in the nids Military Archive. His search, however, did not end there. He enlisted the assistance of scholar-archivist (and co-author) Kazufumi Hamai, and together they located in the Diplomatic Archives in Tokyo, a remarkably complete set of records in which the Navy General Staff had paraphrased the very reports for which they were searching. These records were, admittedly, imperfect and raised questions (for example) about what the Navy General Staff had not divulged in its reports to the Foreign Ministry. But, in the absence of the actual reports, this was a sensible—and indeed necessary—compromise.

Such compromises are common for those who venture into the East Asian archives. It bespeaks the need, as the title of these introductory observations attest, for archival agility. At the base of such archival agility must necessarily be a thorough grounding in the available sources. Herein lies the genesis of this theme issue titled “A Guide to Research on World War ii in East Asia: Primary Sources in the British Commonwealth, China, and Japan.” It strives to provide readers with the most thorough possible grounding in three distinct sets of primary documents. The articles in this special issue offer more than merely an account of what is available; they attempt, so far as possible, to explain how and why various sources have become accessible at particular points in time.

It was immediately apparent, if this special issue were to be anything more than a platitudinal introduction to the abovementioned sources, that a focus on a particular time period was necessary. The decision to concentrate on World War ii was an easy one. An important justification was that the availability of World War ii-era sources continues to expand in the British Commonwealth, China, and Japan. And only the hopelessly naïve possibly could argue that the war did not profoundly affect not only these societies, but indeed American-East Asian relations in general. This is, then, a period rich in historical inquiry and in the sources that fuel such inquiry. This theme issue’s fourth essay is a research note introducing readers to a recently discovered set of personal papers in Japan that provides a concrete example of how newly available source materials enrich scholarly understanding of a crucial issue in American-East Asian relations, namely, the question of the Shōwa Emperor Hirohito’s remorse for Japanese aggression before and during World War ii.

The authors of the essays that follow presented them in the hope that they will contribute to the ongoing vitality of the field of American-East Asian relations. May they provide scholarly signposts for anyone, including the next generation of scholars, embarking on a study of American-East Asian relations in World War ii.


Akira Iriye, Global and Transnational History: The Past, Present, and Future (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 2.

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