Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Japanese War Crimes

For a number of years, the issue of the stolen property and the legitimacy of insurance claims of Holocaust victims seemed to be the primary preoccupation of scholars, journalists, and politicians concerned with the legacy of the Second World War. While a few studies emerged about the matter of Japanese war crimes (such as Ian Burma’s 1994 The Wages of Guiltand Iris Chang’s 1997 The Rape of Nanking), generally this topic seemed to lag behind in the public’s interest, buried under an avalanche of studies about the Holocaust and its memory. Recent publications by the U.S. National Archives seem to rectify this problem. Researching Japanese War Crimes Records: Introductory Essays (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration for the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, 2006), with essays by half-a-dozen archivists and scholars, will play an important role in stimulating interest in this aspect of the war and its aftermath.

Growing concerns – by victims, scholars, and others wanting to provide greater disclosure of what had occurred during the war – led the U.S. Congress to pass the Japanese Imperial Disclosure Act in December 2000, establishing a group to identify and open any records on the matter of Japanese war crimes. This was a difficult task, as the Japanese had managed to destroy many of their records at the end of the war and other factors, such as the lack of a central recordkeeping agency, worked against the saving of a large quantity of records (such as had been done for the German Third Reich). And the subsequent search for and analysis of relevant records led to some interesting conclusions, as Edward Drea in the introduction attests: “During the search for classified records, it soon became apparent that historians, researchers, and concerned parties have not fully exploited the many records about Japanese war crimes previously declassified and made available at the National Archives” (p. 16). Drea indicates that this has to do with how the records were scattered around in the records of a dozen or so U.S. government agencies. Nevertheless, over a hundred thousand pages of records have been declassified.

The volume includes essays on the destruction of Japanese documents during the war, the changing scholarly and media treatment of Japan’s war crimes, the potential research that can be done in the records, and the process by which the existing documentation has been gathered and handled. There is also a separate publication of Select Documents on Japanese War Crimes and Japanese Biological Warfare, 1934-2006, compiled by William H. Cunliffe, and a 1700 page finding aid on an accompanying CD complied by Greg Bradsher. For more information about this effort, and various publications and guides, visit the National Archives' web page on this project. .

This is an important effort by the National Archives that helps to demonstrate how this agency can take the lead in declassification efforts, overcoming recent publicity nightmares about the reclassification scandal and Sandy Berger fiasco.