Assessing the Significance of Mass Death: From Experiences of East Asia Island Regions before/after 1945

published: 2016-02-01 Japanese:日本語版へ

Mourned for their relatives who got lost during the February 28 Incident in Taiwan (this picture was taken by the author on February 28, 2013).

In my research I have been considering, from the sociological/anthropological viewpoints, how people who have experienced disputes such as wars and massacres (survivors and bereaved families) have expressed death of their relatives through their sociocultural meaning and have exercised their ingenuity in order to overcome conflicts with the power of the state arising during the process.

In concrete terms I focus on "island regions experiencing cruel disputes and massive violence in East Asia before/after 1945" and seek a possibility to find out an answer which can solve the basis of the problems in today's East Asia by tracing the history of life loss, human rights violations and community destruction people in East Asia island regions were forced to have as a result of disputes including the Pacific War and mass killing. In particular, I have mainly conducted surveys concerning Jeju April 3rd Events in 1948 and based on the knowledge I have learned through the surveys I have conducted comparative research between the battle of Okinawa during World War II and the February 28 Incident in Taiwan (big-scale battle between Taiwanese people and Chinese people) to make the discussion universal and I have shared its achievements throughout the society.

Under the reign of the Japanese Empire 1945 is recognized as "end of war" or "liberation/retrocession" (colonial liberation) in East Asia regions. However, from the viewpoints of marginalized island regions of the Japanese Empire including Jeju, Okinawa and Taiwan, Japan's defeat just means the turnover of occupation forces. Occupation is conducted continuously and it just means a transfer to a new ruling structure. During the transition period from the colonial regime to the cold war regime both representation of autonomous intention of people in the island regions and their movements for independence from colonialism were constrained and were also surveillance targets, which led to social divisiveness of the regions in the end. In addition, ambiguous situation has continued since then between a nation state's control of memories as compelling power / system that tries to show its "legitimacy" in the name of "post-war process" (sengoshori) / "liquidation of the past" (kakoseisan) and formation of private memories that are against the control. Since even people who experienced the disputes and mass death have only a vague recollection of their past experiences and memories, they cannot re-arrange them objectively. Therefore, I think that investigation of dynamic generation and transformation of memories of disputes and mass death has important and urgent meaning as a research issue of humanities and social sciences, including ways to rapprochement and symbiosis.

Memorial service for victims of Jeju April 3rd Events (this picture was taken by the author on April 3, 2013).

Mass death in each region is "extraordinary death" which conflicts with the traditional concept of death and it is also "disturbing death" which threatens the legitimacy of post-conflict society. Therefore, "Act on Relief of War Victims and Survivors" (Japan), "The February 28 Incident Disposition and Compensation Act" (Taiwan) and "The Special Act for Investigation of the Jeju April 3 Incident and Recovering the Honor of Victims" (Korea) are applied over the approaches of these deaths in the name of restoration and redemption. And providing meaning to mass death has been conducted in each public area as a part of the programs to overcome such past. As a result, a public structured group of the dead, that is, "death of abstract aggregate", such as " war victims (senbotsusya)" (Japan), "sufferers (jyunansya)" (Taiwan) and "4.3 victims (4.3 giseisha)" (Korea) is created and it becomes mediation which represents incidents or connects the past with the present.

Concerning such collective representation of death it has been criticized as "monopoly of the meaning of death" by disciplines including politics and sociology because the nation state insists its legitimacy ex-post facto in it in order to maintain/strengthen the national community. Such criticism is also called "victimization of the dead". The origin of my research is "feelings" of survivors who had no choice but to enter it while assessing such criticisms of "victimization of the dead" to some extent. I would like to clarify action of survivors who try to re-position death of their relatives by adjusting to compelling power that tries to show "legitimacy" of the nation state in some cases and by being resistant to it in other cases.

KOH Sungman

Research Highlights

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