Objectivity and Subjectivity in Oral History: Lessons from Japanese American Incarceration Stories
Sari Morikawa is an intern at the Oral History Center (OHC) of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She is a Mount Holyoke College history major with a keen interest in American history.
This fall, I had an opportunity to work on the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project (JAIN) with OHC interviewers Amanda Tewes, Shanna Farrell, and Roger Eardley-Pryor. For this project, I identified oral history interviews discussing Japanese American incarceration during World War II in the OHC’s collections. Later, I compiled and constructed an annotated bibliography for the team, as well as for future researchers. At the same time, I engaged with and acquired knowledge of basic oral history theories and methodologies. Through this project, I had a chance to reflect upon the idea of intersubjectivity and contemplate how this concept plays out in a real oral history project. This entire experience caused me to wonder how my own subjectivity—including my background as a Japanese woman and not an American citizen—might influence how I interpret and share these oral history narratives on Japanese American incarceration.
For the first phase of my internship, I engaged with prominent oral historians’ scholarly work and learned basic oral history methodologies and practices. In particular, the idea of intersubjectivity struck me. In oral history, intersubjectivity means that both the interviewer’s and narrator’s subjectivity, or identities and lived experiences, impact their interpretations of memories and shape the interview they co-create. In particular, Kathleen Blee’s article, “Lessons from Oral Histories of the Klan,” was very influential for me. In this article, Blee sheds light on the idea that historians need to grapple with how to tell people’s stories while considering their own social identities and perspectives, especially when they disagree. After briefly discussing the author’s main argument, Amanda asked me a question, “Do you think history can be objective?” This question struck me. At that point, I believed that objectivity in history was important to avoid romanticization of the past. For example, in order to justify the incarceration plan, the U.S. federal government conceptualized Manzanar as a “holiday on ice” and shared this interpretation with the general public. As a result, some of the oral history transcripts demonstrate (particularly white) narrators’ misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Japanese Americans incarceration. Thus, I believed that history should be neutral to prevent romanticization. Yet, my views on objectivity and intersubjectivity changed as I started writing the annotated bibliography and engaged more with oral history theory and methodology.
By the beginning of October, we started working on an extensive annotated bibliography. I identified oral history transcripts which discuss Japanese American imprisonment during World War II. It turned out Japanese Americans’ incarceration experiences were too diverse to generalize. It was wonderful to see that narrators who discussed the incarceration ranged from formerly incarcerated deaf family members to the War Relocation Authority officials to a fisherman who delivered fish to incarceration centers. I recognized how diverse their voices are and realized that the stories that we tell are not objective at all. Thus, history cannot be objective. For example, some formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans expressed their bitter feelings that life in incarceration camps was shocking and traumatizing. Some of them, like Nancy Ikeda Baldwin, even said that these experiences decreased their performance in school after their incarceration. On the other hand, others said that the incarceration camps were enviable experiences. One generation later, Eiko Yasutake confessed, “I was kind of a little jealous when you went to the camps, because that, for kids, was that side of it, that they were all together and kind of had that playtime if you will.” In fact, so many photographs from this time highlight Japanese Americans’ agency. Jack Iwata’s work uncovers Japanese Americans hosting beauty pageants, emphasizing Japanese Americans’ power to make the most out of their circumstances. This wide array of recollections, even among Japanese Americans, confused me. However, it made me contemplate how I would utilize the idea of intersubjectivity to share this nuanced and complex history with people who don’t really know about these incarceration experiences.
The question of how I would interpret these stories and share them with people who are unfamiliar with this topic led me to another question: how my identity as Japanese would impact interpretations of Japanese American incarceration. As a person who partially shares the same heritage and cultural background, I felt a sense of familiarity and interacted with interview transcripts with care. Encountering some of the Japanese words in oral history interview transcripts that don’t quite translate into English, such as ‘gaman‘ and ‘shikataganai,’ I felt a cultural connection to Japanese American prisoners. When someone discusses that formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans are hesitant to talk about their experiences, I recognize how Japanese culture made them react that way. My own subjectivity helped me grapple with these Japanese Americans’ incarceration stories. At the same time, I learned that I should also step back from my own subjectivity. Some of the Chinese and Filipino Americans’ transcripts on this topic allowed me to tackle this idea. Caroline and Frank Gwerder said, “[Filipinos] were fearful of what the Japanese might do.” These interviews reminded me of how Japanese imperialistic and super nationalistic policies and how they implanted fear on other Asian Americans and reshaped U.S. homeland politics. Since then, I felt more cautious about my national identity, in particular as a person coming from a country with this imperialistic past. That adage that “winners write history” nicely illustrates how imperialists write and rewrite history and leave behind the perspectives of marginalized communities. Recognizing this, I became to be more mindful about valuing the stories of incarcerated Japanese Americans.
Throughout this process, I realized that the inner dialogue between my identity, my interpretation of these oral history interviews, and how I would disseminate them to a larger audience is all subjective. Historians cannot avoid being subjective. In order to best reflect these interviews through my annotated bibliography, I would highlight their plight caused by the government’s racially discriminatory plan and Japan’s imperialistic military policy. Yet, more importantly, I would also emphasize incarcerated peoples’ agency and adoption of “gaman.” Utilizing my shared culture and history, as well as acknowledging the imperialistic past that my country made, I will utilize the oral history as bottom-up narratives to overturn the romanticized past.
Find out more about the oral histories mentioned here from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.
BANCROFT SUMMER ARCHIVAL INTERNSHIP 2015
The Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley
SUMMER ARCHIVAL INTERNSHIP 2015
Who is Eligible to Apply
Graduate students currently attending an ALA accredited library and information science program who have taken coursework in archival administration and/or digital libraries.
Born-Digital Processing Internship Duties
The Born-Digital Processing Intern will be involved with all aspects of digital collections work, including inventory control of digital accessions, collection appraisal, processing, description, preservation, and provisioning for access. Under the supervision of the Digital Archivist, the intern will analyze the status of a born-digital manuscript or photograph collection and propose and carry out a processing plan to arrange and provide access to the collection. The intern will gain experience in appraisal, arrangement, and description of born-digital materials. She/he will use digital forensics software and hardware to work with disk images and execute processes to identify duplicate files and sensitive/confidential material. The intern will create an access copy of the collection and, if necessary, normalize access files to a standard format. The intern will generate an EAD-encoded finding aid in The Bancroft Library’s instance of ArchivesSpace for presentation on the Online Archive of California (OAC). Lastly, the intern will complete a full collection-level MARC catalog record for the collection using the University Library’s Millennium cataloging system. All work will occur in the Bancroft Technical Services Department, and interns will attend relevant staff meetings.
6 weeks (minimum 120 hours), June 29 – August 7, 2015 (dates are somewhat flexible)
NOTE: The internship is not funded, however, it may be possible to arrange for course credit for the internship. Interns will be responsible for living expenses related to the internship (housing, transportation, food, etc.).
The competitive selection process is based on an evaluation of the following application materials:
Cover letter & Resume
Current graduate school transcript (unofficial)
Photocopy of driver’s license (proof of residency if out-of-state school)
Letter of recommendation from a graduate school faculty member
Sample of the applicant’s academic writing or a completed finding aid
All application materials must be postmarked on or before Friday, April 17, 2015 and either mailed to:
Head of Digital Collections
The Bancroft Library
University of California Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720.
or emailed to melings [at] library.berkeley.edu, with “Born Digital Processing Internship” in the subject line.
Selected candidates will be notified of decisions by May 1, 2015.