Book Review: Dark Pasts: Changing the State’s Story in Turkey and Japan

Dark Pasts: Changing the State’s Story in Turkey and Japan
By Jennifer M. Dixon
Cornell University Press, 2018
276 pp.
$55.00 hardcover

They say never to judge a book by its cover. But if you do, Villanova University professor Jennifer Dixon’s “Dark Pasts: Changing the State’s Story in Turkey and Japan” is arresting. With its liberal use of black lines, “crossing out” the rest of the typecast font, sitting below a bold red “Dark Pasts,” the jacket design alone packs the suspense of a thriller. Though not a work of literary fiction, Dixon seeks to solve the mystery of why and how some states come to terms with their dark pasts while others do not. She tackles the prompt through a comparative analysis of two cases: Turkey’s narrative of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917 and Japan’s narrative of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-1938, over a nearly 60-year period (1950-2008).

Dixon presents a conceptual framework to assess the determinants of, and obstacles to, change in said narratives during this timeline. Like any good historian who explains a narrative rather than trying to create one, the book’s most powerful lines are attributed to the statements of various figureheads who represent the narratives of their state. And they come early. In the introduction of chapter 2, Dixon opens with a blunt quote by former Turkish president Kenan Evren: “It is a virtue of the Turkish nation that it quickly forgets the past.” Indeed, this alone unfurls the 50-plus year trajectory of the story that Dixon is about to unpack.

Her analysis of the official narratives of Turkey and Japan in regard to these two catastrophic events in their respective histories boils down to the following conclusion: international pressures increase the likelihood of change in official narratives about dark pasts, but domestic considerations determine the content of such change. To this effect, the book takes issue with an oft-quoted line by Howard Zinn, often regarded as the people’s historian, that history will ultimately right itself through the passage of time, persistence and “rightness” (p. 162). This “time will heal all” optimism does not bode well with Dixon’s far less romantic analysis on how and why states change their official narratives on dark pasts. Put simply, time, will and moral convictions hardly factor into the true considerations, which are interactions between political factors at the domestic and international levels. 

Why Turkey and Japan?

Perhaps the initial question that arises is why these two case studies? It is also no secret that both countries have had their fair share of skeletons in the closetif that “closet” were vast swaths of empire and the “skeletons” the countless victims of their aggression(s) whose ghosts have followed them through the decades like a phantom limb. 

Dixon acknowledges that while one is a genocide and the other a massacre, both are examples of “dark pasts,” which she defines as “a large-scale or systematic human rights atrocity that occurred in the past and for which the state bears some responsibility, either directly or as a successor to the regime that perpetrated the crimes” (p. 15). She explains the similarities: both Turkey and Japan are Western-oriented democracies and regional powers, and both have been “subjected to intense scrutiny and pressure by a range of actors” (p. 20).

Some of these actors, Dixon notes, are the victim communities, most of whom reside outside of the borders of the perpetrator nations (ibid). If there are no Armenians in Turkey or Chinese in Japan to bring up the issue(s) on the political level, naturally, it would be easier for the state to ignore their concerns. Even more fundamentally, if there are no Armenian or Chinese neighbors to “humanize,” then local populations will much more readily buy into the dehumanizing narratives propagated by the state.

Indeed, Dixon acknowledges this. With the assassination of Hrant Dink in 2007, the accepted narrative of the belligerent, “enemy” Armenian was shattered, in the eyes of many Turks (p. 91). While until that time, most of the narrative shifts were due to international pressures, this marked the first substantive instance of a domestic consideration pushing the narrative into a different dimension in Turkey. Armenians were suddenly thrust into the spotlight as a very real minority, whose mere existence shattered the myth of Turkey’s foundational history.

Yet, while both states’ narratives started out the same, with outright silencing and denial, their narratives diverged over time, with Japan moving far deeper along the process towards confrontation with its dark past. Dixon is, thus far, the first and only scholar to tackle the two cases, side by side. 

Constructing a framework

But before delving into the findings, let’s unpack the parameters of Dixon’s research. Dixon defines an official narrative as “a state’s characterization of an event, including the nature and scope of the event, and the state’s characterization of the role and responsibility of government officials and institutions in the event” (p. 15). 

To capture a state’s narrative, Dixon pored over several types of sources, including statements by state leaders, accounts in official publications and school textbooks, legislative resolutions, government-sponsored commemorations and reparations to victims. Dixon then categorized their trajectories into the following sections (p. 16): 

  • Deny or Silence
  • Mythmake or Relativize
  • Acknowledge
  • Acknowledge Harm and Express Regret
  • Admit Responsibility
  • Apologize
  • Offer Compensation
  • Commemorate

The first five elements are descriptive, and the latter three are reparative. Dixon defines continuity as a period of time where there is no change in the constitution of the elements. If the text seeks to tell a story, then language is of paramount importance. Dixon’s clear use (and frequent reminders) of the definitions she used throughout the book is an indication of this recognition. She even alludes to Finny’s “semantic promiscuity” and Kansteiner’s “terminological profusion” in the field of memory studies (p. 14, 181).

Accounting for differences in each narrative

The key factors in the differences between the Turkish and Japanese official narratives over this half a century period is a much stronger pull of legitimacy, identity and material concerns in Turkey. These are a few of the domestic considerations that influence the content of change. While the Nanjing Massacre has been allowed to become politicized (along classically partisan lines of more recognition from the left and more denialist approaches from the right), the Armenian Genocide in Turkey is not a political issue but an existential one (p. 42-3). That is why denial in this context does not just take the form of denying a genocide but denying that a crimeany crime at alltook place. What is more, until just a couple decades ago, the official Turkish narrative was that the Armenians committed genocide against Turks. 

To acknowledge that crime would be to shake the very foundations of the Turkish state, the ethno-religious identity on which it built said nation and society, and to open itself up to a Pandora’s box of legislative reparational demands from victims, ranging from financial payments to repossession of looted properties and land. Simply put, Turkey stands far more to lose from recognition than Japan (p. 166-7). But these are not the only differences. 

Both Turkey and Japan are fairly powerful entities from the East that arose in the context of the Cold War (the period on which Dixon begins her research). Their alignments with the West at this timein particular, the United Statesushered in a period of silence on both of their crimes. However, that began to change in the 1970s in Japan and early 1980s in Turkey. 

But while Japan moved from mythmaking and relativizing to acknowledgement (1970s), admitting responsibility (1980s), and eventually, apologizing (1990s), Turkey maintained silence until the early 1980s, when, in response to increasing international pressures posed by Diasporansincluding activity from various Armenian terrorist groups in the 1970sTurkey’s neo-fascistic government, which assumed power through a military coup in 1980, began an intense period of relativization and mythmaking—one that has, more or less, continued to present day, albeit in more sophisticated times. 

Where words fall short: Definitional challenges

Dixon explains that her framework differs from other memories or narratives’ accounts because she looks at the official narrative as a whole, and her definitions of each of the elements in her conceptual framework are more narrow. With more elements, Dixon maintains that she can identify change on a more granular level and, thus, identify more points of change, which will allow for a more accurate assessment of what drives change and continuity over time. While the intention is welcomed, the result is inconsistent. 

Denial v. acknowledgement

Turkey’s official narratives on the Armenian Genocide from 1950 to 2008 are summarized in a chart (p. 40). Until the 1980 military coup, there was near-absolute silence on the matterroughly mirroring that of the Soviet Union until 1965 and the diaspora until the mid-1970s. The following period, which lasted until about 2001, was marked by a series of mythmaking and/or relativizing coupled with continued silencing and outright denial. Dixon then illustrates a shift in 2001, where outright denialism was replaced by only mythmaking, relativizing and/or limited acknowledgement. 

Here lies the qualm with inconsistency. Dixon’s slightly hopeful analysis of Turkey’s trajectory does not bode well. Throughout the 2000s and into the present day, Turkey has not only systematically denied the genocide, but also the very experience of Armenians as a crime at alllet alone, something for which to atone. As Dr. Khatchig Mouradian points out in his review, Dixon’s definition of denial is narrow, but her definition of acknowledgement is broad. Citing Dr. Richard Hovannisian, Mouradian succinctly states, “Whatever linguistic acrobatics the state narrative has performed does not change this reality.” Thus, Dixon’s shifting of Turkey’s narrative, as shown in a chart illustrating the change in Turkey’s narrative from moving past silence and denial is patently problematic. 

One of Dixon’s central findings is that Turkey’s official narrative on the Armenian Genocide has been marked by a period of continuity followed by sweeping changes in the narrative, whereas Japan’s trajectory has been more sporadic with relatively fewer periods of continuity. While Japan’s official narrative has been more volatile and dynamic than Turkey’s, it is far from a perfect case on addressing a state’s dark past. 

Dixon describes the changes (p. 103). Similar to Turkey, in the early period of Dixon’s analysis, Japan engaged in denial or silencing of the Nanjing Massacre, but also with mythmaking or relativizing. In 1971, the official narrative expanded to include acknowledgement and acknowledgement of harm and regret. In 1982, there was further movement with a complete departure from denialism and a push towards admitting responsibility. In 1994, an apology was issued to the victims. With some more pushing and contracting, by 2008, the receding denialism that defined the previous two decades had now expanded back to the point of mythmaking and relativizing. 

Though acknowledgement eventually came, albeit a bit erratically and in some cases more disingenuously than the state would like us to believe, Japan has since shifted back and forth on mythmaking and relativizingproving that the path to justice is not always (if ever) a straight line. Nevertheless, this two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards approach has boded far better for the victims of Japan’s dark past than those of Turkey’s.

“Rape” v. “massacre” and “incident” v. “atrocity”

Another language-related contention arises in the context of naming manifestations of political violence. While the “Nanjing Incident” is blatantly denialist terminology, once used by the Japanese government as its official state narrative, different nomenclature has been used in different areas, signifying varying “interpretation(s) of the nature of the event,” (p. 98). In the West, for example, the “Rape of Nanking” (the former name for Nanjing) was far more common than the “Nanjing Massacre,” as it was referred to in China, and the “Nanjing atrocities,” another phrase used in Japan. The popularity of “rape” to describe the events of Nanjing in the West is likely due to the 1997 bestselling non-fiction book, “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” by Chinese American journalist, Iris Chang.

While these linguistic discrepancies are not completely pertinent to Dixon’s larger aim of studying and analyzing changing state narratives of a dark past, her research rests firmly within the delineated confines of language use, adoption and context. In this respect, Dixon discusses the distinction between “incident” and “massacre,” attributing positive steps toward official narrative change in Japan with the use of the latter terminology. She also touches on the euphemistic “comfort women”the tens of thousands of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese militaryas another crime that Japan more readily accepted than the Nanjing Massacre.

Yet, her analysis glosses over the highly sexualized and almost explicitly gendered distinction as made by the West with the more subtle, self-effacing “massacre” used in China. In the beginning of her book, Dixon defines the events of Nanjing as “not quite a genocide” but a “massacre,” (and certainly not an “incident”). While that is true, what significance does the more salacious “rape” have? Is it, indeed, another euphemism for massacre, like Medz Yeghern (“Great Calamity”) is for the Armenian Genocide or something entirely different? Though perhaps a bit tangential, more critical analysis on these differing descriptions of the same event would have been appreciated. 

Relatedly, in terms of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish narrative has morphed (though Dixon acknowledges not in a straight line) to include an admission of some kind of nondescript “death” and “suffering,” but the discussion on sexual violence against women and children, which was one of the central tenants of the genocide, is always left out of the narrative. She mentions the increasingly popular idea that a growing percentage of Turkey could have Armenian ancestry but does not delve further into dissecting and unpacking this huge component that is entirely ignored. Even as the ice of abject silence cracks, this component of denialism remains frozen intact.

The virtues of change

In the 20 years since President Evren’s statement, his successors have heeded his words. Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent mythmaking of Armenians being a nomadic people as a response to US congressional recognition of the Armenian Genocide indicates that the current leadership of Turkey has not really “forgotten” its past, but flipped it on its head. This is just the latest in a long line of frenzied efforts to (re)create historical narratives: from propagandizing school textbooks and erecting monuments of genocide perpetrators, to funding denialist research and censoring all other discourse; from the university classroom to the halls of parliament, the state apparatus has been hard at work.

Whether or not there is a “deep state” in Turkey is a moot point when it comes to the Armenian Genocide. On this issue, the state has operated ruthlessly to avoid budging from its desired discourse. But, as Dixon says, the interplay between international pressures and domestic considerations is, ultimately, what shapes these narratives. While rightness and persistence are often not enough to prompt change in a state’s narrative of a dark pastwhich is always politicized from the beginningperhaps other factors will arise and lead to substantial change in the future. 

The official narratives of Turkey and Japan in regard to their respective “dark pasts,” like Dixon’s book cover, are both deceptively aesthetic on the surface while containing many layers. Dixon unpacks them well. And though her analysis stops at 2008, it is safe to say that the past decade has not boded well for proponents of human rights and transitional justice in either nation, especially Turkey. 

In this regard, President Evren’s words are as relevant as ever. Is the act of forgetting really a virtue? Only when the narratives of dark pasts include an embrace of the humanity of their aggrieved actors could there be true justice, which is a cardinal virtue.

Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Her writing focuses on the confluence of identity, diaspora and language – especially within the global Armenian communities. She has a master’s degree in Human Rights from University College London and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Boston University, where she served on the ASA Executive Board. She is currently working on her inaugural poetry collection.

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