Is it fair to tell my story?
If I were to write a journal of my everyday life and a historian were to find it in 100 years, what would they think of it? When I think of a diary entry, I think of something for my eyes only, something that only I would be able to understand when read, something that even myself in a few years wouldn’t be able to fully grasp or understand. So, it is pretty fair to say that the intended audience of my journal, being myself, not understanding it would make it much harder for a historian of the even more distant future to understand.
So what is an accurate teller of our lives?
Lets say now I decide to write an autobiography. A story of my life in which I detail everything that happened to me for others to see me. Even if I wanted to be as objective as possible, I think that it is impossible to go into writing without an agenda. Whether I am trying or not, I will pick the events from my life in a way that tells something about me … nobody writes an autobiography about what they eat for breakfast, or which foot they start with when putting on socks. At the same time, my autobiography can now only be written from my current perspective — me looking down on my past self while knowing the outcome of every situation and with hindsight looking down on myself. If a historian were to use this to tell my life … would it be accurate? Is it a fair representation of me?
Which of these two are a more fair version of my life? Which would better represent my family? My friends? My community? The world?
The same way that physicists are unable to observe electrons without having an effect on them, we our not able to look back on ourselves or our ancestors without imprinting our own ideals, understandings and perceptions. And even if a historian could grasp my life fully and understand my every joy, pain, excitement, doubt and every moment of boredom I had, whos to say that historian could give others that same understanding?
In the case of my journal I would be putting the daily happenings of my life and my moment to moment feelings on paper; my autobiography would be the major moments of my life and how they changed me as a whole; taking a excel spreadsheet of my bank account however would only show how I got and spent my money. In the same way, a lot of the “history” we rely on is attributed to documents about underrepresented people.
In the case of 19th century Japan, a lot of the information we were able to salvage was paperwork that residents did to tell the government how much they were working. I’d say that this does a better job of objectively looking at their lives, but that is about all it does. Taking into account how the families felt is impossible. We can only guess in the ways we know how: how would I feel in the situation? Taking into account different aspects of culture and life and other sources may give us more insight, may make our guess more accurate, but we will never be able to guess how someone felt with 100% accuracy. I will never understand how a Korean women who emigrated to Japan without a job or reliable future would feel … would she have hope? Or how the resident of a small town in the countryside labeled “baraku” would think about themselves after being abandoned by the government they never knew they needed.
As much as it is unfair to the true feelings of those being used as history, how can we ever hope to understand each other without looking to these things. We can only guess how people felt as historians, but as we learn more and more about each other, our guesses get better, more insightful. You might not know how bad it felt when I stubbed my toe, but you know it hurt me pretty bad. I might not know how sad a Okinawan woman was when she spent all day working many jobs, watching as her family members died around her, just to be told that she was unemployed, but I can guess that it hurt her pretty bad. Rather than being too scared to address how she felt, I think it is important to give our best effort to understand her, with the little evidence we have that she even existed, we should make our best attempt to understand how she could have felt, how she probably coped, to understand that she was one of many who faced similar struggles, but to also understand that we can never completely understand how she felt.