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The Merits and Pitfalls of using Memoir or Biography as Evidence for Past Events Essay

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Updated: Apr 15th, 2019

Introduction

The historical recordings of past events are very important in the understanding of the actual happenings, analysis of the flow of past events, understanding the factors influencing past occurrences, explanations of the effects of such events, linking the present and future to the past as well as the decision making based on such events.

The actual recording of past events however utilizes every manner of evidence to be able to adequately support the assertions made. Historians and other analysts are in agreement on the need to use the evidence that creates reality and is supportive, but are divided on the relevance of such evidence as from primary sources which they assert are at the heart of history recording and interpretation, yet still creates subjectivity and questions the fairness and truth of such historical recording.

It is worth noting that personal narratives and records of events and discussions forms part of memoirs. Despite the division on the role of personal narratives in recording of history, their relevance from their nature and role in history cannot be overlooked.

This forms the basis for this essay, that is, the analysis of the merits and pitfalls of personal narratives based on the war memory. It is worth appreciating that the authors to be analyzed, Naruo and Sachiko, present their own personal narratives or historical accounts of the occurrences of the war in Japan based on where they were their feelings and perceptions of war as well as their own descriptions of the happenings of the war.

This presents their characters, beliefs, values, interpretation of events and explanations for actions taken. These narratives form the foundations for the explanation of the merits and pitfalls of memoirs in the recording of the historical events. This analysis focuses on the merits and pitfalls of the use of such the personal narratives as primary sources of history and also on their background and factors that could have influenced the writers to write them.

Background study: The role of memoirs or biographies in history

Personal narratives are very important in the recording of past events. They are basically personal recordings of the individual events and happenings that act as a trace of the life of such an individual.[1] Naruo in his narrative of “Doesn’t seem too bad”, focuses on the account around his life in the spring of 1945 in which Japan was in war.[2]

He writes as a fifty two year old man, about the events of war in his life as a 6th grade young boy. Sachiko writes her narrative when she is fifty seven years and in her narrative “When I made Balloon bombs”, focuses on her work at the Kokura munitions factory in February of 1945 as a young girl in her fourth year class in high school where together with her classmates had been mobilized to work in the plant in the production of balloon bombs.[3]

The authors are very much related in that they were both in school although Sachiko was in high school while Naruo was in 6th grade. This raises the fact that they were knowledgeable of writing and reading though Sachiko being older presents a clearer understanding of the war happenings as compared to Naruo. Basically, Sachiko is a young girl or lady while Naruo is a young boy although both of them write these narratives in their fifties with Naruo being fifty two while Sachiko is fifty seven.

These narratives are very relevant in providing historical information on the war from different perspectives in terms of gender and age since Naruo is around twelve years as a young boy child and Sachiko around seventeen years as a female teenager about to get to adulthood especially out of the great memories of the war in Japan whose effect is relevant even to date.[4]

Further, these accounts present the historical accounts from different locations where Sachiko was in Kokura munitions plant working in the making of balloon bombs, while Naruo has his account on his journey from Hiroshima to north eastern Japan. This analyses focuses on the justifying the reasons relevant for their use in history recording based on their merits and pitfalls in relation to records of history.

Factors that influenced the writing of the memoirs and their use in the recording of past events

The war period elicited different feelings and reactions. In the period of 1945, Japan had been in war with China which had started back in 1937 and with America and its allies. The war took the direction of bombings and massive destruction of cities and towns and much later into nuclear bombings.[5]

These personal narratives represent the experiences of the authors with war. The experiences and memories that were so significant motivated them to write them down.[6] Sachiko has the rare experience of making balloon bombs which were used in war, while Naruo travels and sees a burned town to which the psychological state of meeting a person who perceives the situation as bad despite the feeling of fear elicits suspicion on him

It is worth noting that since both writers were in school during that period, the ability to read and write facilitated their writing of their historical accounts.

The magnitude of psychological impact the war had on the authors seemed to have motivated their writing.[7] This is revealed in the fact that Sachiko presents the shock and feelings of surprise at the fact that she actually made a balloon bomb and goes on to describe this process. Naruo on the other hand, has great surprise that despite his lack of much understanding on the war, the man he spoke to creates fear and suspicion to him and causes him to think much about his perception of the war and his statement of not being too bad.

The age of the authors also seems to have been a motivation for their personal narratives with the shock and overwhelming nature of the war more than they could bear in their age. It is also worth noting that the issues raised are the involvement of children in war, psychological effects of war, conditions at the munitions plants and the role of gender in the war.[8]

Merits of using memoirs in recording of history

The use of memoirs in history recording is based on justified reasons, which form the merits of such memoirs basically with the influence of their nature, degree of reliability and relationship with other sources of evidence.[9] Personal narratives as memoirs have the advantage of being useful in various fields other than just the records of history. This includes in the analysis of the issues surrounding the writing of such narratives.

For instance in “When I made Balloon bombs”, there is evidence of information regarding the war, the issues in the munitions plants during the war period, the education basis, gender influences in war as well as the science and art in the making of such bombs. In so doing, Sachiko presents information useful on the history on education, use of girls in munitions plants, the living conditions at the time and the aspects of disease and death as is applicable in the health sector as well as the issues of casualties after the war.[10]

Naruo presents information on a journey in a train with conversation with the neighbour and the creation of suspicion.[11] This is applicable in the learning of transport of the time, communication, education and the protection of children in war. These narratives can also be used in literature learning.

Personal narratives are also advantageous in providing the actual chronological order of events and the differences in geographical locations with actual explanations limited to a specific place.[12] Sachiko focuses on her life in the Kokura munitions plant proving information on the munitions plants in terms of conditions, workers, working environment and their role in history.

Naruo presents information on his journey from Hiroshima to the north eastern Japan raising the importance of Hiroshima as a target area for war hence the eviction of children. They both present the actual dates of the happenings of the war as the end of February in 1945 for Sochika and during the spring of the same year for Norua raising the ability to verify the reliability of the information in comparison with other records of war.

The fact that memoirs are primary sources of evidence increases the validity of history sources since such recordings are not based on any secondary interpretations of information which increases their truth.[13] Personal narratives are personally written with clear indications of the writer to be able to gauge the value of such information and get the perspective from the person. Sochika clearly specifies that she was in fourth class in high school and had been mobilized with her classmates to work in the munitions plants during the war.

Norua on his part presents his journey from Hiroshima and the suspicions from his neighbour in the journey raising the psychological interpretations and effects of the war. Both Norua and Sochika present their narratives in a way that is truly personal since some things such as actual feelings and interpretations cannot be done by somebody else conclusively. This increases their reliability as primary sources of evidence and as such their advantage in records of history.

Memoirs also are necessary in history recording especially where there are limited sources of evidence hence can be used to record such events while they provide historical data from different perspectives and based on different events which increases the value and content of history.[14]

This is very relevant due to limited nature of information especially in events of increasing the scope of research and getting to understand a subject from different perspectives.

Sochika presents information of the life at the Kokura munitions plant as a high school girl which may not have been written by somebody else in her position. Norua presents an account of a young boy’s interpretation of the war raising the influence on children who despite their limited understanding of the war had the ability of interpreting what was happening around them due to the magnitude of the impact of the war.[15]

The reliability of personal narratives also lies in their use of feelings and personal expressions to express the meaning increasing the reality of the event. For instance, Norua expresses his shock on seeing the burnt town of Akashi with clear description of the scene and then raises his words of expression “Doesn’t seem too bad” despite his shock.[16]

This increases his suspicion of the man next to him who seems to have heard raising his feelings of discomfort and thoughts of him being a spy. Sochika raises the expressions that were evident with the fact that they were free to go home some silence and shock. Her expression of the responses raises the understanding of the actual condition at the plants and the lack of expectations of release.[17]

Further, personal narratives are very necessary in increasing the fields of application of historical research such as political, philosophical, language, social, economic and cultural interpretations increasing the use of historical data.[18]

This is evident in the narratives of Sochika and Norua that can be used in political understanding of the times from the perspective of the authors, economic status from the nature of the work environment at the munitions plants and the food shortages in Hiroshima, social influences of gender in war, language at the time, philosophical interpretations of such narratives as well as psychological understanding of the war effects such as diseases, frustrations, fear and suspicion as well as the health issues.

Pitfalls of Personal Narratives

Firstly, memoirs are individualized and as such reliance on them would provide a biased viewpoint especially where varying perspectives of different memoirs are used.[19] For instance, despite the age difference between Norua and Sochika, both can be considered as children.

However, Sochika is heavily involved in the munitions plant of Kokura in making balloon bombs, while Norua is part of the children that are evicted from Hiroshima to north eastern parts to protect them. This limits the understanding of the influence of the war on the children in terms of their involvement.

Memoirs also are just recordings of such events as the writer deems necessary. This means that the prior events that the author does not see of necessity are ignored thus making it difficult to follow up history. For instance, Sachiko presents information on her making of balloon bombs and the conditions at the plants.[20]

She does not specify on the reasons why they were allowed to leave, the length they had worked and the events after leaving the plant. Norua also considers his journey and his meeting the neighbour.[21] He does not clearly present the conditions at Hiroshima or the destination area limiting their reliability and follow up.

It is worth considering that memoirs are subject to loss of clarity of the flow of events especially due to loss of memory of the event.[22] This can lead to confusion and hence the lack of the actual presentation of the event. The personal narratives of Sochika and Norua are written in their fifties yet they represents the happening of event during the childhood and teenage.

This is subject to memory loss, exaggerations and the failure to remember the main significant issues or history. This however is debatable due to the magnitude of the war that elicited memories which have remained in Japan especially the effects of the bombings meaning that the authors could have clearly remembered the actual war events.[23]

Historians have been criticized of trying to establish the causes of actions, which are limited by memoirs due to the individual differences. Further, history based on emotions is not stable enough to stand the test of time. This is because memoirs are based on expression of the feelings of an individual, which are influenced by different factors. For instance, the feelings of Sochika are more of shock out of being released and frustration from working at the firm and death of the classmates while Norua mainly bases his narration on fear and suspicion.

It is worth appreciating that the characteristics of the writer of historical records have a role in influencing the reliability of such information.[24] Sochika is a young girl who understands what is happening even with her involvement in the making of bombs. This is not the case for Norua who is a young boy and in fact expresses his lack of understanding of the war and as such limits the application of his work in explanation of war perspectives.

Conclusion

This analysis has focused on the merits and pitfalls of the use of such the personal narratives as primary sources of history and also on their background and factors that could have influenced the writers to write them. The narratives that have been used are “Doesn’t seem too bad” by Norua and “When I made balloon bombs” by Sochika. The emphasis has been on their merits and pitfalls as sources of historical records and information based on their nature degree of reliability and relationship with other sources of evidence.

Bibliography

Fowale, Tongkeh. Biography and historical writing: understanding the link between biography and history. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 9- 23.

Hicks, George L. Japan’s war memories: amnesia or concealment? California: Ashgate Publishers, The University of California, 1997, 13-33.

McCullagh, Behan. “Language and the Truth of History.” History and Theory 44.3 (1998): 441- 455.

Naruo, Shirai. “Doesn’t seem too bad.” Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun. New York: Sharpe, 1995, 206-207.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the advantages and disadvantages of history for life. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980, 6-25.

Sachiko, Takamizawa. “When I made Balloon Bombs.” Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun. New York: Sharpe, 1995, 181-182.

Seaton, Philip. Japan’s contested war memories: the memory rifts in historical consciousness of the World War II. London: Routledge, 2007, 23-45.

Seraphim, Franzika. War Memory and Social politics in Japan, 1945-2005. Social Science Japan Journal 11.1 (2008): 140-143.

Southgate, Beverley. What is History for? New York: Routledge, 2005, 12.

Trefalt, Beatrice. Japanese Army stragglers and memories of the war in Japan, 1950-1975. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, 13-24.

Footnotes

  1. Tongkeh Fowale, Biography and historical writing: understanding the link between biography and history (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11.
  2. Shirai Naruo, “Doesn’t Seem too bad”. Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun (New York: Sharpe, 1995), 206.
  3. Takamizawa Sachiko, “When I made Balloon Bombs”. Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun (New York: Sharpe, 1995), 182.
  4. Philip Seaton, Japan’s contested war memories: the memory rifts in historical consciousness of the World War II (London: Routledge, 2007), 24.
  5. Franzika Seraphim, “War Memory and Social politics in Japan, 1945- 2005,” Social Science Japan Journal 11.1 (2008): 140-143, 140.
  6. Beatrice Trefalt, Japanese Army stragglers and memories of the war in Japan, 1950-1975 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 20.
  7. Philip Seaton, Japan’s contested war memories: the memory rifts in historical consciousness of the World War II (London: Routledge, 2007), 30.
  8. Beatrice Trefalt, Japanese Army stragglers and memories of the war in Japan, 1950- 1975 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 14.
  9. Behan McCullagh, “Language and the Truth of History,” History and Theory 44.3 (1998): 441-455, 442.
  10. Beatrice Trefalt, Japanese Army stragglers and memories of the war in Japan, 1950-1975 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 15.
  11. Shirai Naruo, “Doesn’t Seem too bad”. Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun (New York: Sharpe, 1995), 207.
  12. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the advantages and disadvantages of history for life (Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980), 15.
  13. Beverley Southgate, What is History for? (New York: Routledge, 2005), 12.
  14. Tongkeh Fowale, Biography and historical writing: understanding the link between biography and history (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 19.
  15. Franzika Seraphim, “War Memory and Social politics in Japan, 1945- 2005,” Social Science Japan Journal 11.1 (2008): 140-143, 142.
  16. Shirai Naruo, “Doesn’t Seem too bad”. Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun (New York: Sharpe, 1995), 206.
  17. Takamizawa Sachiko, “When I made Balloon Bombs”. Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun (New York: Sharpe, 1995), 182.
  18. Tongkeh Fowale, Biography and historical writing: understanding the link between biography and history (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 20.
  19. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the advantages and disadvantages of history for life (Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980), 23.
  20. Takamizawa Sachiko, “When I made Balloon Bombs”. Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun (New York: Sharpe, 1995), 182.
  21. Shirai Naruo, “Doesn’t Seem too bad”. Senso: The Japanese remember the Pacific War: letters to the editor of Asahi Shimbun (New York: Sharpe, 1995), 206.
  22. Behan McCullagh, “Language and the Truth of History,” History and Theory 44.3 (1998): 441-455, 448.
  23. Philip Seaton, Japan’s contested war memories: the memory rifts in historical consciousness of the World War II (London: Routledge, 2007), 39.
  24. Behan McCullagh, “Language and the Truth of History,” History and Theory 44.3 (1998): 441-455, 452.
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IvyPanda. "The Merits and Pitfalls of using Memoir or Biography as Evidence for Past Events." April 15, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-merits-and-pitfalls-of-using-memoir-or-biography-as-evidence-for-past-events-2/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "The Merits and Pitfalls of using Memoir or Biography as Evidence for Past Events." April 15, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-merits-and-pitfalls-of-using-memoir-or-biography-as-evidence-for-past-events-2/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Merits and Pitfalls of using Memoir or Biography as Evidence for Past Events'. 15 April.

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