An Interview with Associate Professor Fuyuko Matsukata of the Historiographical Institute, the University of Tokyo

Interviewer : Yijiang Zhong (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia)

Associate Professor Fuyuko Matsukata

Professor Matsukata, thank you for speaking with me today. Firstly, I would like to ask about your specialism.

I have studied early modern Japanese history since the time I was a student. At first, I researched about the daimyō (feudal lords) households. After finding work, I began to use materials in the Dutch language and took my doctorate in research on documents known as the “Oranda-fūsetsugaki” (Dutch reports on world news). Recently, I would like to do diplomatic history. Although I can only use the Dutch and Japanese languages, I want to situate contact between the Dutch and Japanese people not only in terms of the historical relations of Japan and the Netherlands, but a little more broadly within the world history of diplomacy.

Related to reading Dutch, I am also acquainted with people doing research on rangaku (Dutch learning), and I am starting to hold an interest in this as well.

Looking at your homepage, it seems like you handle historical materials called “kokusho” (diplomatic documents).

Yes, that’s right. In Japan, when describing pre-modern diplomatic history, “kokusho” is a common word used not only in textbooks, but in a variety of books. However, it has perhaps not been sufficiently researched. To begin with, because it is not known when and where the word “kokusho” emerged, I set out by doubting the commonsense of Japanese people.

You are referring to what was meant by “koku” (country) in “kokusho.”

Yes. There is also the question of what “sho” (writing) means.

Did you study the Dutch language while at graduate school?

Yes, little by little.

Are there many scholars in Japan who use the Dutch language while researching?

There are not so many. I think there are perhaps about twenty or so people who can specialize or do specialize in the Edo period.

This is not such a small group, twenty people.

However, because there are perhaps more than a thousand people researching early modern Japanese history, it is only a small number within the discipline. Before the war, if anything it was a major field of research. At Tokyo University in particular, research began when a hired foreign expert from Germany called Ludwig Riess introduced the existence of these documents at the time that the discipline of early modern history first started. Because of this, historical materials in Dutch were comparatively major historical resources.

Were these the historical documents that remained in Dejima?

The stuff that had been left in Dejima is now in the Netherlands. However, just as there are things that were transported back to the Netherlands in Meiji period, there are also things that were taken back during the Edo period. These are called the “Japan Trading Post Documents.” Additionally, there are also the historical materials that were originally in the Netherlands, which are included in the “Dutch East India Company Documents.” Before the war, historical materials in Japan domestically had not really been introduced. After the war, surveys of historical documents in agricultural villages flourished, and I think their presence was further diminished in a situation where specialist local historians seemed to be in every city, town and village. Moreover, there is an awareness that the pre-war discipline of history had led Japan in the wrong direction, though this has not been properly verified academically.

As a historiography?

Right, it is also a problem of historiography. I am now studying this, but especially at the Taihoku Imperial University in Taiwan, a Japanese imperial university, the history of the overseas development of the Japanese people was studied using historical materials in Dutch.

People reflect on this being part of the background to the bad things done by Japan during the Pacific War, and I think there is a sense in which people have come to consciously focus on agricultural villages or Japan domestically, so to speak. Now, when thinking about using historical documents in Dutch once more to do external matters, you can’t without reconsidering whether things in the past were really bad, or, if there were both good and bad points, what specifically was good and what was bad. However, not enough has been done in this respect. I don’t think this can only be explained by being poor at languages.

I see. There is an aspect of how to overcome the history of the war.

That is correct. On the one hand, I believe rangaku research has hit a wall. I think there was once a basic story which answered the question why Japan had developed to such an extent economically that it was because there had been rangaku since the Edo period. Even if nobody said this, it was the basis of research vaguely shared by everyone. Now though, Japan is not so prosperous and countries without rangaku are rapidly developing. On the other hand, Europe is gradually declining as well and the foundations of research up until now have been lost. Young students would rather think about how they should confront the world themselves and are doing things with a different mentality to that of generations older than my own. However, I think our generation must try and work hard because this has not been organized theoretically. 

Does this refer to how a student should confront himself or herself as a scholar?

I believe so. I think there is perhaps both an aspect of facing oneself as a Japanese person and facing oneself as an individual researcher.

This is maybe similar to a trend in America where conscious self-reflection has become a part of one’s identity as a scholar.

I think that might be so. I feel that people researching Asia, the American researchers that I know, and this is even true of Europeans, may be said to be anxious about their identity in some way, many people have an element where they think about this. For example, Jewish people or persons originating from the former colonies. It is perhaps close to this.

I think there is an aspect in which researchers in America and Europe try to relativize Eurocentrism and be “global.” However, in actuality this is difficult. In order to relativize Eurocentrism, in the end one has to be grounded in historical documents. But I think there is the problem that outside of Europe the only places with lots of historical materials from the early modern period are Japan and China.

That’s right.

I sense that historical documents in the Japanese language are once more attracting attention overseas as an important source of historical materials for relativizing Europe. Up until now, even in America, I think many people conducting research only used historical materials in Japanese. Of course, this in itself is something amazing, but there seems to be more people gradually appearing who are doing Japanese history as a part of world history, young people who in addition to their native language of English can read historical materials not only in Japanese, but in Spanish, for example. I think this is really dependable and I would very much like for young Japanese people to learn from this. Doing so probably greatly increase what is achievable. This is because most of what is possible using only Japanese materials has already been done and things are steadily becoming more and more detailed or specialized.

That’s right.

I would like for people to develop new fields while re-examining their own standpoint a little more. I think the necessary conditions to do this in terms of historical documentation are largely in place. But again, there is a sort of legend that Japanese people shouldn’t carelessly travel overseas. There is a famous professor of emperor-centered historiography called Kiyoshi Hiraizumi. He studied abroad in Germany.

Was he your teacher?

No, no, he wasn’t my teacher

This is someone different.

My supervisor’s teacher was Seiichi Iwao, a professor at Taihoku Imperial University who could read in Dutch. Kiyoshi Hiraizumi was at the Department of National History during the war, he was a teacher who dominated what is now the Department of Japanese History. He went to study in Germany and when he returned his perspective seems to have become that of emperor-centered historiography. Even though he was a normal person in the past, after returning home it is said that he turned strange. I was therefore told by my seniors when I was a student that studying abroad is not a good idea and that I shouldn’t go. I was also told this by my teacher.

Even very recently, I was again told by a senior colleague that it wouldn’t be good if it became normal for Japanese people to present their research abroad. The reason is Hiraizumi. At the very least, I think this has perhaps been passed down like a myth at Tokyo University.

This again relates to the history of the war.

Yes, it is strongly related to this. Recently, I talk about Seichi Iwao, as well as a thinker of Marxism called Gorō Hani, who to a certain extent supported the post-war discipline of early modern Japanese history theoretically. He is also from the Department of National History and studied abroad. If these people didn’t become strange, then I think we need to ask why only the experiences of Kiyoshi Hiraizumi who did are discussed in particular.

I see, that is interesting.

Perhaps without an historiographical analysis, researchers of Japanese history cannot go abroad. If they travel without doing this, there is the possibility that they might fail again. If you look at Japan, I think it feels like it is going to fail once more. People are asking why the same things as seventy years-ago are being said. Because this problem has perhaps just been avoided without sufficient consideration, when something is tried one more time it leads to the same result. This is why I believe it should be carefully thought about now. It is quite difficult, however.

To begin with, the very notion that going overseas should be deemed wrong because of the case of just one person seems unreasonable.

I do feel it is hasty. I wonder why.


I think it’s interesting. This is therefore a problem with the state of the discipline of Japanese history as a whole, and I think it also reflects the problems with the way of post-war Japan.

The person you mentioned that studied abroad in the past, was he a student at the Department of Japanese History or a teacher?

I think it was after he had become a teacher.

In the end, students read historical documents in Japanese and conduct research domestically.

But before the war there were also people who were made to read Dutch as well. Or rather, before the war the discipline of early modern history in particular was at the level of typesetting the basic materials of the Bakufu government, such as the “tsukō-ichiran” (documents on foreign relations) and the “Tokugawa jikki” (records of the Tokugawa family). Real investigations of primary sources in agricultural villages are something that took place after the war. As a result, the amount of work suddenly increased and it is understandable why people became preoccupied with this. I was also allowed to go and conduct rural surveys when I was a student as well.


This was a really good experience, and it is necessary today too. However, thirty years ago there were still young people in agricultural villages, and there was also a sense of pride at being part of a rural community, so to speak. Now though, there isn’t anybody in these rural areas.


It has become really hard. Gradually, people no longer know for whose sake they do research.

You mean people doing the history of the common people?

It is not necessarily only those who were trying to do the history of the common people, though there were of course many such persons.

This is something a lot earlier. The history of the common people was in the 1960s and 70s, right?

I was a student in the 1980s.

Of course, you are young Professor.

However, I think rural surveys started from around the end of the 1940s.

It was that early.

Yes. It is early. With the emancipation of agricultural land, landowners became economically ruined. Linked with this, many historical documents were released.

I see. This is different again from the history of the common people. Even now when researching Japanese history, do students think that if a foreign language is not required for their own research they do not need to study languages other than Japanese, such as English for example?

That is what they think. You are talking about students?

Students and supervising professors.

They feel this way too. I think there are a large number of people doing Japanese history because they are poor at English.


People must study English for eight years in junior high school, high school, and during the first two years of university. There is a strong sense in which people are doing Japanese history because they disliked doing English back then.

I don’t really understand this idea.

Why is that?

It feels like people who are doing Japanese history not because they like the subject but because they are poor at English are trying to run away from something.

Well, you could say that.

I am a little disappointed with this sort of motivation.

Although true if put like that, firstly, there are no Japanese people who say they are doing something because they want to. The proportion of people who say they are doing this since they cannot do that is extremely high. As many people won’t say they are actually doing something because they want to, this must be discounted.

I see. That’s true.

You could say that people are reserved.

This is interesting.

If one speaks about theory, then although there are also people who learn theory, there is a strong tendency to regard it as something that you import. There are many people who say they don’t do theory because what they have learned differs from the actual situation of the historical materials they are reading. But if this is the case, I think it would be good to develop one’s own theory from the historical documents one is reading.

That would be best if doable.

It would be best. I think it would be good to compare the theory one has developed with theories from overseas. When asking why one cannot develop his or her own theory, then I think in the end it is down to lacking confidence due to a limited viewpoint. I am currently trying to do what I am with my research funding because Professor Haneda’s Eurasian research project (Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (S) “The Modern Period of Eurasia and New Descriptions of World History”) was extremely enjoyable. Learning from this, I am endeavoring to try and theorize about things like “kokusho” through conversing with people from a fairly broad field so as to be able to give an explanation that is understandable to persons from other areas. I have been joined together by people doing Eastern history, Western history, and Japanese history, and in the case of Japanese history, not only those doing early modern history, but people looking at the Middle-Ages as well.

I see. There does appear to be people from various specialisms who have joined your research group.

Yes. I really think doing this sort of thing is enjoyable.

I agree. We have created an organization called Global Japan Studies (GJS), which I believe is based on a similar way of thinking as yours. The idea is for various people from different fields of research, of different nationalities, and who use different languages to communicate with and learn from one another. Like your research group, GJS is based on the kind of ideas just discussed.

Is it the case that Japanese students do not come to GJS events?

That’s right. I wonder what you think about this issue?

Regarding this, firstly, there are too few graduate students at present. It is the same at the Department of Japanese History.

Are there too few?

There are not very many people. In any case, the job market for persons around forty-years of age is very bad at the moment. Even if better than Eastern history, the situation for Japanese history is still not great and so there are no graduate students.

Even if there were, there is a system in place from the time when the economy was heading in a better direction, which although worked back then has now become detrimental. This system mobilizes graduate students in order to help their teachers. For example, they are asked to oversee the reception during conferences, to go together to conduct surveys, and to run the administrative offices of research groups. Because there are cases where they receive money as part-time work, I am not saying that everything about this system is bad. But they are very busy with this. Even if there are students, they are busy.

You said that the number of exchange students is increasing, but there is a notion that only the Japanese students should do these jobs because it is difficult to ask the exchange students. There seems to be a situation where these jobs concentrate upon a small number of Japanese students. Conversely, foreign students are thought to have spare time as a result.

This is an interesting trend.

Consequently, unless this system itself is changed, then the situation probably won’t improve. However, there are also reasons why teachers ask the graduate students to do these kinds of jobs. Teachers do not have secretaries and the number of administrative staff is steadily decreasing. Because of this, I think the entire system isn’t working very well.

That’s right.

I don’t think it is a situation where people can be expected to attend simply because they have an interest.

No, it isn’t. I see, this is a big problem.

For example, going overseas you won’t see many papers concerning Japanese history in Japanese on the net. You hear people asking whether something can be done about the lack of journals in Japan despite there being so many in China and Korea. In the end, we end up making comparisons with China and Korea where they have a little more backing from the state in terms of the money that is provided for the dissemination of research. One thing is that the government in Japan doesn’t provide enough money. Yet even if the Japanese government gave more money and encouraged the wider dissemination of research on Japanese history for the sake of enhancing national prestige, it is uncertain whether researchers of Japanese history would co-operate with this. Rather, I think there would be a lot of dissenting opinions. To return to the original issue, unless people start to reconsider themselves a little more and engage in dialogue again, I don’t think we will be able to progress.

Finally, what do you think about the increasing number of exchange students?

I hardly take on exchange students, but I will be receiving two foreign researchers in the next academic year, which I am looking forward to. I believe that the discipline of Japanese history has come to a standstill. Even though it is necessary to think about why we do research once more in order to move forward, it seems that nobody wants to consider this. I felt there was nothing else for it than to try and introduce a new stimulus and I am therefore really looking forward to it.

I see. It was great having the opportunity to talk to you about various things. With that I would like to conclude today’s interview.

Okay, thank you.

Thank you very much.