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The Brexit Shock -- Can We Find Hope in East Asian History?

Sungsi Lee
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Brexit Shock

The referendum held on June 23 resulted in favor for leaving over remaining in the European Union (E.U.), making the U.K. the first member country to leave E.U.'s 28-country bloc. I was shocked because I felt as if this outcome completely refuted my own life-long research.

The history of mankind is not about the process of progressing from regional communities to nation-states. The formation of nation-states is only a checkpoint, as nation-states expand to larger political or economic unions, coming to terms with conflicts and differing interests. Because the conventional study of history since the 19th century has seen nation-states as an ultimate goal, we have accepted established views of history based on nation-states without questioning them. However, if the modern state is only a passing point, should we not reconsider our conventional views of history in light of this new reality?

As I observed the steady expansion of the E.U., I have become more confident in this belief. While my research was beginning to bear fruit, the developments in Europe after the collapse of the Berlin Wall became great motivation for me.

Encounter with the Study of East Asian History

After becoming a university student in the early 1970s, I began to have a desire for devoting my life to the study of ancient Korean history. As new studies in this field were becoming more globally present, North and South Korean academic communities of history needed to address the stigma of Korea’s development, emphasized by Japanese researchers in the prewar period that it was driven by external powers and would have been stagnant otherwise. Korean studies scholars were also responsible to clarify the uniqueness of Korean culture as well. In other words, they aimed to overcome the colonial view of history, questioning the theories which had been generally accepted.

Keeping an eye on such developments in these academic communities of history, I began to have an interest in studying the historic framework of East Asia, which has been the mainstream area of focus among Japanese academics since the 1960s. While deconstructing the colonial view of history is considered essential, I was worried that excessive efforts to do so could result in chauvinism, such as the prewar Emperor-centered nationalistic view in Japan. I was also worried that studying the history of one nation without considering its relations with others could neglect historical dynamism. With these questions in mind, I started writing papers about the construction of dynasty, international relations, and cultural exchanges of ancient Korea from the perspective of East Asia in the late 1970s.

Ancient History of Korea in East Asian History

In 1998, I completed my thesis on the ancient history of the Korean Peninsula, intentionally titling it "Ethnicity and the Dynasties of Ancient East Asia." In the previous year, I published a book titled "Royal Power and Trade in East Asia," which studied the ancient history of exchanges focusing on the import routes of the treasures of the Shosoin Treasure House. I made sure to include “East Asia” in the titles of other subsequent publications, such as "Formation of the Cultural Sphere of East Asia" and "The Invention of Ancient History--Discourse on Modern Nation-States of East Asia" (a collection of historical criticisms published in South Korea).

Searching historical records for events in time which does not attribute to the history of one single nation is very possible, but a dogmatic view of history focusing on one nation triggers the inconvenience of being blinded despite its presence. For example, 300,000 wooden strips which people used to write on in ancient Japan have been excavated so far. At an academic conference held in 1996, an elder scholar strongly argued that ancient wooden strips originated in the Japanese Islands, independent of China and Korea. However, excavations of similar wooden strips in Korea over the past ten years and the comparative study of Japanese and Korean wooden strips flatly denied this argument. The study on Korean wooden strips was a valuable experience for me as it endorsed dynamism of the spread and acceptance of East Asian civilization.

This historical view on wooden strips was not only based on the discovery of new historical evidence. It was also the result of a joint study conducted by academics in neighboring countries. I exchanged opinions and shared materials and methods with researchers while developing a more personal connection with them.

Reality and the Study of East Asian History

Flyer distributed by a group of residents in Bath, a city in western England, to call for a second E.U. referendum

Since the late 1990s, state-led joint studies have been carried out regarding textbook issues and differences in historical awareness in East Asia. Unfortunately, these activities were diplomatic negotiations in nature, which only strengthened the nationalism of the countries involved without producing meaningful academic achievements. On the other hand, these attempts deepened exchanges among private-sector researchers and published supplementary teaching materials about the modern and contemporary history of Japan, China, and South Korea. There were growing calls in East Asia for history education similar to the E.U.’s history education, which published common textbooks on European history.

At a conference held right after the Brexit decision, I expressed my shock as described in the beginning. Two weeks after this conference, I learned in a newspaper interview by The Asahi Shimbun (Tokyo edition, July 14) that British historian Timothy Garton Ash described Brexit as "the biggest defeat of my political life." "What matters is not whether the U.K. belongs to a group of nations demographically, historically, and culturally, but whether the U.K. shares specific political goals with a group of nations. This is the critical difference between Europe and Asia," said Ash. Nevertheless, this does not mean complete despair for East Asia. Ash added, "What is most important is to convey messages of hope to the losers of globalization." I feel that we are being put to the test on whether we can find hope in East Asian history.

Sungsi Lee
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Brief history
Professor Lee was born in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture in 1952. After serving as an associate professor at the Faculty of Education of Yokohama National University and at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Waseda University, he became professor at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 1997. He holds a doctorate in literature, specializing in East Asian ancient history. He also serves as an executive director of Waseda University.
His major publications include "Royal Power and Trade in East Asia," "People and Nations of Ancient East Asia," "Formation of the Cultural Sphere of East Asia," "The Invention of Ancient History," "Viewpoint of Colonial Modernity, " and "Waseda University for International Students--Encounter with Intellectual Horizons of Modern Japan."