Back in 2000, when Kalamazoo College linguist Noriko Sugimori was a graduate student at Boston University studying Japanese honorifics for her doctoral research, she had no idea she’d embark on an oral history project that would open unexpected doors to innovation in research, teaching and the use of technology.
Honorifics, which are used to address or refer to people, show the degree of intimacy between people. The suffix “san,” for example, is commonly used after a person’s name and is a title of respect akin to using “Mr.,” “Miss,” “Ms.” or “Mrs.” in English.
Sugimori, who is a native of Japan, was examining honorifics used by the media and individuals for the Japanese emperor and his family during World War II. She collected and examined newspaper articles about the emperor’s birthday and the media’s editorial policies. She also conducted and recorded interviews with occupation censors and 62 Japanese civilians born before 1932.
Her research showed a dramatic increase in the frequency of imperial honorifics from 1928 to the end of World War II in 1945. She also discovered that the news media and military promoted this use of honorifics in order to gain civilian support during the war.
“The emperor was seen as a divine entity, above human beings,” says Sugimori. “The government even kept him from speaking to the public in order to emphasize his divine nature. Only at the time of Japan’s surrender did the Japanese people hear his voice for the first time.”
One aspect of honoring the emperor came in the form of laws forbidding lèse-majesté, which is the crime of violating the dignity of a reigning sovereign or a state.
“There were strict laws against lèse-majesté,” Sugimori says, “and the people acted in extreme ways.”
For example, people avoided stepping on newspapers because they could be arrested for violating lèse-majesté if there were articles in the papers about the emperor. Some people avoided reading newspapers altogether because of these fears.
“There is an explanation for this extreme behavior,” says Sugimori. “Soldiers were taught to fight to the death for Japan, and this patriotism spilled over to civilians.”
One woman Sugimori interviewed talked about the experience of her high school class’s visit to a shrine in Kobe, Japan, to offer prayer for Japan’s victory in the war. She had to climb a long, wide stairway with her principal. He walked up the side of the stairs while she walked up the middle. She had violated lèse-majesté because only the emperor was allowed to use the middle of the stairs.
“She didn’t know this was important,” says Sugimori, “and even though she was not punished, she had a lingering fear over it for many years. Only when the emperor denounced his divinity in January 1946 did she feel any relief.”
So strong was the fear of lèse-majesté that people actually committed suicide if they thought they had violated laws against it.
Sugimori became an assistant professor of Japanese and East Asian studies at Kalamazoo College in 2009. After she finished her doctorate in 2010, she realized that in doing her research she had collected more than just information on honorifics.
“In my doctoral research I looked for people who were willing to share their war (World War II) memories on honorifics but discovered that they really wanted to talk about their experiences of that time,” says Sugimori. “This was really the beginning of my post-doctoral research that eventually led to an oral history project about that period of time — and to a new way of gathering data.”
Initially, Sugimori interviewed people using audiotapes (it was 2000, after all). Then she adopted digital recordings. After arriving at Kalamazoo College, she had access to videotape equipment and began to use that for her interviews. But at a Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) conference in 2010, she learned about the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, a new technology that would take her project to a new level. A web-based application, the OHMS is capable of transcribing recorded videos into Japanese text, which is simultaneously shown translated into English text. As a result, Sugimori is producing the world’s first bilingual oral history synchronizations in Japanese and English.
“The GLCA changed everything for me,” she says. “I am now videotaping people who were teenagers during the war who are giving untold accounts of their experiences. These tapes can convey a whole different message to future generations about the war. This is considered a unique contribution to the linguistics field.”
Sugimori says that the oral histories are also great tools to help students learn Japanese language, culture and history. “The videos and simultaneous translations have pedagogical implications for the students,” she says. “They get to see the respondent’s facial expressions, which provide much more information about what is being said in a cultural context. This goes way beyond them trying to learn the language from only grammar exercises.
“The videotapes also enhance their understanding of history. Students don’t just learn political history. They learn social history, which reveals how people were affected by the political actors.”
In 2015 Sugimori received a three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to contribute her research to the Oral History in the Liberal Arts (OHLA) project for GLCA member colleges. Sugimori has even enlisted the help of her students to translate transcripts on the site.
“I hope that my project will help people to visualize people’s faces when they think about East Asian countries,” says Sugimori, who plans to complete the project in 2019. “I would like to convey my interviewees’ hope for peace and the younger generations’ efforts to convey their ideas to posterity.”