Book Review: Inheritance of Loss: China, Japan, and the Political Economy of Redemption after Empire

Inheritance of Loss: China, Japan, and the Political Economy of Redemption after Empire
By Yukiko Koga. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

By: Eveline Buchheim

Legacies of imperialism and colonialism continue to haunt people around the globe. Inheritance of Loss: China, Japan, and the Political Economy of Redemption after Empire shows how contemporary Chinese and Japanese citizens deal with their shared past. Yukiko Koga’s grandmother instilled an interest in the Japanese presence in Northern China in her granddaughter and introduced her to Japan’s history of imperial aggression in Manchuria. From 1937 her grandparents spent a decade in Northeast China while her grandfather worked for the South Manchurian Railway. The contrast between the cruel Japanese violence and the generosity they had experienced in China made Koga aware of how later generations have to deal with this legacy. With this book she wants to repay the moral debt she inherited from her grandparents.
Koga convincingly argues that not all remains of the past can be captured using the frameworks of memory or trauma, instead she approaches the topic with the concepts of redemption and inheritance. Koga shows us how the past leaves its traces in the present, not only in intangible aspects like emotions, but also in tangible objects. She brings colonial modernity and its afterlife into the analysis, and specifically looks at how colonial remnants, the inheritance of loss from the title, are turned into capital and what the consequences of this capitalization are for the connections between former enemies.

The concept of inheritance is very powerful because it is so much more than a simple transfer from one generation to another; it embodies a sense of loss and recovery and suggests that unanticipated transformations can occur during the process. It is impossible to ignore or brush aside inheritance, and if attempted it might bring to the fore other unexpected problematic histories. A good example is the beloved icon of the now absent St. Nicholas Church in Harbin. An online network of scholars and activists with interest in Harbin’s Russian history published pictures of the destruction of the church by the Red Guard in 1966. Exposing the violence of the Cultural Revolution was not was not what the network intended—they were interested in excavating Harbin’s Russian heritage. St. Nicholas Church became a symbol of victimhood of the Cultural Revolution, and of Harbin’s glorious past and its potential future at the same time. This example makes clear that inheriting comes with a lot of unexpected concerns, it can disclose unknown secrets and unveil unwelcome revelations.
On the basis of fieldwork in three Northern Chinese cities: Harbin, Changchun, and Dalian, Koga explores how the violent past travels across generations, how generations deal with it, and how they capitalize these inheritances. Japanese citizens are now welcome in the region – that once used to be the site of Japan’s puppet state Manchukuo – as tourists and investors. Koga conceptualizes the generational transmission of loss within the political economy of redemption. In her book she shows that focusing on the whole array of possible losses during the period of colonialism, and recovering those losses redeeming the past, proves to be a fruitful way of understanding the complex, contradictory and entangled histories.

The four central chapters in the book zoom in on three cities that, each in their own way, have been affected by Japanese imperialism and capitalize this in different ways. Harbin is the largest city in Northeast China; here the notorious Unit 731 conducted human experiments leading to the loss of many innocent lives during the Japanese period. Dalian was the main trading port between Manchuria and Japan. Changchun became the capital of Manchukuo, the Japan controlled puppet state with Emperor Puyi as its head. These colonial inheritances with a mix of Russian, Japanese and European influences are visible in the urban landscapes of Harbin, Changchun, and Dalian. Talking about the buildings as heritage creates the opportunity for the cities and its inhabitants to claim them as their ‘own’ and use them to produce new value.

The book demonstrates how powerful ethnography can be. Koga’s descriptions of her work as a Japanese tour guide in Changchun, in which she records interactions with her Chinese co-workers and with Japanese tourists, gives us insights in the complications of dealing with memories, emotions, and heritages. One of her Chinese informants rhetorically asks: ‘If we demolish traces of history, does it mean history disappears?’ (73). The book provides gems of conversations with ‘average’ Japanese and Chinese explaining how they experience the shared histories. Now and then we see how false assumptions blur the understanding. As such, it is also a beautiful illustration of what can be discovered if one is perceptive to language. Koga addresses the importance of words and shows how sensitivities unfold in the exchange between former enemies.

How do losses incurred as a result of colonial violence become visible in the everyday? The examples in Koga’s book encourage us to explore our own colonial pasts, they inspire us to listen to victims’ voices and to interact with the material sites of colonial eras. In the uneasiness that emerges when simultaneously tourism is boosted, colonial buildings are restored and ambivalent attitudes towards colonial violence need an outlet, frictions become visible.

Inheritance of Loss shows the complexities involved in dealing with the past. Koga uses the image of a ‘double mirror’ to explain. In a double mirror we can see a refractive image, a product of multiple doubling reflections, as a result there is a lot more to see: Japan sees the reflection of its past in the mirror, behind that China is holding a mirror in which Japan sees itself, and at the same time it also sees China. The refractive structure of transmission reveals the double inheritance, the Japanese and the Chinese one. Moreover, it reveals moral contemporary debts as well as debts that occurred after the end of empire. The use of the term refractive is productive because it has the inherent meaning of change, which is crucial to dealing with contested unsettled pasts.

Koga’s use of the lens of inheritance proves to be a fruitful way of accounting for violent pasts, especially because inheritance addresses issues of ownership, of finance, of debt and of transmission at the same time. It also makes it possible to consider changing contexts and circumstances through time. Refining her analysis with the focus on the capitalization of colonial inheritance Koga shows that exchanges in the economic sphere, private and public, are a crucial element in reckoning past debts. Koga’s beautiful and compelling book not only gives food for thought to people interested in the relations between China and Japan, but also inspires disentangling complicated relations in other colonial contexts along the lines of heritage.

NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies, Amsterdam