The Ethics of Archival

Historians tend to be quite prone to exclusion in their process of recording statements made by those from the past. Voices of minorities in particular are commonly erased from contributing to the larger historical picture. This occurs much too often primarily due to the dominance of western ideologies. Racist, sexist, homo/transphobic, etc. historians are infamous for excluding minorities pertaining to these groups. Of course, westernized white supremacist societies aren’t the only contributors to this erasure— in particular, Japanese society is also guilty.

Many stories have been excluded from historical research and archives, and ideally it should be a prominent issue in a historian’s mind. What is the best, most ethical approach to accurate representation? I would argue that— as others have said— a neutral lens is the most ideal. Historians shouldn’t filter out what past information fits their current agenda, but should provide an accurate representation of both/all sides of an issue. Take, for example, the Korean, “buraku”, and Okinawan people who were one of the main contributors to Japan’s economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many women’s stories were made invisible throughout the years and were thus forgotten. We only really are exposed to the systems in power and what they have to say (or not say) about their citizens. In Japanese history, we mostly have access to official documents such as the Meiji Civil Code or the Population Department’s census. However, the likelihood of having access to an individual woman worker’s experience is much, much smaller.

Whenever we do have access to those whose voices are usually unheard of in the archival context, it is limited. Of course we don’t need to know everything about someone’s life in order for it to contribute to history, but sometimes context is necessary to better understand the resources at hand. Consent is incredibly important in order to ethically represent these primary sources, but how does one obtain that consent when the creator of that source is dead? Perhaps it can be obtained through family members, and if no family members can be found, then keeping the name hidden would allow for anonymity. Ultimately, consent in some form or another is essential to determining what sources should be given to the public and future generations. Careful choices in representation of these figures include deciding what moments in that person’s life should be included in historical records, and what details should be properly/ethically excluded.

In the context of the current pandemic, it is very interesting to think about what my position would be in future archives. Given that stories of front-line workers or COVID survivors or small business owners are the ones who are mostly publicized, my position in this historical pandemic has no place. To the historian, my persistent isolation at home, increased anxiety, and loss of motivation do not matter as much in comparison to the greater contributions of others. There may be more data on the declining mental health of the population during this time, but we do not hear it from those who are directly experiencing it.

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