Telling the Untold Stories

Ronald Takaki's 'Re-visioning' of History Turns Anglo-Centric Views Inside Out

by Fernando Quintero

Of all the many things that have been said and written about Ethnic Studies Professor Ronald Takaki, perhaps the most telling statement was made at a ceremony in Washington welcoming him into the prestigious Society of American Historians.

Takaki, said the society's executive secretary Mark Carnes, has reshaped American history.

"Re-visioning" is the term Takaki prefers. "I try to make the study of the past more inclusive and multicultural. I want everyone to be able to see themselves in the mirror."

In his work, Takaki turns the nation's traditionally Anglo-centric historical viewpoint inside out. He offers the stories and voices of people previously left out of the historical canon.

Takaki's latest book, due out in July, promises to provide the other side of the story to one of the pivotal events of the 20th century: the bombing of Hiroshima.

Titled "Hiroshima," the book examines the controversial question of why the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. Last year, an exhibit on the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington drew protests from veterans and other groups who disagreed with how facts surrounding the bombing were presented.

"Hiroshima continues to intrude on our national consciousness," said Takaki, the grandson of Japanese plantation laborers in Hawaii.

In his new book, the social and political factors behind the bombing of Hiroshima are explored.

"For many years, World War II was thought of as a 'good war' because it was a fight against fascism and racial supremacy. The war provided the opening to the civil rights movement and the Immigration Act of 1965.

"It brought about a greater understanding of the nation's highest principals of democracy and racial equality.

The way the war ended sort of destroyed this ideal for democracy," said Takaki. "We now ask how a good and moral war could end with the indiscriminate mass killing of civilians."

Was the bomb dropped to end the war more quickly and save American lives? Or did it herald the start of the Cold War? Takaki examines these theories and places them in the cultural context of race--the ways stereotypes of the Japanese influenced public opinion and policy makers--and gender.

"At the time, the only familiarization with the Japanese was Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Mikado,'" said Takaki. "My book raises the question of race. If you look at my scholarship, race has been a factor throughout American history. This is what is going to make my book controversial. People have trouble dealing with the 'r' word."

For his book, Takaki researched recently declassified military reports as well as diaries and personal letters, relating international policies to the individuals involved in the bombing: J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of Los Alamos Laboratory; James Byrnes, secretary of state; Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war, and above all, Harry Truman.

Among Takaki's several award-winning books is his recent "A Different Mirror." Others include "Iron Cages" and "Strangers from a Different Shore." In 1993, Takaki was the Messenger Lecturer at Cornell University and has been honored with a Distinguished Teaching Award at Berkeley. He has presented papers in Japan, Russia, Armenia and South Africa.

Norma Alarcon, chair of ethnic studies, said Takaki has been "a major intellectual force" in the fields of history and ethnic studies.

"He is both a scholar and a leader. For the department, his greatest achievement was his leading role in the formulation of the American Cultures Requirement for graduation," said Alarcon.

As a new member of the historian society, Takaki joins the likes of such luminaries in the field of history as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., C. Van Woodward, John Hope Franklin and Berkeley colleague Leon Litwack. Takaki was voted into the society by the membership, limited to 250 fellows.


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