Kokushi Dialogue in SGRA

MITANI, Hiroshi “Re-opening of the Dialogue of Histories in East Asia ― The Mongol Invasions Conference in Kita-Kyushu”

“The Dialogue of National Histories of East Asia” started. This was the second time, but we had met for preparations last year, this conference was the first real dialogue. Each country in East Asia has its own “National History” and there is a gap which cannot be overcome among the countries. Can we build a bridge to have something in common? This is a meaning of “Dialogue of National Histories” which Ms. Junko Imanishi, SGRA Representative, has named.

Hereafter four times, we will have discussions on historical issues relating to international relations in East Asia, inviting historians from each country. The theme, this year, was so-called “The Mongol Invasions of East Asia (in the 13th century)” and we will take up other issues of more recent centuries in the next conferences.


When we take up subjects, which should relate to all the concerned countries in East Asia, i.e. Japan, China and Korea, participants are mainly historians who are specialized in international relations. Specialists of domestic histories from Japan and Korea were also invited this time and we set up important points such as:How do they, who usually show no interest in histories of international relations nor political meaning behind, respond?  Do they recognize the aim of the conference?

To solve these points, we had simultaneous interpretation between Japanese-Chinese, Japanese-Korean and Chinese-Korean. Interpreters were awfully busy because there were a lot of technical terms about the remote past, but I believe they did their work very well. I deeply appreciated their work.


Our theme “The Mongol Invasions and the Globalization of the Mongol Empire in the 13th Century” was set up purposely to let people who come from East Asian countries sit down at the same table. At the beginning of the 21st century, many people in East Asia tried to have joint studies on histories of East Asia. But, if they take up issues of the modern period, Japan had to sit at the defendant’s seat. It was impossible to have dialogue on an equal footing. As territorial issues became radicalized, there was no Japanese who would like to participate in such conversations.


Whereas, “The Mongol Invasions in East Asia” was easy to deal with psychologically as the events happened in the remote past. Also, all the people from those three East Asian countries were victims of the Mongolian Empire. The Goryeo Dynasty (of Korea) was set under the severe rule of Mongolia. In China, the Mongol Dynasty was established. Japan had to offer a lot of sacrifices for defenses against Mongolia, though Japan escaped from Mongolian invasion.

The parties could have calm dialogue on an equal footing because all of them were victims. Although we invited three Mongol historians, we did not treat them as the descendants of wrongdoers. Japan has already accepted many Mongolian “Yokozuna” champions of Japanese Sumo wrestling and never associate Yokozuna with the Mongol Invasions. Korean researchers also never used accusatory words this time.


Nevertheless, I do not say that our historical dialogues were made without touching on political backgrounds. There were hot discussions among historians who came from three different origins: one from the Mongolian People’s Republic, and the other from Inner Mongolia in China. They argued whether the Yuan Dynasty is a part of the Mongol Ulus or one of the Chinese Dynasties. I could not catch clearly what they discussed, but it seems, as Dr. Ge Zhaoguang pointed out, there are a few specialists who think of both of the interpretations are simultaneously possible. In the historians’ societies around the world, anachronism (understand the past based on the present national political framework) is criticized. But, governments or public opinions in East Asia sometimes conduct themselves in the way of anachronism. Is it clever for ourselves to be ridiculed by the world?


A few presentations were impressive for me. One was by Mr. Yasuhiro Yokkaichi. According to him, Kublai Khan has prepared the third invasion to Japan, but he could not execute his plan because of his death. Vietnam and Java sent tributary envoys toward Yuan dynasty immediately after having succeeded in repelling Kubilai’s invasion. This diplomatic turn is very interesting because Japan made no efforts to prevent another invasion after having repelled the Mongols, although it reopened trade with them. I think Japan has been unaccustomed to international relations and there had been an isolationism background.


On the other hand, the Kogryo Dynasty under Mongolian occupation was also interesting. If Japan had surrendered to the Mongol like Kogryo, what would have happened? The Emperor system of Japan might have become extinct. Or, as Dr. Lee Myung-Mihas narrated about the Kogryo Dynasty, a part of the Emperor family of Japan might have been subordinated to the Yuan Dynasty and might have engaged a princess of the Yuan Dynasty as an empress. Such a “thought experiment” was useful for me when we try to understand the Japanese Emperor System, which is one of the most difficult questions in the Japanese history.


I was interested in a change of food cultures, which Dr. Cho Won took up. In the Kogryo Dynasty, meat eating had been prohibited by Buddhism, but under the Mongol rule, meat eating was practiced and maintained after the end of invasion. This means that life styles can be changed into durable culture beyond political changes. When we look at histories on a long-term basis, the history of a life style would become more important than a political history. Would structure of families or relations between male and female, both are one of the pillars of social structures, be changed by conquests? In the case of the Korean history, children were brought up in the mothers’ house until the beginning of the 19th century. If so, where were the children of the Mongol royal families brought up? In the Imperial court, or out of the court? Where were children of Mongolian empress in Kogryo brought up, in the house of wife or of husband? Such questions came into my mind one after another.


When we notice such changes of the whole Asia, the reports at the conference showed us a key to understand not only international relations but also nations or societies themselves. How did the historians of national histories from Japan and South Korea feel? I am sure they have listened carefully, but if they had questioned without reserve, the conference would have become more exciting. I urged them to speak up, quoting a saying of certain doctor: “it will be a penalty, if you do not ask any question when attending international conferences”.

I should have told them of the above saying at the beginning of this conference. I regret that I forgot to tell them. But once they spoke, their indications were meaningful and interesting. I hope they will speak up from the beginning at the next conferences.


The conference continued for three days. On the second day, presentations continued very tightly from morning to evening. I was exhausted in the following morning when discussions for the summaries started. I appreciate Professor Liu Jie, a chairman of the wrapping up discussions, who showed a framework for putting various opinions in order. My thanks also go to Professor Cho Kwan, a representative of Korean delegation, who showed us a starting point of our discussion by summing up each presentation precisely and simply. He kindly came over to the conference from his busy schedules of official duties.


I believe the next conference in Seoul would be more enjoyable and stimulating.



SGRA Kawaraban 547 in Japanese  (Original)



(Emeritus Professor, Doctor of Literature, The University of Tokyo)



Translated by Kazuo Kawamura

English checked by Max Maquito