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Abstract

This dissertation examines the history of the concept of (what would translate in English as) “human rights” in modern Japanese history. Specifically, it traces how the term jinken (lit. “human rights” today) has become a term able to articulate Japanese wartime and colonial atrocities in Asia in 1990s since its invention in the early Meiji period to “(mis)translate” western legal and political concepts. By looking at how the term was used by lawyers, activists, and other actors during key historical processes, the dissertation explores how the concept of jinken, through a series of (mis)translations and creative usages in social discourse and movements, transformed from a nationalist-constitutionalist concept about the relationship between the national citizen and the state to a conglomerate discourse encompassing a degree of transnational potential that enabled the critique on Japan’s negative historical legacies and reparation and justice for its past victims. The dissertation illustrates this long historical development by examining the formation of the sphere of legal professionals and the discourse on citizenship and constitution in prewar Japan, the Allied Occupation that sought to use democracy and rights-discourse to remake Japan, the legal and bureaucrat-directed activism on Japanese war criminals, the changing conceptualization of problems in Okinawa under American military occupation, the leftist debate on zainichi Korean’s status and rights in Japan, and the postwar activist attempts to use the language of rights to construct a holistic critique on Japan’s place in the geopolitical space of “Asia.”The dissertation is situated at the intersection of the field of the history of human rights and the transnational history of modern Japan. It builds on the trend in the field of human rights history that studies the malleability and believability of concepts that came under the name of “human rights.” I focus, however, on what has been sorely missing from the field: East Asia, especially Japan. In turn, for the field Japan studies, my project tackles the seemingly irresolvable “history controversy” in Asia (the accusation against Japan for not addressing atrocities during its imperial expansions) by historicizing key concepts frequently used on this topic, such as “human rights” vis-à-vis state and imperialist atrocities. By closely analyzing the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean historical usages that are translated as “rights” and “human rights” today, I examine the complicated history of the localization of rights-talk in East Asia and how these translated concepts become the language through which people in the region understand wartime and colonial trauma, how they used such languages to call for justice and reparation for such trauma, and how such discourse fed back into international discourse on human rights and redress for crimes against humanity again through translation.

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