Living History

Interview with Dr. Miles Fletcher

By Maximilian Conley / May 25, 2017

Interview with Dr. Miles Fletcher
Maximilian Conley

Dr. Miles Fletcher received his PhD from Yale University in 1975 and began teaching Japanese history at UNC-Chapel Hill the same  year,  becoming a Professor of History in 1990. While at UNC-Chapel Hill, he played an instrumental role in developing the Asian Studies Department and East Asian language programs. He also served as the first chief faculty adviser for Traces  from  2011-2014.  Fletcher’s work  focused  on  Japanese intellectual history in the prewar and wartime eras before turning to modern economic history in Japan. He will retire following the Spring 2017 semester. Dr. Fletcher was interviewed by Traces editor and undergraduate history major Maximilian Conley on December 1, 2016. The following interview has been lightly edited for space and readability.

Maximilian Conley: Why history? When and why did you become interested, and when did you decide to pursue it professionally?

Dr. Miles Fletcher: My interest in history started early in my life, and when I got to college it seemed natural to me to pick a major in history and then to go on to graduate school. I remember, even in my years in grammar school, being entranced by a series of biographies of famous Americans that focused on their childhoods. My interest in history really stemmed from those books. Then in high school and college, I was fortunate to have good teachers in history. I appreciated that history allowed me to investigate various topics in depth and in breadth and in various ways. If you wanted to understand something, it was important to go into its history. So, by the time I had to pick a major in college, it just seemed natural to major in history.

MC: What interested you in Japan specifically?

MF: Well, my interest in Japan resulted from a very good course I took in world history as a freshman in college. I had taken a lot of history in high school, but I’d never studied Asia. At Amherst College, we had a required year-long course in world history. We spent about a month on China and Japan, and that part of the course really fascinated me. One day in the fall of my sophomore year, the professor in my “Far Eastern” history course mentioned a program in Hawaii for people who were interested in East Asian studies. I inquired further, and he said that there was a program for juniors at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. This program would involve studying Japanese language or Chinese language intensively, and so one would take four years of the language in one year and then take Asian studies courses at the University of Hawaii. I spent my junior year studying Japanese and East Asian studies at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. I was intrigued by the traditional culture of Japan and also by the dynamism of its modern history, and so when I came back to Amherst, to my college, I wrote a senior thesis in Japanese history.

Left: Miles Fletcher, Professor of History and author of multiple books on twentieth-century Japanese history. (Photo by Maximilian Conley.)

MC: Could you talk about your role in developing the Asian Studies department here at UNC-Chapel Hill?

MF: When I came to UNC, there were several East Asian specialists on campus, but there was only one language instructor, who taught Chinese. So I began helping to develop a Japanese language program and I convinced the Department of Linguistics to hire a Japanese graduate student in history to teach first-year Japanese. In 1981 we received a grant from the Japan Foundation to hire a full-time language instructor. We also developed an East Asian Studies curriculum, which eventually became the Department of Asian Studies, which now has over 30 faculty members and offers an array of Asian languages. Of course, the department includes instructors in other fields as well, including history and humanities.

MC: Throughout the years that you’ve been at UNC-Chapel Hill, what do you value the most about being a scholar and a teacher?

MF: One thing that I treasure is the freedom to decide what topics I want to investigate and teach, and the university has been very supportive of my efforts in research. But both aspects of the job are very important. Few things feel better than a class that’s gone well. It’s truly rewarding. In a way, I consider my scholarship as a form of teaching. My own teaching would be very difficult without really good articles and books written by others, which provide the springboard for discussion. Once in a while someone will tell me they’ve used something I’ve written in their class and it makes me feel as if I’ve had an impact on teaching those students. Sometimes people draw a line between scholarship and teaching as if they’re two different activities, but actually I think they’re quite intermingled.

MC: Your first book, The Search for a New Order: Intellectuals and Fascism in Prewar Japan, concerns the influence of fascist ideology, especially among three prominent intellectuals in Japan who eventually worked with the Showa Research Association and influenced government policy. Why did you get interested in this subject and why did you choose to focus on a political theorist, an economist, and a philosopher?

MF: I was born shortly after WWII, and as I grew up there was always a lot of commentary about WWII. I think that’s just been a constant topic of interest to me. Also, as I began to study Japanese history, I became very interested in several intellectuals who took different attitudes to Japan’s imperialism and Japan’s wars. I originally was interested in focusing on intellectuals who opposed the Pacific War. There were a few, but then I discovered these others, and their cases seemed much more complicated and challenging to analyze and hence, even more interesting than those others. So that project was driven by a desire to try to figure out, at least partially, why the Pacific War occurred. The case of those three intellectuals was complicated because, after the war, they or others tried to argue that those intellectuals, those writers were really resisters of some sort. I concluded that they ended up being supporters of that war, and that one could not blame just the Japanese military for Japan’s expansion in the prewar and wartime period. One had to look at civilian supporters as well.

MC: How do you think your book sheds new light on historiographical questions of fascism? As you mention in the book, there is debate over the progressive versus reactionary nature of fascism. It’s also interesting that all three men seem hesitant to identify themselves as fascist.

MF: Yes, that’s right. Although they hesitated to identify themselves as fascists or simply did not do so, they were, at least in my opinion, clearly attracted to features of fascist policies as implemented in Germany and Italy. They turned to fascism as a kind of reform ideology. One contribution the book makes is to point out that, at the time, aspects of fascist ideology and policies in Italy and Germany could be seen as models of reform. Japan did not become fascist, because the programs of those intellectuals were, in effect, defeated. There wasn’t a single mass party with a charismatic leader or economic controls implemented to the degree that they wanted. The private sector maintained more control than they wanted. It’s hard to say that Japan itself became fascist, but there was fascist influence in Japan on certain people, including those three intellectuals.

MC: One aspect of the book concerns the role of intellectuals and, by extension, the role of ideas themselves in history. So while these men had an influence on political leaders, there were a lot of limitations.

MF: Yes, that’s a very important topic. I think that one impression that may come from that book is that for intellectuals to try to directly influence policy is a bit of a dangerous game. These men started out as Marxist writers, but to try to make one’s ideas palatable to those holding power, one might change his ideas, so that’s a pitfall for intellectuals who are trying to influence policy. Also, as you suggest, there were limits on the influence that these intellectuals had, so it can be difficult for ideas to influence policy. 

Left: Miki Kiyoshi, one of the three intellectuals analyzed in Fletcher’s
The Search for a New Order: Intellectuals and Fascism in Prewar
Japan (1982). (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.)

MC: So then how did you move from this book to your later work, which focused more on business and economic history?

MF: Well it was through writing that first book, and particularly the parts on the economist, Ryu Shintaro, that I realized there simply wasn’t much written about the Japanese economy in the prewar period and wartime period, at least at that time. So in my second book I decided to focus on trade policy in the interwar period, and then later on I began focusing on the cotton spinning industry, the Japan Spinner’s Association, and, more recently, the “lost decade” in Japan.

MC: Switching gears then, I want to ask about the changing climate in the scholarly community over the last few decades. How do you think that’s changed from the “Japan is #1” kinds of sentiments from the late 1980s, through the bubble collapse and the lost decades to today? What do you think the future of Japanese studies will look like?

MF: Well you’re right, there’s definitely been a change since the 1980s. One influence on my decision to write about the business community and national economic policy in the interwar period was that, in the 1980s, there was a major emphasis on Japan’s economic success. I thought that studies were emphasizing the governmental role too much and neglecting the role of business, particularly big business and business organizations, in setting policy. It seems with the onset of the lost decade of the 1990s, the question switched from why was Japan so successful economically to, suddenly, what went wrong. So that’s one major change, and that's reflected in my own research. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out what did go wrong, and I’ve been looking more at the private sector than at the government, as a lot of studies do. One major change, of course,    is that there won’t be that many exposés of Japan’s  economic success. In terms of developments in Japanese history, I’ve noticed in the past few decades or so more emphasis on what you might call “global ties” in Japanese history, interactions of Japan with outside influences, and I think that’s going to continue.  Japanese  history  has become more inclusive. People say the hottest field in Japanese history is the Japanese empire, so there are a lot of works on Japan’s colonial relations. There are more studies of Japan’s minorities and Japanese women and of Japanese communities outside of the capital of Tokyo, so I think we’re going to see more of that, along with more inclusion of different kinds of materials, particularly, say, art, and more studies relating art to major themes in Japanese history.

MC: On a more personal note, what are you thinking about post-retirement? Any ideas or plans you’d like to share?

MF:  There have been a number of research projects that publishers have suggested to me, but I want to wait a little while before I make any commitments. There are some research projects that I’d like to pursue further and finish up and different activities I might like to get involved in, but I’m somewhat purposively delaying decisions about that until  after I retire. In other words, the options, from my perspective, are pretty open at this point.