'The Day the Internet Blew Up in My Face'

Visualizing Cultures was featured on MIT's homepage on Apr. 15, 2006 (Screenshot courtesy of Shigeru Miyagawa)

MIT professor Shigeru Miyagawa got more than he bargained for when he posted an image of Japanese war propaganda on an educational website.

This article was first published in AsiaMedia.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Los Angeles --- An image on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) website provoked a web stampede last spring. The image, part of a course and web project called Visualizing Cultures, drew the critical attention of thousands when the project was featured on MIT's homepage. It was what MIT linguistics professor Shigeru Miyagawa calls "the day the Internet blew up in my face."

Miyagawa says he received distressed emails, hate mail and even death threats within hours of the project being featured. A security guard was sent to his home to ensure his family's safety. But what he takes issue with most was not the criticism, but the way in which the media covered the story, he told an audience at the Symposium on Asia in the Curriculum at UCLA on Oct. 14, 2006.

Over 200 media outlets from around the world picked up the story. From CNN and the Associated Press to Chinese newspapers such as Beijing Youth Weekend and the Southern Daily, the story garnered critical attention during a time of heightened tensions between China and Japan. Then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates war dead including convicted World War II criminals, fueled anger and protest in East Asia.

The most controversial image in the Visualizing Cultures site was that of a Japanese war propaganda painting from the late 1800s. The painting shows Japanese soldiers standing over the beheaded bodies of plain-clothed Chinese. One soldier stands with his sword drawn triumphantly, ready to strike a kneeling Chinese man, as several other kneeling Chinese watch from a distance. Miyagawa's critics, many of them Chinese students and professors, said the image was a painful reminder of the acts of brutality committed by Japanese toward Chinese. They said that MIT should not present such atrocities as art.

The incident escalated when a U.S.-based Chinese graduate student broadcast the image on a discussion board regularly accessed by thousands of Chinese users, said Miyagawa.  The MIT Chinese Students Scholar Association said in a letter to MIT President Susan Hockfield that there was a "lack of accessible explanations and the proper historical context that ought to accompany these images." Facing criticism from around the world, a group of MIT faculty decided to temporarily shut the site down.

On Apr. 26 Miyagawa and other MIT faculty met with 100 students in a town hall meeting in Boston. The next day, Miyagawa and Pulitzer-Prize winning historian John Dower, who wrote the text accompanying the image, released an official statement that the images did not reflect their beliefs and expressed "deep regret over the emotional distress caused by some of the imagery within the Chinese community." The purpose of the Visualizing Cultures project, the statements said, was to look at history in the broadest possible manner. The painting in question, they said, was intended to show how Japanese society used the imagery as propaganda to further their political agendas. "This, is a scholarly research project, and there is no art exhibition associated with it."

Miyagawa's frustration stemmed from the way those statements were portrayed as apologies for posting the image. On Apr. 28, for example, the Boston Globe's piece about the controversy led with: "MIT pulled down a course website yesterday and apologized to members of the Chinese community after some students complained about a picture of Chinese prisoners being lined up by Japanese soldiers to be beheaded."

The Japanese war propoganda posted on the Visualizing Cultures website that drew the most criticism was part of the section "Throwing off Asia."

"They [the press] took my statement and made it an apology…but it was not an apology -- I had done nothing wrong," Miyagawa said at UCLA.

The incident also shed light on issues surrounding academic freedom, censorship and the power of visual interpretation. Miyagawa said that the vast majority of his critics failed to read the explanation that accompanied the image on the Visualizing Cultures website. The text described the 19th Century painting as "disdainful of the Chinese as anything that can be found in anti-'Oriental' racism in the United States and Europe at the time."

"The PRC [People's Republic of China] students [who responded] are schooled in science, math, and technology. They are not trained to deal with humanities and oral history," said Miyagawa. The Visualizing Cultures project is an attempt to ameliorate just that problem. The central aim of Visualizing Cultures, Miyagawa said, is to engage its audience to, "stop and then really think about what [the images] really meant."

After a two-week blackout, MIT reinstated the Visualizing Cultures site, including the controversial image, with a bolded red image advisory at the top of the screen which warned in Chinese, Japanese and English that, "Some images may be offensive and difficult to view."

Miyagawa and Dower are currently working on text that will examine many of the questions raised by their experiences with Visualizing Cultures.

Shigeru Miyagawa's talk at the Symposium on Asia in the Curriculum was sponsored by the UCLA Asia Institute, AsiaMedia's publisher.

Published: Monday, October 30, 2006