Nick’s posting about Japanese and English names for historical events prompted and interesting exchange in the comments. Thomas Ekholm noted that in Kenneth G. Henshalls “A history of Japan” the “Shimabara Rebellion” is referred to as the “Shimabara Massacre” Up until that point we were discussing how the names differ in English and Japanese and why such disagreements arise. In the most recent comment, Abigail Schweber reminded us about the important interpretive dimension of naming historical events that sometimes gets forgotten, especially for older events:
To address the question of what it should be called, we first need to consider what it is that makes this one so special. The number of participants? the number killed? the connection to Christianity? the gathering in and defense of the fortress (distinctly un-peasantish behaviour, that!)? Referring to it as a ‘massacre’ places the focus on the unleashing of government fury during the final few days, diminishing the acts of the peasant participants. ‘Rebellion,’ on the other hand, focusses on their defiance. ‘Protest’ would locate it within the narrative of ikki. It seems to me that any of these could be appropriate, depending on the writer/speaker’s focus.
We are much more used to thinking about these issues for more contemporary events. The most famous examples being events like the “Nanjing Massacre” vs. the “Nanjing Incident” (this goes well beyond measuring the slaughter, as one non-revisionist scholar points out, there is also the problem of it centering everything on the city proper, rather than the surrounding areas that should be included in our narration). The other big one that comes to mind is “World War II” vs. “Pacific War” vs. “Asia-Pacific War” vs. “The Fifteen Year War” vs. “The Greater East Asian War.”