AAS Member Spotlight: Ben Whaley

Ben Whaley is Assistant Professor of Japanese in the School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Calgary (Alberta, Canada). He is a specialist in modern Japanese literature and popular culture.

How long have you been a member of AAS?

Since 2012, when I was still a master’s student finishing up my thesis on Tezuka Osamu’s manga, though I am now a proud lifetime member.

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

As a graduate student I wanted to enter our community of scholars and membership in the AAS was a great way to do this. I first presented at the annual conference as an incredibly nervous master’s student and had a great experience, despite unceremoniously tripping over the laptop cord to end my talk. The various travel grants and mixers helped me meet people at various career stages and I always felt welcomed into this community. Later in my graduate career I made use of the job boards and career resources. Now that I am an assistant professor, I appreciate my AAS membership even more. Ours is still a relatively young and close-knit field. I see the association’s events as a valuable opportunity to come together in dialogue with colleagues and friends who are all passionate and deeply invested in Asian research.

How did you first become involved in the field of Asian Studies?

People always ask me this and I really wish I had a great story—“When I first saw Super Mario don his ‘Tanooki’ suit I knew I had found my future career in the study of Japanese pop culture!” The truth is, I began studying Japanese language in middle school in Seattle, Washington somewhat on a whim. I had my first opportunity to travel to Japan while still in middle school due to an exchange program we had with an institution in Kanazawa City. So, it was from these first few language classes and my short exchange trip as a teenager that I really fell in love with the language and culture of Japan.

I continued studying Japanese language and literature as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote an honors thesis on Japan’s all-female Takarazuka Revue theater troupe. After a short stint teaching English at a medical school in Shikoku, Japan, I returned to North America and enrolled in graduate school at the University of British Columbia. I found my interests moving from modern Japanese literature to pop culture and started examining racial politics in the manga of Tezuka Osamu for my master’s thesis, before turning my passion of playing Japanese videogames into a primary area of research during my doctoral program.

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

These days I find my teaching very rewarding. At the time of writing this I am teaching my undergraduate course on Japanese videogames and gaming culture, the first course of its kind at the University of Calgary. This is a class I had always dreamed of teaching, so I am very excited to be able to finally offer it for students. We are lucky to meet in one of the most technologically advanced rooms on campus. Every other week I bring in physical game systems and hook them up to the large in-room displays, creating a classroom arcade where we can play and discuss games together as a group. Later in the term we will visit our university’s “digital library” and immerse ourselves in virtual reality gaming as well. Teaching and playing games with my students has presented some unique challenges, but I am finding the overall experience to be very rewarding. Plus, my students’ passion around gaming culture is second to none!   

Tell us about your current or past research.

I research Japanese videogames and write about the ways in which they engage with social issues and personal issues prevalent in Japanese society, including traumas. For my purposes, this means analyzing console games that address issues such as a declining birthrate and aging population, schoolyard bullying, or war and remembrance. In my book project, Toward a Gameic World: New Rules of Engagement from Japanese Videogames, I am interested in games not simply as a medium capable of conveying complex information about Japanese society and culture, but also in the particularities of play in Japanese game design. That is, how interacting with a game might allow for a working through of trauma and virtual exposure to other mindsets and cultures.

With my own work, I hope to help bring scholarly attention to the study of games within Asian Studies. My forthcoming Journal of Asian Studies article, “Virtual Earthquakes and Real-World Survival in Japan’s Disaster Report Video Game,” analyzes a popular earthquake survival game series in relation to disaster photography and artistic representations of the 3.11 Triple Disaster.

When not writing about pixels and power-ups, my other research interests typically involve ethno-racial politics and discourses of national identity in postwar manga. I often focus on the works of Japan’s “God of Manga” Tezuka Osamu, but my current research project traces the origins and development of narratives about Jewish identity and the Holocaust in postwar shōjo manga, beginning with illustrated versions of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl from the late 1950s (forthcoming in positions: asia critique).

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

Pursue language and cultural study and visit your country (or countries) of interest as early as possible. Also, do not be afraid to research those texts and topics about which you are passionate and push the boundaries of what might be considered “proper” Asian Studies research. I always enjoy speaking about my research to a room of scholars or to a general audience, even when the first question from the audience invariably begins with the preamble, “I don’t play videogames, but…”.  

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself (your interests, hobbies, skills, etc).

Studying Japanese was always in the back of my mind when I entered college, but I actually planned to major in composition and write music for videogames (surprise!). I have played the piano ever since I was young, and I used to do quite a bit of musical accompaniment for improvisational theater troupes while in college, so I still love making up music and songs on the spot. It’s probably for the best that that I do not teach in the music building where they have grand pianos in each of the classrooms or I would live score all of my own lectures!