Education About Asia: Online Archives

Lost Names, Master Narratives, and Messy History

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“Problematize the master narrative!” These were the words some years ago at an NEH summer institute for teachers. The speaker’s language wasn’t mine then (it is now), but I realized that that’s what I’d been doing in my teaching for years: making an issue of the dominant interpretation (usually that of a textbook). It is what more of us need to focus on, at all levels and in all subjects. Textbooks are always wrong. History is never simple.

As a professor of Japanese history at a major state university, I have the luxury of teaching a full semester survey course on Japan (History of Japanese Civilization). It is in this course that for many years now I have used Richard Kim’s Lost Names. (Just before the first edition went out of print, I was able to buy forty copies, so that Lost Names lived on in my course even though it was out of print.) So let me describe the course. There are forty-five students of various rank, freshman through senior; and the class meets three times per week. Two meetings per week are lectures, films, or other activities; one meeting per week is a discussion. I lead all the discussions. One of the concerns throughout the course is the relation between author and material (study the historian), and the syllabus carries biographical data on all authors we encounter, including both me and Richard Kim. I have as well the advantage of having been present twice in the last five years when Kim discussed Lost Names with groups of teachers.