What a good way to get people interested in Japan? For us, teaching in rural West Virginia, this is not an academic question. Our students are often reluctant to study something that is seemingly so foreign and unrelated to their own lives as Japanese culture. They are also turned off by the highly negative images of the Japanese that pervade contemporary hit movies and best sellers. In books such as Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor and movies such as Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, the Japanese come off as dangerously inscrutable “economic animals” who are “out to get us” both economically and politically. To counter this, we must find a “hook” to get them interested, an approach that challenges one’s students intellectually by getting them beyond the crass stereotypes. We need to do so not only within the classroom but also in outreach programs for local secondary schools and community groups.
We got our chance by directing a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) regional Institute on “Japanese Culture through Literature” during the Summer of 1995. Originally, we designed the Institute as an intensive five-week introduction to Japan for twenty social studies, literature, and foreign language secondary school teachers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. However, as we discovered, our program can also be used in introductory college courses on Japanese civilization or in two or three-day outreach programs that require something more than just the superficial “guest lecture” about Japan and the Japanese.
There are many reasons for introducing Japan through its literature. The most obvious advantage is, of course, that compared to the dry and dull textbooks, literature is fun to read. But beyond the sheer entertainment value, literature is useful pedagogically because it calls attention to the deep complexities in world view and ways of life that the Japanese have constructed for themselves. It gives the class or group a common literary context that allows for stimulating conversations from different thematic and historical perspectives. Most important, using stories, essays, novels, and poetry allows the Japanese to speak for themselves—to tell their own tales and to give their take on their history, culture and character. This is precisely what is lacking in the usual American pop-cultural or mass-media treatments of Japan.
By Japanese “literature” we do not limit ourselves solely to the recognized classics. Participants read and discussed seven major works reflecting a wide range of genres and time periods that we supplemented with lectures, films, short literary works, and a number of scholarly essays. These included early masterpieces, such as Lady Sarashina’s As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, and Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness; novels, such as Shusaku Endo’s Silence; and even contemporary pulp fiction, such as Taichi Sakaiya’s The Baby Boom Generation.
The rationale behind our choices was not aesthetic quality so much as usefulness for looking at seven major themes throughout the Institute: (1) The Religious-Aesthetic Context; (2) Women and the Japanese Family; (3) Education; (4) Japanese and Outsiders; (5) Literature and the Visual Arts; (6) Social and Political Life; and (7) Labor and Business Life.
Generally, we tried as much as possible to arrange the readings chronologically, introducing new themes as we progressed from the ancient to the modern period. The Institute began with a focus on the religious aesthetic context and ended with modern Japanese business novels with a focus on contemporary labor and business practices. The outline (see pages 25–26) of the Institute shows the specific ways we used Japanese literature to discuss the seven major themes.