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Teacher Outreach in Japanese Studies: A Case Study

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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.


Through reading a wide variety of literary works, participants had to come to terms with a host of different Japanese perspectives on the structure and meaning of their own culture. By doing so we attempted to counter the more propagandistic treatments such as can be found, for example, in Michael Crichton’s best seller Rising Sun. In Crichton’s novel, the Japanese businessmen are made mute and therefore appear threateningly inscrutable. All the reader knows about them comes from the harangues of the American detective-hero, John Connor, who as the “expert” on “Orientals” provides his own definitive monologue about them. Here the typically harsh judgment of the Western critic is the only voice that is permitted to be heard.

During the Institute, we showed Rising Sun and asked participants to write their own reviews of the movie based upon their reading of Robert Christopher’s book, The Japanese Mind and Tanizaki Jun’ichir¯o’s short essay, In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki’s work was particularly useful in this regard. Written in 1933 at a time of rising ultranationalistic sentiment, In Praise of Shadows attacks outright westernization in defense of what Tanizaki considers to be the “traditional” Japanese way of life. In Praise of Shadows is written from the perspective of a writer who in some ways is in Crichton’s shoes, though of course in his case, Tanizaki confronts the rise of the West as a cultural (rather than economic or political) force in prewar Japan. While presenting a sometimes unflattering portrait of the West from time to time, Tanizaki still goes beyond simple stereotypes with his insights into the aesthetic and practical differences in what he sees as typically Western and Japanese sensibilities. He does this in a most interesting way, for example, by comparing the most pedestrian of objects, a Western toilet versus a traditional Japanese outhouse. Several questions guided our discussion of Tanizaki:

1. Like Crichton, Tanizaki is constructing an image of the Japanese and Japanese culture in his essay. What does he see that is characteristically “Japanese?”
2. If Crichton and Tanizaki found themselves in the same outhouse, what would they say to each other? Would they find that their images of Japan are vastly different? If so, how?
3. To what historical, political, economic, and cultural differences do you attribute the two images of Japan?

By working through these questions, participants began to see that what Tanizaki is really trying to do is to come to terms with his own identity. By analyzing the contradictions and incommensurabilities between Western and Japanese things, he constructs his own image of what it means to be a Japanese. With the movie Rising Sun and Tanizaki’s essay, therefore, participants had two good examples of writers who attempt to deal with the problem of otherness. They could also see that Americans are just as much involved in the ideological project of making our own image by defining ourselves against the Japanese as they themselves have done by arguing in favor of Japan’s cultural, racial, political, and economic uniqueness.1

To what extent does any observation about a culture that is “different” from one’s own have validity? As our participants discovered, this question cannot be easily answered. They became sensitized to the problems of interpreting cultures and gained a better critical perspective for assessing such interpretations because of this initial comparison of Crichton and Tanizaki..2 Raising these questions was the modus operandi of the Institute for the next five weeks as we compared and contrasted the diverse images of Japanese culture—from literary works and to the more “objective” studies by western scholars. By the end of the Institute, participants realized that Tanizaki’s image of Japan, while intriguing, was only one image among many. Like all such images, it was also influenced deeply by the times in which he lived.

Literature can be a primary focus for discussing any of the seven major themes for a unit on Japan for community outreach programs or for units within a college course about Japan. Such an approach not only fulfills the teacher’s goal of improving students’ Japanese cultural literacy, but also contributes to the greater goal of the humanities generally. It exposes people who would not ordinarily have the chance to the Japanese literary imagination with its varied ways of portraying the world and living a human life within it.

1. This is called the Nihonjinron. One very informative reading on this topic is by Kosaku Yoshino, Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Inquiry (London: Routledge, 1992). See especially chapter two, “The Nihonjinron: Thinking Elites’ Ideas of Japanese Uniqueness.” See also, Jackson Bailey, “Japan on the World Scene: Reflections on Uniqueness and Commonality,” Occasional Papers, vol. 1, number 2 (Earlham College, Richmond, IN: Institute for Education on Japan, 1989).

2. See Harumi Befu, “Introduction: Framework of Analysis.” See also Harumi Befu and Josef Kreimer, eds., Otherness of Japan: Historical and Cultural Influences on Japanese Studies in Ten Countries, Monographien aus dem Deutschen Institut für Japanstudien der PhilippFranz-von Siebold-Stiftung (München: Ludicium, 1992), 15–35.


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