Syllabus Blogging: Modern Japan and World History

It’s been a while since I did some syllabus blogging, but the most interesting course I was going to teach last semester didn’t come through,1 so it’s been a little while since I taught a heavily revised or new course on Japan.

Next semester I’ll be teaching my “Japan since 1700” course, and I’m doing a substantial shuffle of the readings. One shift is that I’m increasing my focus on Japanese women: the course includes Recreating Japanese Women for the Tokugawa-Imperial period, Haruko’s World for the post-war, and Robin LeBlanc’s Bicycle Citizens for the post-post-war. I’ve used RJW before, but never for the survey; Bicycle Citizens replaces Bumiller’s Mariko’s Secrets which I’ve been using practically since it was published twenty years ago. It’s still a good book, for the end-of-bubble era, but I want something closer to the present for my end-of-course reading and this is the best looking candidate in a while. Japanese men get their due, I think: Chushingura for Tokugawa; Fukuzawa’s Autobiography for the Meiji; and the Cook&Cook Japan at War collection for the 20th century; something else for post-war might be good, but I might actually show a movie this time. The last three are all books I’ve used before, but again not in this configuration. I’ll probably have them doing reports and reviews on literature in translation, mostly, which will also fill in some of that.

One thing I discovered, when putting my orders together, is that my library is much better equipped than it used to be. Not only did it get a Nippon Foundation library grant, but it’s also a subscriber to the ACLS Humanities E-Book Collection, which has a small but nicely curated Japan collection. Both Bernsteins and Bicycle Citizens are in the collection, which means that some students will not have to purchase them. I have slightly mixed feelings about the e-books, though: while the collection is very good, the interface is inconsistent, like a JSTOR knock-off that didn’t quite make the cut. I’m not sure I’d assign whole books to be read that way without another option available. I will, however, be using it heavily for selected readings in my World History seminar.

The title of my graduate seminar is “World History as Discipline”: it’s awkward, but I had to indicate that the course was not just in the World History category – we offer graduate seminars in “American” and “World” history – but was about World History as such.2 The readings are a mix. There are some relatively early classics of the field – Bailyn on Atlantic history, Mintz on sugar, Dunn on Ibn Battuta, and McNeill on disease and demographics – and some very new work – Burbank&Cooper on empires, Richards on evironmental history – and some stuff that’s there because I think it’s interesting – Ichioka on diaspora, Iriye on internationalism. There’s some theory in the Dunn collection The New World History, which also provides an entree into the necessary discussion of translating global history into local classrooms, and there will be some journal articles on that topic as well. I’m going to have them read an issue or two of the Journal of World History, to get the flavor of the field, as well, and their research project – more of a historiographical survey in this case – will be an extended investigation into a region or theme. I could teach the course twice more without repeating books, there’s so much good stuff on different aspects of these. I’d like to have more world systems theory in there than the bits in TNWH, for example, but that would push out Burbank&Cooper which, I’ve been assured, is the bleeding edge on the empire theory, and is at least as ambitious as any of the World Systems work I’ve read. I could do a whole other version of the class on Asia in regional and world history – Louise Young on empire, and Kuhn on diaspora, material on manga and cinema, the Mongols and Silk Road as global history, comparative feudalisms and environmental histories, the Early Modern question, more Iriye on regional diplomacy – and still not cover it in a semester, even with graduate students.

For better or worse, the seminar is an online course – our graduate program serves students across a broad swath of Kansas and beyond, not to mention a lot of full-time teachers – so the discussions will be slower, more focused. But that’s not a bad thing: I’m fairly sure that the vast majority of this is going to be very new material for my students, most of whom haven’t taken a history course that actually spanned multiple regions or nationalities since Hist 101 and 102. Much of this is relatively new to me, and I’m really looking forward to this semester.


  1. For reasons passing understanding, “US-East Asia Relations: Migration, Trade and War” failed to garner a single registrant. We have a strong military history component to our program, though, so I’m considering breaking it down further, and just doing a course on 20th century US-East Asian wars. It would be really fun if I could co-teach it with my US military historian colleague, but that’s new administrative territory for me.  

  2. “Seminar in World History: World History” just didn’t seem like it would get my point across. “World History Theory and Practice” is closer, but sounds like an intro historiography course.  

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