Self-intro: M.G. Sheftall

Filed under: — M.G. Sheftall @ 9:13 am

Mina san, konnichiwa.

My name is M.G. Sheftall. I’m an ex-pat NY’er (attended and Stuyvesant High School and Fordham University there) living in Japan since 1987. I am currently an associate professor at Shizuoka University in Hamamatsu City, Japan and a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University.

First of all, I must say I’m happier than a kaeru during tsuyu to be joining the official posters’ lineup here on Frog in a Well. I’ve been a lurker on this site for quite a while now, and am familiar with many of the bylines around here from various books and articles I’ve read over the years (and coincidentally, I’ve just recently finished Brian McVeigh’s magisterial Nationalisms of Japan, which I cannot recommend highly enough to students of the collective ways and mores of the residents of our favorite archipelago). I’d also like to say that I’m very much looking forward to interacting with you all from hereon out on a regular basis, and I hope I’ll be able to overcome innate cognitive shortcomings and temperamental proclivities to contribute more than politically incorrect irreverence and obtuse, misanthropic observations to these proceedings (although I can’t make any promises, especially once classes start up again next month). Yoroshiku. 

Some personal background info towards the tiresome yet nevertheless de rigeur “How did you end up in Japan?”: 

Japan has been a personal obsession since I was a preschooler — literally. The details of this nascent Orientalism are convoluted and possibly Freudian, involving a Japanese exchange student babysitter, a viewing of You Only Live Twice with my dad in 1967, and finding my grandmother’s awesome National Geographic stash shortly thereafter. Things became progressively monomaniacal after I watched Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1970 and decided that my goal in life was to become a Zero fighter pilot. Needless to say, the Imperial Japanese Navy security clearance background check and citizenship requirements posed ultimately insurmountable obstacles, but I think we can all begin to see the pattern forming here.

In spite of the numerous distractions and temptations that came with the territory of a “dazed and confused” 1970s New York City adolesence, a bud of J-longing remained safely sequestered in my youthful bosom, glowing and intact, merely waiting for the right circumstances under which to reach full blossom. However, fate was to intervene with yet another impressionable cinematic experience that, in this particular case, detoured me quite catastrophically from my destined path in Japan Studies: a viewing of Apocalypse Now at the Ziegfeld Theater — bolstered in effect by consideration of the financial circumstances of a household facing two additional sets of tuition bills just a few more years down the line — somehow convinced my fragile eggshell 17-year-old mind that I should turn down Columbia University in favor of a tuition-free education at West Point via an appointment to the Academy from Congressman Bill Green (R/NY) in January 1980. So-o-o, it was goodbye Donald Keene, hello M-16.

Although there were many aspects of the soldier’s life I enjoyed (e.g., firing automatic weapons; experiencing temporary ego death in the testosterone-fueled, cadence-chanting, buzzcutted anonymity of The Group), and others for which I displayed a natural ability (I shined a mean shoe, for instance), it eventually became clear to all involved that my talents might be better applied in an endeavor other than the profession of arms. After two years at The Point, the Academy and I reached the amicable — if perhaps a tad premature — decision to part ways, leaving me free to meander back home to Manhattan neither with my shield nor on it (sticking to the allegory, the Spartan in a similar situation might have opted to fall on his sword, but I am an innate self-preservationist), and I enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx a few months later. Alas, there was no Japanese Studies program at this fine Jesuit institution, but I opted for something I thought sounded almost as exotically intriguing and considerably more timely — a concentration in Islamic/Middle East Studies as a Poli Sci/International Relations major.

One thing led to another at Fordham, some roads led nowhere, and none (thank God) led to Baghdad, but a fortuitous phone call from an ex-roomie landed me in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan in February ’87, a few months shy of my twenty-fifth birthday, and I’ve been a Nihongo and kanji freak pretty much since stepping off the 747. My on-topic professional research activity from about the mid-90s on was decidedly job-oriented, concentrating on culture-specific (or at least culture-salient) affective variables in the context of the Sisyphean realities of Japanese EFL. Anyone who has 1) “done the Eigo/Eikaiwa thing” for any length of time and 2) has a working knowledge of Japanese cultural studies should readily understand how this particular research interest – nudged in my case by concurrent initial encounters with Karel van Wolferen, Ian Buruma, Bruce Stronach and Harumi Befu — eventually led me to focus on Japanese cultural/national identity issues.

I wound up in the Japanese national university system as a full-timer in Spring 2001 all set to continue in this vein…then 9/11 happened and everything, as the saying goes, changed. Several stunned months of insomniac BBC and CNN viewing and sobering ruminations on the dialectic of national/ethnic/religious identity and ideologies of self-sacrifice eventually led me to Googling “kamikaze” one day in January 2002 and stumbling onto a veterans’ association of kamikaze survivors (yes, as oxymoronic as that may sound, there actually are some) based in Setagaya, Tokyo. I have been studying and observing the history, rituals and pedagogical activities not only of this association but of the entire Japanese subculture of kamikaze collective memory ever since. A book, BLOSSOMS IN THE WIND: HUMAN LEGACIES OF THE KAMIKAZE, resulted from the first three years of this research. This was published in English by NAL Caliber in 2005 (paperback in 2006), and a J-translation will come out from Bungei Shunju some time next year.

My dissertation at Waseda is a continuation of work on this theme, after anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace’s classic “Revitalization Movement” concept, aiming to model veteran-centric collective memory formation in traditionally exclusivist sociopolities that have experienced catastrophic military defeat and subsequent foreign occupation. My methodology owes much to the substantial literature in this field dealing with the experience of the post-Civil War American South, especially the work of C. Vann Woodward, Rollin Osterweis, Gaines Foster and Charles Reagan Wilson. Partly in acknowledgment of this methodological debt, but more importantly because I just love the way it reads, the title of the dissertation will be Gone With The Divine Wind: the Kamikaze in Japanese ‘Lost Cause’ Mythology, 1945-Present.

Additional (but very much related) research interests for me are: military influence in the formation of Japanese national identity from Meiji to the present (I’m a big Yoshida Yutaka fan, btw); Yasukuni issues (2006 has been a great year for these!); popular Japanese attitudes towards — and interpretations of — modern history, particularly regarding the Asia-Pacific War; the relationship of culturally-patterned masculinity and formalized violence; depiction of the Asia-Pacific War in popular culture/media; (as per the above paragraph, the numerous and endlessly fascinating) parallels between the cultural, ideological, pedagogical and psychological mechanisms of dealing with the aftermath of defeat in postwar Japan and post-Civil War American South (my ancestors on both sides of the family were Confederates, so there is an element of personal interest on my part in exploring this aspect of the respective collective experiences of both my ancestral and adoptive cultures), et al.  


A quick personal profile:

Family: Married, two sons (eight and three years of age, respectively).

Currently listening to:  Station-to-Station, by David Bowie; The Sand Pebbles soundtrack (Jerry Goldsmith, RIP)

Currently reading: Kudakareta Kami by Watanabe Kiyoshi (a kind of Rosetta Stone of postwar J-veteran trauma; now I can see why Dower thought it was worth devoting six pages of “Embracing Defeat” to…Powerful stuff!)

Favorite Japanese movies: Yojinbo; Kumo no Bohyou yori Sora Yukaba (hands down the best kamikaze movie ever made)

J-turn-ons: Hokusai woodblocks; hanabi; the gracious art of tatemae displayed in consideration of others’ feelings; winsome smiles; the Imperial Palace o-hori walkway near Chidorigafuchi, at night, under cherry blossoms; prewar J-Art Deco (Waseda campus has some nice examples, btw); crisp autumn breezes; Nihonshu and oden on winter nights

J-turn-offs: requests for personal anatomical data, particularly from strangers; any and all comments/lines of questioning about chopstick/Nihongo ability and/or edible/inedible Japanese foods; Nihonjinron genre (comedic value aside); self-serving, obsequious tatemae; just about any building erected in Japan since about 1965 (although I do like the Asahi Beer corporate headquarters); 95% of J-television programming; tsuyu and summer weather in Central Japan

前世 existences: Post-Impressionist painter; Chuushingura co-conspirator; Greek hoplite; Egyptian architect.


Dewa, mina san, yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

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