Reflecting on a semester

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:22 am

We’ve been talking about our syllabi for a while here at the Frogs, but we haven’t done a lot of post-semester commentary. I had two Asia courses this semester: Early Japan and Problems and Issues of Contemporary China.

The China course went like gangbusters, and the books worked surprisingly well as a set. The Hessler was a solid starter, and I think I’m going to use it as my closer next time I teach the 20c China course. I followed it up with Cohen’s historiography, which was risky: only one of the five students in the class had anything like a serious historical background. Still, the theoretical perspectives he was describing are still very much alive, and it gave us a structure to talk about a lot of what came after. Qian Qichen’s diplomatic memoir was a nice corrective — focusing on strengths, and the Chinese perspective on the world — and the pre/post-9/11 talks transcribed in the appendices are great texts in themselves: I highly recommend them for anyone teaching a world politics or recent China course. My only concern is that it felt a little light. But if there had been more students, then the student-led reading/discussion section would have been denser. Anyway, aside from one supplemental reference which got underused, if I get to teach this course again, I’m keeping everything. I think it would work pretty well for undergrads, too.

The Early Japan course was a bit more mixed. I’m still trying to do too much, it seems: I need to spend more time on skills in the surveys, especially when I don’t have a core text. Berry’s Culture of Civil War in Kyoto was a great “slice of life” text, and actually sparked some discussion at a point in the semester when interest has often flagged. I can’t in good conscience give up the Genji and Heike readings, but I think I’m going to have to be more selective about the rest of the readings. I really want to add at least one good monograph on an earlier period, to parallel Berry. I’m thinking about Farris or Friday, and about adding student research and presentations to the document-based analysis assignments.

I need to look ahead now. I’ll be teaching my Qing course in the Fall, and so far it’s looking like a small crowd: perfect for the kind of scholarship I’m assigning. I want to work in a stronger research component than I had last time, though, to give students more of a chance to stretch their legs, so to speak.


The course we all have to teach

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:05 am

Alan Baumler, my colleague from next door has sent along this “call to arms”

As some of our regular readers may remember, there is a Frog tradition of posting our syllabi for comments. One class I will be teaching in Fall is Japan in the Age of the Samurai. Here is the description.

In this class we will examine the development of Japanese society and culture during the age of the samurai, roughly 1100 to 1550. We will look at the development of the class of bushi, their political, economic and military roles. We will also look in depth at the development of a social identity that was flexible enough to include the courtier-warriors of the Heian period and the ronin of Sengoku. This was also an age of considerable social and intellectual change, and we will look at urbanization, international relations and the development of Buddhism as well as changes in rural society and other topics. Readings will include important secondary sources and some primary sources. The course will also involve a research paper.

I was going to call the class “Land tenure and social status in Medeival Japan,” but I was told by pretty much everybody that I needed a better title to attract students. So “Age of the Samurai” it is. Basically we will be covering the late Heian to the end of Sengoku, and it is not a class just about warriors, but they are pretty central to the period. It is a topics class, which means it is mostly for juniors and seniors, and I will be running it more like a colloquium than a lecture class, and all the students will be doing research papers.

So, I need to pick maybe four books to have them all read. I was thinking of using

Helen McCullough trans. Tale of the Heike

Pierre Souyri The World Turned Upside Down

Thomas Conlan States of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth Century Japan

Mary Berry The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto

Any suggestions? Books to substitue? Things I should be reading as I teach these books? Articles or chunks from other things I should assign? For this type of class I usually make up a reader with a bunch of articles and chapters from other books so any ideas would be most welcome.

I don’t have a lot to add: my own version of this is running currently, and overlaps considerably with Alan’s choices. I am particularly curious myself about the Berry as a course text, since I’ll be getting to it in a month or so. I’m a little surprised not to see any John Whitney Hall or Jeffrey Mass at that level (especially the Mass, for documents). The Cambridge History of Japan for that period might be a good resource, too, though more for the instructor than the students.

So, gentle readers: any other suggestions?


Summer Reading Note: Ninja

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:22 am

I’ve finished Stephen Turnbull’s Ninja: the True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult, and I have good news for current and prospective graduate students: there is still an immense amount of work to be done on ninja and ninjutsu as historical phenomena.

The early chapters cover “non-traditional” tactics in samurai warfare, defined here as any military or violent action which does not take place between mounted warriors on a declared battlefield. Only a few chapters in — the Muromachi and warring states eras — do we encounter shinobi, experts in castle infiltration and solo armed combat. Aside from the Iga-Koga warrior clans — oddly mercenary, which also becomes part of the ninja mythology — there are no well-defined schools or consistent practitioners. The Tokugawa era section of the book shifts to discussing the increasingly magical, frightening and lurid image of ninja in popular culture, a topic which remains the focus for the rest of the book. Only at the very end, after citing Ian Fleming’s role in bringing ninja to western awareness, does Turnbull come back to the question of actual ninjutsu, citing Fujita Seiko (1899-1966) as “Japan’s last practising ninja” and functionally disparaging all other books, schools and practitioners as profiteers or self-deluded (though he never clarifies the position of foreword author Hatsumi Masaaki, whom he seems to hold in high esteem as a teacher and preserver of the tradition). Turnbull seems surprised by Ninjutsu schools’ claims that their art is a “Way” of self-development, which is odd because pretty much every other school or style of martial arts in Japan makes the same claim. He openly admits that he can’t judge the actual fighting techniques of these schools — though he does spend some time talking about weaponry and the creative additions made in literature and art over the years — and he cites but never evaluates the dramatic claims of several schools to be descended from various historical figures (some of whom used non-traditional tactics but were not shinobi).

The book almost entirely fails to answer any of my questions about ninja and ninjutsu. I am not someone who can be shocked, shocked, I say, to discover that samurai sometimes snuck around instead of limiting themselves to entirely fair fights, or that some warriors actually got pretty good at these tactics. Nor does it surprise me that samurai orthodoxy distanced themselves from these tactics so that, even though they appear as successful tactics in traditional military records, the self-image and modern image of the samurai drives these tactics into the shadows. I’m not terribly interested in popular images of ninja, unless there is some serious discussion of the reality, and the two discussions are substantially separate. I am interested in the history and accomplishments of schools of ninjutsu, because it is from them, not from popular culture, that the most fantastic claims of antiquity and continuity and ability come. Turnbull quotes an interview with the above mentioned Seiko Fujita, for example, in which he “claims he can ‘concentrate his senses’ to see eight times better and hear fourteen times better than normal,” (144) but, aside from deploring the “dilution of quality since ninja became so popular” (146), there’s no validation or testing of these claims.

Even in earlier sections, there’s an odd credulity to the source handling that is hard to take seriously. Turnbull notes, for example, the odd frequency with which ninja were tested before employment with stealing an item, usually a sword, from their employer, but doesn’t bring skepticism he justifiably feels towards these clichés to bear on the rest of the documents containing them. Turnbull notes the disdain in which conventional samurai held these tactics and practitioners, but doesn’t seriously question whether the samurai sources he’s using might be misrepresenting these warriors or underrepresenting the use of these tactics. I’m also surprised at the relative thinness of pre-20c popular culture references (and the early 20c military discussion seems a terrible diversion, either unnecessary or too short), given the consistency and wide acceptance of the images in question.

To be fair, it may be that the sources and citations he found are indeed the only ones to be found on the subject, and he’s doing the best that he can. There seems to be material here that is not found elsewhere in English, and that’s always a service to the profession. And this is certainly more interesting than the vast majority of the nearly-fictional ninja material in the popular and martial arts press. But it certainly didn’t answer my questions, or the questions of my students.


1590s Military Technology Gaps

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:59 am

I recently ran across two separate references to the Hideyoshi invasions of Korea, both of which credited Hideyoshi’s initial success to firearms. That didn’t ring true for a few reasons, the first of which is that I’m a professional Japanese historian and didn’t remember ever seeing that sort of assertion before. My impression was that the initial Japanese success was a result of having a large number of battle-hardened veterans against a nation which hadn’t seen large-scale combat in over a century. The ability of the Ming to throw the Japanese back when they committed enough troops (and really, not that many, though the Koreans were committing a great deal more) seemed to me to argue against a significant technological differential.

I’ve sent a query to H-Japan, and the first reply I got back deepened my confusion. Andrew Dyche of UBC reminded me of the “Turtle Boats” which Korea used to such great effect against Japan’s military and supply ships. In that respect, at least, the technological advantage was in the wrong direction. I’m not a military historian by trade, but this doesn’t look good.

A bit of google work (all my relevant books are at the office, and it’s summer, so I don’t get in much) led me to this article about why Europe colonized the world. It has some interesting details about the reported effectiveness of both firearms and turtle boats, but also relies heavily on pretty old sources (which explains why, for example, Japan after 1636 supposedly only traded with the Portuguese instead of the Dutch, Chinese and Koreans). Interesting, but not dispositive, and certainly not the original source of the idea. Nor are these sites, though they are typical of the genre. All of them seem to indicate that Ming military technology balanced the war (and the Turtle boats tipped it in the other direction).

I suppose I’m going to need to go in and look this up, but if anyone knows of a good monograph on the subject of the 1590s wars I’d be grateful.


Fukuzawa on Education; Mongol Scrolls

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:24 am

Reading over Fukuzawa’s Autobiography for class, I ran across a nice passage:

However much we studied, our work and knowldge had practically no connection with the actual means of gaining a livelihood or making a name for ourselves. Not only that, but the students of Dutch were looke upon with contempt by most men. Then why did we work so hard to learn Dutch?… we students were conscious of the fact that we were the sole possessors of the key to knowledge of the great European civilization. However much we suffered from poverty, whatever poor clothes we wore, the extent of our knowledge and the resources of our minds were beyond the reach of any prince or nobleman of the whole nation. …most of us were then actually putting all our energy into our studies without any definite assurance of the future. Yet this lack of future hope was indeed fortunate for us, for it made us [in Osaka] better students than those in Yedo. From this fact I am convinced that the students of the present day, too, do not get the best results from their education if they are to much concerned about their future. Of course, it is not very commendable to attent school without any serious purpose. But, as I say, if a student regulates his work too much with the idea of future usefulness, or of making money, then he will miss what should be the most valuable part of his education. During one’s school life, one should make the school work his chief concern.

Actually, reading it over, it strikes me as somewhat self-contradictory: he acknowledges that in Yedo such knowledge was very valuable, and that entree into European studies was a great benefit for the present and future. Oh, well.

Well, as consolation, another beautiful web resource, from Tom Conlan: The 13th century Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan, in several different recreated incarnations, with a fantastic viewing interface. The site claims that it needs a “high bandwith connection” but I’m viewing it over my home modem and having a blast. If you’ve got a high-speed classroom connection, though, your Mongol Invasion lecture just got that much prettier.


The Gateless Gate Online

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:04 am

Here is the gateway to The Gateless Gate. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But it’s a real treasure of a document, and a very nicely done site.

Granted, much of what I understand about Zen, insofar as anyone can say with any meaning that they understand Zen, comes from Ioanna Salajan and Paul Reps (There are, I assure you, worse sources….), and I’m more of a Daoist than Zen in basic attitude (I’m a Liberal Jew, which gives you this).

And, oddly enough in the same H-Japan digest, my old friends at the UIowa Center for Asian and Pacific Studies have put the papers for this panel on using digitized sources in research on Asian Buddhism up for public viewing here.


Restoration or Renovation?

Filed under: — Nick Kapur @ 12:17 am

I’ve always found it interesting how certain events in Japanese history have become indelibly associated with a canonical English translation that often has little to do with the actual Japanese name. 島原の乱, for example, is almost always translated as “Shimabara Rebellion,” even though “乱” is translated in other contexts into all sorts of other words, including “war,” “chaos,” “uprising,” “revolt,” “riot,” and “disorder.” A more glaring example is 西南戦争, which is always translated as “Satsuma Rebellion” instead of something more literal, such as “War of the Southwest.”

Another curious term is the “restoration” in “Meiji Restoration” and “Kenmu Restoration.” I was surprised to find out recently that these two events, strongly linked in English historiography by the use of the same English word to describe them, are labeled in Japanese with two different terms, neither of which means “restoration.” In the case of the Meiji event, the term is of course, 明治維新 (Meiji Ishin), while Go-Daigo’s coup is usually known as 建武新政 (Kenmu Shinsei). What is so odd about calling these events “restorations” is that they both make use of the character 新, which implies something entirely new, rather than a “restoring” of something old from the past. Thus, not only does the term “restoration” in English historiography imply a link between these two events that may not be so clear to the Japanese, but it also is simply not a very accurate translation of the Japanese terms in question. Perhaps a new English word should be chosen, such as “renovation” or “renewal” or somesuch.


Why I love classical literature

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:35 am

From Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa, aka Essays in Idleness (Stephen Carter translation in McCullough’s Classical Japanese Prose, p. 416)

Today you had planned to do one thing, but something else comes up and takes the whole day. The person you are waiting for is detained, but someone you hadn’t expected shows up instead. Something you had confidence in goes awry, but something you had no hope for works out. The task you worried over comes off without trouble, but the task you thought would be easy proves to be difficult. As the days go by, what happens bears no resemblance to what you had anticipated. It’s that way for any year; it’s the same for a lifetime.

But just as you start to think that things never turn out as planned, something does and you feel more at a loss than ever. The only way we can be sure of things is to realize the truth: that all is uncertainty.

Ah, there’s nothing new under the sun, is there?


自己紹介: Thomas Ekholm

Filed under: — Thomas Ekholm @ 5:26 am

My name is Thomas Ekholm and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at Göteborg (Gothenburg) University, Sweden. I have a masters degree in Japanese and equivalent of a kandidate in history at Lund University, Sweden. Due to the university rules I was not able get a degree in both Japanese and History as they are within the same faculty. At first I planned to study up to Master level in history, but the chance of starting these Ph.D. studies made me change my mind.

My research is centered around the missionaries and tea during late 16th and early 17th century. What I want to find out is political connections (if any) between the Jesuit missionaries and the chanoyusha (which some refer as to tea masters).



Why did the Mongols Attack Hakata Bay Twice?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:58 am

I’ve been doing Japanese history for fifteen years, now, and Chinese history for a decade, and I’ve never figured out why the Mongols, after their first attack failed, would make landfall at the exact same spot where they made landfall before and the Japanese had been building fortifications for over half a decade. Didn’t they have any advance intelligence? Was the cross-strait navigation really that difficult that no other option existed? Did the Koreans not care if the Mongols succeeded, and steer them into the waiting Japanese defenders? (OK, I know that’s not terribly likely, as thousands of Koreans were forced into service in the invasions as well.) This has always troubled me. Successive typhoons, the kamikaze, don’t bother me because freak natural occurences are beyond our ken or control. Inexplicably dumb human behavior troubles me.

« Previous Page

Powered by WordPress