When translating, leave currency in the original units

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:00 pm

Money hiding Swords I’m using Ivan Morris’ translation of Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Woman and other Writings this semester1, but one thing which is bugging me right off the bat is his habit of translating money into Pounds Sterling by converting the Tokugawa money to rice and then converting the rice to yen and the Yen to Pounds at the 1963 rate.2 Needless to say, neither I nor my students have any intutitive sense how much £16.70 in 1963 is worth today, but that’s what he says one gold Ryo is. According to the first historical currency calculator I could find, that’s about US$335.24 now. But that’s assuming that the original gold-rice/rice-yen calculation is worth anything….

I’d much rather have had a discussion about relative purchasing power, but here’s my best (quick) guess:


  1. Thanks, Alan! []
  2. Appendix II, “Money in Saikaku’s Time” []


Syllabus Query: 18th Century Japan

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:23 pm

I’m teaching my Japan Since 1700 course next semester for the first time. I’ve taught Japan since 1800 and 1868; I’ve taught Japan 1600-1900 and 20c Japan. I have two issues which are bugging me as I put in my (late, I know) book orders: Textbook and the 18th century:



Another Disappointment

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:34 pm

I always get a little nervous when a world history textbook cites details about Japanese history which I’ve never heard of before. I’m still mostly enjoying teaching with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s The World: A Global History, but I’m also still having some trouble with the Asian material.1 Imagine my surprise when I turned to the chapter on “Global Politics in the Twentieth Century” and it opened with this anecdote:

In the Manchuria of the 1920s and 1930s, the brothels in the city of Harbin were not merely, or even primarily, places of vice, but resembled clubs, where the regular clients became friends and met each other. The Russian journalist Aleksandr Pernikoff frequented Tayama’s, which was Japanese owned and flew the Japanese flag. At the time, Manchuria was part of the sovereign territory of China, but Tayama’s displayed signs of the gradually increasing level of Japanese infiltration. The Chinese government—run by the nationalist, republican party known as the Guomindang (gwoh-meen-dohng)— rightly suspected Japan of plotting to seize Manchuria, detach it from China, and turn it into part of the Japanese Empire.

Ron Loftus has an essay at his website which supports the brothel/secret agent contentions.2 I’m not terribly familiar with the literature on the secret societies and espionage, I admit, but my impression has been that the secret societies were a sideshow, more a symptom of the expansive nationalism of the early 20th century than a driving force.3 The text continues:

  1. I’m also not entirely happy with the “one topic over the whole world for a century” structure in the 20th century. It worked OK in the earlier segments, but the 19th century was a gallop and the 20th is pedal-to-the-metal. Yikes. []
  2. The authorship of the essay is actually a bit unclear, and there is a bibliography, but no citations. The sources listed range from the fairly authoritative (Yuki Tanaka) to the very unfamiliar but with somewhat lurid titles. []
  3. In fairness, as a social historian, I’m naturally deeply suspicious of conspiracy theories, and prefer to look at long-term structural causes. []


New Media and Japanese Studies

WARNING: those of you interested in Japanese studies but not in internet technologies, new media, and the whole question of how digital learning does or doesn’t effect academia should go no further. Here there be dragons.

I had the chance to attend a very unusual conference this past week. Well, “attend” is perhaps not the best word. This particular conference was held in Second Life, an unusual and large online community–technically a virtual world–in which you manipulate an “avatar” (kind of like a personalized character) to navigate an incredibly diverse landscape of “sims” (simulations, which translate into islands). People build buildings, art, natural environments, they buy and design and rent out sims, they sell virtual products and services, they collaborate or compete in games or educational endeavors, they socialize at dances and raves, and they do everything else that you can (or possibly can’t) imagine. I had never entered Second Life until the head of academic technology at my college informed me that we had some complementary tickets to a virtual conference on new media in the academy. I was skeptical about the whole Second Life thing but thought it might be interesting.

The conference schedule is now available online at the website of the New Media Consortium, the host organization and owner of the sim in which the conference took place. The program now includes links to “videos” of the presentations in Second Life, which look a bit like small movies of someone playing a really boring video game. If you listen to the presentations, though, the presenters turn out to be real teachers and academic technologists talking about a range of new media tools, including familiar ones like blogs and Facebook but also a slew of new technologies, and how they can be applied in the classroom. I was most impressed by the ways in which the conference was interactive. It is hard to get a sense of this from the video, but when your avatar was actually sitting there in the amphitheater listening to the presentations (which were made by people wearing headsets and presumably sitting at their own computers in various offices around the world), you could participate in an open, text-only chat (some of the sessions listed on the program include chat transcripts) that ran concurrently with the presentation. I didn’t have a mic and headset, like many other participants, so if I wanted to ask a question I just typed it into the chat window and someone not in the middle of presenting might answer it immediately, or, alternatively, one of the presenters would eventually get around to answering it. This was a form of multitasking that I had not previously experienced but that, surprisingly, really worked. I’m sure those of you who play linked online video games have experienced this mixture of virtual action and global conversation. You’re watching the screen (which frequently included multimedia presentations in the strange box above the presenters’ heads), listening to the spoken presentation, and also participating in a text-only chat discussion all at the same time. And at certain moments it was very informative and interesting.

So, what are the applications for Japanese studies? Well, first of all, Second Life itself could in theory be a very interesting teaching tool if used judiciously. I did a bit of searching in between sessions and discovered that there are a number of Japan-related sites that are open to visitors, most of them designed by Japanese users. “Bakumatsu Kyoto,” for example, is an educational sim (meaning it does not allow violence or, ahem, mature content) that aims to recreate the imperial capital at the end of the Tokugawa period. It is sort of amazing to walk around the city, or fly above its buildings (did I mention avatars can fly?) and see the odd but compelling attempt to create a digital version of that historical place and moment. I also dropped in (actually I “teleported” but that’s a whole different story) to the city of Edo, but when I saw people sword-fighting I thought, no, maybe not, and returned to the conference. Another day perhaps. Quite a few educational institutions have sims in Second Life. The virtual campus of Princeton University, for example, is particularly impressive.

Other tools that I learned about for the first time through the conference included Voicethread and Cosketch, two websites that I could easily imagine using in a Japanese history class or, if I taught one, a language class. Voicethread allows you to create a slideshow into which viewers can embed written or spoken comments or add their own threads of information, allowing unusual and visually compelling forms of interactive information. Cosketch is like an online whiteboard that allows simultaneous discussion and visual collaboration which would be great for talking to someone in another country, planning an event, preparing for a conference, or learning about a set of images when people are not together in the same room.

The presentations ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, particularly the concluding session which compared  proprietary course management software such as Blackboard to the zombies that increasingly infect popular culture such as movies and video games. The presenters actually arranged for a small army of virtual zombies to attack the conference, which was pretty silly. They argued for the effectiveness of open-content new media tools like Word Press (which powers this blog) and open syndication services as a way of creating “revolutionary” (their word, not mine) ways of learning.

I’m not sure what to make of all this, and when I returned to the classroom on Wednesday and Friday after experiencing these sessions I still had to figure out how to explain 18th-century Japanese intellectual developments, walk students through preparations for a presentation, and help my advisees to register for classes. Connecting the tools and idealistic visions of the presentations with the daily realities of the academy will take an investment of time and energy which will probably be worth it in the long run . . . But I also worry that because these technologies change so quickly these particular tools may be outdated as soon as I manage to figure out how to use them.


A disappointment

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:26 pm

I’ve been enjoying the textbook I’m using for World History this fall: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s The World: A History. It covers the entire world in every chapter, and emphasizes ecological and cultural issues which I’ve been trying to slip into my World courses for ages. For the most part, I’m finding it excellent: readable1 , very up-to-date, balanced.

I’m having one conceptual problem with it: the chapters cover a relatively narrow slice of time, in world historical terms, and are topical. Fine: you have to have some organization, and I’m tired of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Asia.” But the divisions hew more closely to Western conceptions of “era” or “epoch” so that Asian history feels choppy. A little more foreshadowing to indicate that individuals/topics are going to come up again in later chapters would be a blessing, particularly with dynasties like the Ottomans and Ming which last a long time.

And then there’s the eternal problem: eventually, every textbook gets something wrong in your field. From the chapter “States and Societies: Political and Social Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”:

  1. He even manages some humor now and then. Discussing the patriarchal social system in early modern Europe he writes, “Widowhood remained the best option for women who wanted freedom and influence. The most remarkable feature of this situation, which might have tempted wives to murder, is that so many husbands survived it.” (p. 643) []


Studying Keene’s Emperor Meiji

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:42 am

Much of my Meiji Japan course is taken up with Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World, 1852-1912. It’s been a pretty good experience, but I probably won’t do it again. I’ve enjoyed reading it1 and my students do seem to be getting a great deal out of it, but it is too long and really fails to answer some of its own critical questions. My students are in the process of writing about it now, and I thought it was time to share some of my own reactions.

As part of the reading process, I created a page of short chapter highlights: one of Keene’s quirks is that the book’s sixty-three chapters are neither titled nor listed in a table of contents. The book is arranged almost entirely chronologically, so it’s not too hard to find what you’re looking for if you know when it is, and it has an index (with definitions of Japanese language terms, so it doubles as a glossary), but it still seems deliberately perverse — or perhaps novelistic — to have such fine-grained divisions without explanation.2


  1. I read through it last year along with my directed study students, but I was doing the directed study on top of a four-course, four-prep semester, so it was a perfunctory read. []
  2. Another moment of perverse traditionalism comes from the pages of untranslated French on p. 707 recording thoughts on Meiji’s reign by the late Itō Hirobumi, Suematsu Kenchō and an “astute” French journalist and p. 709 recording “the sorrow of the Japanese people.” I will add translations of those to the summary page when I have them. []


The race between the Totman and the Hane

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:15 am

Like most teachers, I have a tense relationship with textbooks: too much of one thing, not enough of another; too old, or updated annually; too hard to read, or too simplistic; boring or sensationalistic or, worse, trying to be student-friendly and failing; etc. Still, they are pedagogically useful, as long as they’re not actually harmful. In most of my classes, I use a survey text: ideally, it provides a foundation of basic information, frees me from having to explain everything in lecture. Basic stuff.

But in my Japanese history classes, I’ve been getting away from them. When I offered my Early Japan to 1600 course in 2003, I used Hane’s Premodern Japan. I didn’t like it, though: I’ve always thought Hane’s coverage of issues was quirky, and his politics a bit obvious. When I offered it again in 2004, I dispensed with Hane and used the Encyclopedia Britannica Online for basic narrative background. Maybe it was too early: students just didn’t spend enough time online, or something, and very few of them kept up with it or could make connections between that and the readings. In 2007, I gave up on that, too, and went textbook-free, though I was using Lu’s Japan: A Documentary History which had a lot of good background in it. Mostly, though, I focused on the sources, using the questions raised by the readings to direct my lectures. I thought it was a neat bit of modern pedagogy, almost constructivist: students hated it.1

So I’m reconsidering the Early Japan course now. First of all, I’m shifting the chronology a bit: going up to 1700.2 I still like Lu’s documents, supplemented with literature, for the main event readings.3 But I think a good textbook might be worthwhile. That’s the problem: a good textbook.

  • Hane: see above on coverage and tone.
  • Conrad Totman’s Japan Before Perry: just reissued. Not updated, mind you, and it was assigned to me when I was an undergrad (and I don’t remember it making much of an impression). Anyone used it recently and want to comment on how creaky it is?
  • John Whitney Hall’s Government and Local Power is out of print, for sure, or I’d use it in a heartbeat.
  • I could use a text which covers all of Japanese history, and keep using it for the second half of the course. I used Varley’s Japanese Culture many years ago, and it was updated in 2000. There’s also Walthall’s Japan: A Cultural, Social And Political History, the replacement for the venerable Reischauer/Craig. Varley has the advantage of better context for the literary readings, but Walthall’s likely to be better on the political and economic stuff. Not having seen it, though, I’m a bit nervous.

At the moment, I think I’m actually leaning towards the last option — Varley or Walthall — but I’m curious to know if anyone out there has any thoughts.

  1. The same method actually worked quite well in my Japanese Women’s History course. More than once. Go figure. []
  2. I’m actually giving up on the three-course sequence. I like it, and it makes great historiographical sense. But students never seemed to figure out what was going on in the middle course (Qing or Tokugawa-Meiji) and I think you really need a much larger student body than I’m ever going to have to work with for these courses to actually draw enough audience. I’m not going to the 19c contact=modernity model, though. I don’t think I could stomach it at this point. []
  3. McCullough’s Genji/Heike again, probably, but I need some later literature. Something on drama, with both Noh and Kabuki? []


Akutagawa the Pacifist

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:00 pm

Japan Focus has expanded its mission one more time, this time to include new literary translations! They’ve published a Jay Rubin translation of an Akutagawa Ryonosuke story, The Story of a Head That Fell Off (“Kubi ga ochita hanashi”), which they describe as an “anti-war satire” and put in the context of a large body of untranslated Akutagawa anti-war satires

“Shogun” (The General, 1924), a well-known portrait of a victorious general resembling Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912), the “hero” of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, is a bitter satire of a man responsible for the death of thousands. “The Story of a Head That Fell Off,” set against the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, is an intense cry against the absurdity of war that unfortunately remains as relevant in our barbaric twenty-first century as it was in Akutagawa’s day.

In one brief, startling piece on the political misuse of history, “Kin-shogun” (General Kim, 1922), he incorporated Korean legend into a tale concerning Hideyoshi’s 1598 invasion of Korea.

I admit that most of the Japanese literature I’ve read was translated; I only delve into untranslated literary texts very rarely, but I do try to pay attention to what’s said about literature in other contexts. I’m more than a little surprised that Akutagawa’s anti-war stance never came to my attention before, but perhaps the fact that Akutagawa died in 1927 kept him from becoming a victim of the changing political situation post-1931 and therefore kept his politics a bit under the radar. Also, satire, particularly historical satire, can be very tricky to translate, especially for a general readership which is unfamiliar with the issues, context or style. And literary studies often specifically exclude political history, focusing on aesthetic and “cultural” elements, textual things that avoid the questions of audience and less subtle intentions.

It’s also a bit disconcerting, because Akutagawa is one of the few early 20c authors with which our students have the slightest chance of being familiar, through the famous movie version — and linguistic appropriation of the title to mean a situation of varying accounts — of “Rashomon” (and “In a Grove”, which is actually the story with the varying perspectives).1 It would be nice to have been better informed, and I wonder if my ignorance was common among my colleagues and readers, or if I just missed something obvious along the way.

The story’s pretty good, I’d say. It does have some of that familiar Akutagawa grotesquerie, which allows the characters to go a bit beyond normal polite conversation.

  1. Yeah, I took a look at the Wikipedia article on Akutagawa. It focuses quite exclusively on his more literary endeavors and views, and mentions none of the stories discussed in this article. []


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.


In honor of finals

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:03 am

I was going through some old papers last month and came across a collection of student exam bloopers and exclamations (you’ll see) from what was — I’m pretty sure — a 20th century Japan course I taught back in the 90s. Since the statute of limitations on embarassment must have run out by now, I present them to you for pure entertainment.

  • ALL IS HAZE! (in the corner of the first page)
  • Pretty intense exam (on cover)
  • AAARGH!! MUST GRADUATE! AND FAST! (at the end of a very short essay)
  • (And now a new party, perhaps, will rise from the Underbelly of Satan)
  • They were protected during the Cold War from nuclear invasion.
  • Japan after WWII was in rubles
  • I hope these are enough … if I discuss all of these it will take forever.
  • In a 1984 public opinion poll, Yoshida Shoin was overwhelmingly declared the greatest Japanese figure of the 20th century
  • Argh (at the end of an essay apparently cut short by time)
  • (title of essay): Chia Economy
  • The period following the war was a time of double-digit growth in the Japanese economy. As I am uncertain of which war exactly, I will discuss factors common to the period after WWI and WWII. I believe WWI was the period of double-digit growth.
  • Why couldn’t you have put on some of the 75 IDs I knew?

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