井の中の蛙

Postings by Morgan Pitelka

Contact: morgan [at] froginawell.net
URL: http://www.unc.edu/~mpitelka/

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.

The Soul of Japan

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 10:28 pm

I’m teaching a survey course on premodern Japanese history this semester. It focuses on medieval and early modern Japan, and I wanted the first paper to deal with a big question in the secondary literature and the second paper to deal with a similarly big issue by looking at primary documents (in translation). After perusing a range of materials, I decided to assign Donald Keene’s recent book Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan (Columbia University Press, 2003). The book is readable in its narrative and straightforward in its method, such as it is. The central argument of the work is stimulating but impossibly large. The New Yorker, surprisingly, put it best in its brief capsule review:

This enterprising account by the doyen of Japan studies demonstrates that the quintessential Japanese aesthetic—which characterizes Noh drama, sand gardens, monochrome ink painting, shoji panels, tatami floors, and the tea ceremony—was the creation of a staggeringly incompetent fifteenth-century shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa. His military record was dismal and his domestic life a shambles: his domineering wife abandoned him, his nanny (who probably doubled as his mistress) may have intrigued against him, and a favorite concubine took up with his dissolute son. While warfare destroyed Kyoto and the corpses of famine victims clogged the Kamo River, Yoshimasa squandered his treasury, bringing obsessive perfectionism to such matters as perfume blending. He ultimately abdicated to become a Buddhist priest, devoting himself to the development of the restrained, Zen-influenced style exemplified in his famous Silver Pavilion. Keene’s multifarious learning and engaging manner illuminate the improbable story of the fastidious aesthete whose taste has been so important in forming the look of the modern world.

I asked my students to evaluate Keene’s proposition that the Silver Pavilion and its associated cultural practices represented the “soul of Japan.” Because we hadn’t yet studied late medieval or early modern Japan, I asked them to assess the argument in the context of fifteenth-century Japan, and the results were quite varied. Some were outraged that any scholar would claim that the cultural practices of the shogun and the capital’s aristocrats–even with their occasional plebeian origins and some signs of dissemination into the provinces–could be lifted up as the soul of anything other than elitism. Others dismissed all these cultural endeavors as Chinese imports that would only become Japanese with time. A few were regular Keene cheerleaders. One really stopped me in my tracks by noting that though Keene is happy to juxtapose Yoshimasa’s political failures with his cultural successes, he doesn’t ask the obvious question about the ramifications of this odd marriage of influence and abjection: does it matter that Keene’s soul of Japan is founded on staggering incompetence? Isn’t that worrisome?

Keene’s book is aimed at a popular readership and like most of his work avoids explicit theoretical questions, and in fact most engagement with secondary literature in English and Japanese, which is unfortunate. We do need a detailed, scholarly study of the Ashikaga shoguns and their cultural production in English. Still, I like the fact that the text is completely accessible to undergrads, unlike most publications on medieval Japan, with their panoply of specialized terminology and untranslated Japanese terms and titles. Keene has done us a favor by writing a book that opens some big questions about the nature of political failure and patronage in medieval Japan without really closing any doors. Maybe this book, with its lively depiction of a period that is less and less studied not just in undergraduate classrooms but in graduate seminars, will help bring more people back to the study of premodern Japan.

Any reaction? Land of the Sinking Sun

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 1:36 am

Guardian reporter Justin McCurry weighs in with an interesting commentary on Japan’s role in the financial turmoil currently roiling across the globe. (more…)

The Crazy Guy for Prime Minister, Please

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 12:28 am

OK, admittedly I am supremely unqualified to write a post about the current prime ministerial vacancy in Japan. I’m a historian who works on the 16th century, not an expert in contemporary politics. And many people have their eyes fixed on the Palin-Biden-Clinton-McCain-Obama slugfest. But this story–Manga-obsessed, Stanford- and SOAS-educated, former Olympic skeetshooter, cement CEO, Catholic, and regular conservative crazy talker Aso Taro is front runner for the job of Prime Minister–is just too interesting to pass by.

Will the man who made Doraemon Japan’s cultural ambassador be king? Too may politicians have entered the race to be sure at this point, but he is at the head of the pack, having previously aimed for the office three times without success and this time apparently claiming the right mix of experience, LDP credentials, and public popularity. Tobias Harris says Aso isn’t the right man for the job, if such a figure even exists, but it seems quite likely that he will end up landing the post (in elections to be held in October or November) according to recent coverage in Japanese newspapers.

Some commentators see recent public discomfort with LDP leadership as a sign that a major political reallignment is imminent, but it just seems hard to imagine. Are the times a-changin’, or will Aso return the government to stability? More importantly, will manga become required reading on unversity entrance exams?

Otakon: Desperately Seeking Academics

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 11:15 am

I hear through the grapevine that the organizers of Otakon, the huge anime/manga/pop culture convention held every in August in Baltimore, are looking for academic papers and panels on East Asian art, history, and culture to round out their offerings. Interested parties should contact Omar Jenkins, Head of Programming.

Images of Late Medieval Disease Critters and Meiji Toys

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 8:47 pm

Japanese historical visual materials are becoming available online in increasing quantities and variety, as seen in two posts from the last week from Pink Tentacle and BiblioOdyssey. The former posted an entry titled “Mythical 16th-century disease critters” which introduces a text owned and published online by the Kyushu National Museum:

Harikikigaki, a book of medical knowledge written in 1568 by a now-unknown resident of Osaka, introduces 63 of these creepy-crawlies and describes how to fight them with acupuncture and herbal remedies. The Kyushu National Museum, which owns the original copy of Harikikgaki, claims the book played an important role in spreading traditional Chinese medicine in Japan.      

BiblioOdyssey’s post introduces a database of late 19th-century, early 20th-century water color depictions of toys. These seem to be by Koizumi Kawasaki (1877-1942): “Japanese Toy Design.” 

Add these to other resources like the Nagasaki University Library’s Metadata Database of Japanese Old Photographs, Database of Nationally Designated Cultural Properties and the Tohoku University Library’s Kano Collection – Image database.

Conference at the Huntington Library

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 8:37 pm

I’ve been wanting to write about a wonderful local resource, the Huntington, for a long time, but couldn’t figure out how to work it into a post. It is located in the wealthy town of San Marino, an interesting community just south of Pasadena. The Huntington (or, to use its full name, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens), has one of the best archives in the country for British and American history and literature, 15th century European books, history of science, maritime history, and Renaissance exploration and cartography. The place has the manuscript collection of Jack London, for cripes sake. They also have an excellent research library that has a surprisingly large number of Japan-related items. In fact, the last time I searched under “Japan” I got more than 1800 hits – we’re not talking about Japanese-language materials, but still, some interesting things can be found. Their art collection, which focuses on British and French art of the 18th and 19th centuries, probably has some ripe examples of Japonisme, though I haven’t investigated.

Most fun, perhaps, is the Japanese garden, which Kendall Brown wrote about in his book Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast. The garden is a wonderful example of American Japonisme and Orientalism that embodies, in a physical landscape, certain ideas about “the East” from the early 20th century. It was, after all, “collected” by the railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927). Like many Japanese-style gardens in the region, it’s questionable authenticity has not prevented it from becoming both a major tourist destination and an important community resource for Japanese Americans. It also happens to be incredibly beautiful, like the sprawling cactus garden, the extensive Australian garden, the British herb and rose gardens, and the newly installed Chinese “Garden of Flowing Fragrance.”

A lot of people, particularly scholars who work in American history, spend time researching and writing, and enjoying the grounds, at the Huntington during the week. It’s not a bad life, from what I can tell. The research program includes conferences, fellowships, and other interesting opportunities.

So, finally, I wanted to mention that the Huntington is hosting a conference, April 4-5, 2008, titled “Pacific Passages: Connecting East, West, and Center in the Pacific Basin.”

Histories of the Pacific, histories in the Pacific, histories around the Pacific—the proliferation and increasing prominence of Pacific history offers various ways to conceptualize its geographies and understand its peoples. This conference examines different approaches to Pacific histories and cultural encounters throughout the Basin and also considers oceanic frameworks as a historical methodology.

The schedule includes two papers that are obviously related to Japan, and others may also be related: David Howell, “Homeland Security: Preparing for Foreign Invasion in Late Tokugawa Japan” and Andrea Geiger, “Cross-Pacific Debates about the Contours of Race and Class: Meiji-Era Japanese Immigrant Challenges to North American Categories of Exclusion.”

To register, email skrasnoo@huntington.org or call 626-405-3432.

“Early Modern” Periodization

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 9:28 pm

I participated in a symposium on February 1st hosted by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Institute, on the topic of early modern periodization in East Asia. It was an exciting event with mostly big-name speakers (I was drafted in as a replacement!) including Kenneth Pomeranz, R. Bin Wong, John Wills Jr., Samuel Yamashita, John Duncan, and Jahyun Kim Haboush. The audience was substantial, prompting the organizers to move us to a much bigger conference room. I counted more than 60 people, implying a great deal of interest in the topic.

It seemed clear from the start that some presenters assumed that “early modern” referred to something real in the histories of Qing, Choson, and Tokugawa Japan, while others saw the term as at most a useful interpretive and comparative tool. The discussion devolved (predictably? unfortunately? amusingly?) into a debate about comparative history. Some participants suggested that using the period “early modern” compromises our ability to study East Asian histories on their own terms, forcing research and analysis into categories invented in certain parts of Western Europe. Others unpacked “early modern” in specific historical and cultural contexts. Still others argued that periodization schemes like “early modern” presented historians of East Asia with the opportunity to engage with historians of Euro-America, to highlight the scanty evidence marshaled in the narrative of the rise of Western modernity, and to move Asia to its rightful place in world history: the center. In my paper on the material heritage of Tokugawa Ieyasu, I made the argument that museums are where much popular education about the early modern takes place, essentially unacknowledged (and, unfortunately, unexamined) by historians of “early modern” East Asia.

In the final discussion of the day, as debate swirled back and forth on this issue, one fact became clear, perhaps winning the argument on the side of the “early modern” doubters better than any grand attempt at persuasion could have done: in the huge crowd of graduate students, scholars, and a few visitors from the general public, only one historian of Europe or America was present, and she was essentially required to be in attendance because of her role in founding and naming the USC-Huntington Early Modern Institute. The hackneyed phrase from the movie “Field of Dreams” comes to mind, except in reverse: even if you build it, they won’t come. In other words, even if a bunch of famous historians of East Asia hold a symposium on a term invented in European history to discuss its broad relevance; even if that event is hosted by an organization dominated by historians of Euro-America; and even if it is held at one of the biggest universities in southern California where lots of historians congregate; they (meaning historians of Euro-America, the group that the comparativists want to engage) won’t come. Of course I care about how badly East Asia is represented in the media, in public education, in much popular culture, and in the writing of many (not all, of course) prominent historians of Europe and America. But if the attendance at this symposium is any indication, adopting this comparative terminology, which often is not a particularly good fit for the diverse regions of the world, is not the answer.

Asian Studies Toolbar

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 12:36 am

A recent exchange on H-Asia mentioned the Asian Studies Toolbar, which I first read about in March of last year when the maker, John Noyce (“a librarian turned writer/historian”), wrote about it on the same list. At the time I was very disappointed to read that it only worked on Windows. However I just successfully downloaded and installed it on Firefox running on my iMac, and it is AMAZING. It allows instant searches of a variety of Asian engines and blog aggreggators, it lists hundreds of Asian academic and popular journals, newspapers, and other sources as live RSS feeds, and it even includes blogs related to Asia – including the three flavors of Frog in a Well. Links to online atlases, image banks, and other sources really make this a useful tool.

2007: Japan Top Ten Year in Review

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 7:44 pm

OK, fellow bloggers and Japan-watchers, I’d like to propose that we participate in the mass hysteria that is the year-end-review list. What media stories from or about Japan deserve our attention this year?Here are my top 10, organized roughly in chronological order (for lack of a more meaningful schema):

1. Ando Momofuku (1910-2007, also Go Pek-hok), inventor of Instant Ramen, died January 7, 2007. His origins in occupied Taiwan, entrepreneurial rise in Taibei and later Osaka, and of course the growth of his business from a local salt producer to national noodle maker to international tycoon is a perfect metaphor for the history of Japan in the 20th century.

2. Matsuzaka Daisuke started training with the Boston Red Sox in February, 2007. His six-year, fifty-two million dollar contract with the team that would go on to easily win the World Series (with significant participation from Matsuzaka) is a sign of the huge growth in value of top-flight Japanese players who choose to switch to U.S. baseball.

3. The Institute of Cetacean Research, Japan’s pseudo-scientific cover program for ongoing commercial whaling, called off whaling for the 2007 season in late March because of a fire on the Nisshin Maru. This issue seems to never go away.

4. Matsuoka Toshikatsu, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in the Abe cabinet, committed suicide on May 28, 2007 amidst a financial scandal. Looking back, this was perhaps a small sign of the imminent collapse of the Abe administration.

5. On the same day, Mori Riyo was crowned Miss Universe, inspiring new scrutiny of the beauty pageant industry in Japan and a new representative abroad. Particularly fascinating was Mori’s claim that she has “a samurai soul.”

6. On July 16, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake off the coast of Niigata prompted worry about and international attention to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. The plant, which can contribute up to 6% of Japan’s electrical energy, was shut down to allow safety inspections, which are ongoing.

7. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo resigned on September 12, 2007. The son of Abe Shintaro and the youngest postwar Prime Minister, Abe had come under increasing pressure from a divided Diet as well as strong criticism after poor election results, and himself seemed to suffer from worsening health. His administration lasted for less than a year.

8. Multiple members of Kigenkai, a religious cult, were arrested for murder after the beating death of a female member in September. Kigenkai, which was founded in 1970 and claims to be a traditional Shinto organization, produces Kigensui, a purified water that the sect claims can cure illness and disease.

9. English conversation school Nova filed for bankruptcy on October 26, letting go of more than 4,000 teachers and leaving hundreds of thousands of paid students without lessons. Some commentators cited Nova’s huge spending on marketing and advertising as the root cause; others pointed to the government’s cuts to vocational education funding in 2003.

10. As of November 20, all foreigners entering or living in Japan were required to undergo fingerprinting. This will, logically, prevent terrorism.

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