My name is Jonathan Dresner, and I consider myself a very lucky man. I had no particular interest in Japan or history in High School, until I spent a year in Nagoya. I then became interested in Japan, but still wasn’t interested in history: after finishing up a degree in Japanese language, I decided, in an act which seems in retrospect incomprehensibly uninformed, to take up the study of history as a way to answer my questions about contemporary Japanese society. I had never liked history in high school, didn’t care for it much in college. I did have an interesting teacher during my junior year at the Keio International Center, a classical Japanese Marxist who was less impressed with the Great Buddhas than he was interested in the number of people who died producing them.
Still, I applied to graduate schools in history, and after turning down Hawai’i’s East-West Center as “too far from home” I decided to go to Harvard. I had no idea what I was doing. Now I admit that I’d always been a nerd, but graduate school was nerd heaven: spending all of my time studying the things I was interested in, with lots of other people interested in the same things! Though I didn’t entirely realize it at the time, since I had so little training in history, studying with Albert Craig, Hal Bolitho and Akira Iriye (and later, Andy Gordon) was a real treat. My initial idea was to study the early development of Japanese views of foreigners, particularly Jews, by studying journalism and education as the pathways of the formation of non-elite opinions.
Another stroke of luck: a failed relationship. Seriously: an offhand comment by my advisor, Albert Craig, in reference to my grad-school girlfriend led me to realize that I could study Japanese emigration as a concrete example of information gathering, processing and decision-making by non-elites with regard to foreigners and overseas conditions. At that point my perspective shifted from a cultural/intellectual historian to something more like a social historian. I also followed her to Berkeley for two years, which was a dumb thing to do for a relationship that wasn’t that healthy, but which allowed me to study in a very different department with very different methods, and to work with Andrew Barshay, Irwin Scheiner and especially Mary Elizabeth Berry, as well as soaking up a great deal of Asian American studies (in which field I’ve done most of my book reviewing).
Somewhere between Berkeley and Harvard and Yamaguchi, I realized that the sources I needed for my cultural/anthropological study didn’t exist. I also realized that the answer to my initial questions were actually pretty easy and pretty clearly laid out in existing scholarship. But I did archival research in Yamaguchi, where, in another stroke of luck, the Prefectural History Compilation office was in the process of working on their Modern Sources collection. So I would go into the office, and they would give me an index of the sources they’d catalogued, and I’d pick out the ones I wanted…. Aside from the writer’s block, graduate school was great. Only took me twelve years, start to finish. In the end, my research was about local history, global migration, economics and politics, big businesses and former peasants, and there are about three different directions I want to take this research. More about that another time.
Some of that time was also spent teaching, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I really, really like doing that, too. Talk about luck. Teaching has required that I become much more of a generalist than my graduate courses and reading prepared me for. In the process, though, I’ve realized that I’m not just interested in Japan, but in history as a discipline, in world history as a field of study in itself, and in history education. I’ve always taught as a generalist: 1/3 of my teaching has been either Western Civilization or World History surveys, and Japan-related courses have never been more than 1/3 of my teaching. I love the broad view, the sweep of world history, the comparative exercises, the interactions and cross-fertilization: this is part of why I am a member of the group weblog Cliopatria, part of the History News Network project. My initial impulse to get into history was to understand the present, and I still believe that history is the field which most successfully integrates all the social sciences and, though it remains more art than science, best explains who and where we are today.
As much fun as I’m having as a generalist, I also want to be — need to be, professionally and personally — a specialist. So, I’m here.