There are plenty of stereotypes about graduate students, but one of the most persistent images is that of the intellectual snob. Using obscure words in everyday conversations, sprinkling buzzwords into explanations in class, and name-dropping the scholars or theorists they’ve studied. When I decided to continue to my PhD, these were some of the real fears I had—was I not smart enough? Would I not fit in? Would I never find a down-to-earth person who would be my friend instead of my competitor? Of course, stereotypes are just that—sometimes rooted in a grain of truth, but overall a generalization that can be dangerous, offensive, and very much untrue. Sure, there are some intellectual snobs out there, and sure, there are some truly intelligent people who are nice as anyone else and just seem to operate on a whole other level. But my real fear of this gap, whether hostile or amiable, was where I, as a student of Japanese Studies and East Asian Studies moving into the broad arena of a History department, fit into this fearful mix of unknown PhD students in the intellectual field. My biggest concern and problem? Theory.
Theory: What is a student of area studies supposed to do with it? Who is important to know? And more importantly, why in God’s name hadn’t I had any before I got here? When I entered my new History department, I was overwhelmed; I was the only person strictly pursuing an East Asian area in my research in a huge incoming cohort, and one of only two premodernists. The people around me were largely post-nineteenth century Americanists and Europeanists, and many if not all of them came from backgrounds in history, anthropology, even archaeology, where the big names of Western theory loomed dominant and intimately woven into decades of research. They had Western philosophy and theory from the very beginning of their academic careers, whereas I was lost in a sea of names.
Some of you (particularly BA students) may wonder, when I say Western theory, who am I talking about? These are people like Karl Marx, Georg Hegel, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Max Weber, Benedict Anderson, and Walter Benjamin, to name a few past and present. And equally important, particularly as non-Western theorists that question Western theory, Edward Said, Dipesh Chakrabarty, et al. For those unfamiliar with philosophy and theory, that list was probably one long heart attack. That’s exactly how I felt entering a history program. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who were couching their explanations in terms of “That’s so Foucauldian,” or “It seems as if the author is taking a Derridian approach in his framework.” Don’t get me wrong, my cohort is an incredible group of people who are kind, supportive, and are by no means academic snobs. But as I sat in class with these fellow future historians, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of fear and ignorance of all that I did not know.
This mild terror raised an important question for me: What is the place of theory in Japanese Studies, and when should we learn it? Most area studies programs, whether BA or MA, will likely offer some kind of methodology/methods course to help prepare you for a future in the field. But what should a Japanese Studies department teach us about Hegelian theory? Are Foucault’s ideas on discipline applicable to East Asia, or do they feed into, as Said or Chakrabarthy might argue, the tendency to (potentially erroneously) approach the study of Asia using Western, post-Enlightenment views of what history or reason is? Especially as a premodernist, theory never really held much relevance in my work (and being inherently bad at abstract philosophical concepts, I avoided it like the plague). My undergraduate methodologies course focused primarily on reading different types of sources on Japan and discussing the content and approach the authors took, as well as getting exposure to some of the dictionaries and compendia that exist in Japanese scholarship. At the MA level, a Japanese bibliographies and research methods course that took a similar approach to using libraries was only offered every other year, was not required, and I unfortunately missed it when I spent my second year abroad. I came into my PhD with a total of nothing under my belt about theory and most methodological approaches. When my MA advisor asked me about my thesis research proposal, he said, “What sort of theoretical/methodological framework are you taking?” I stared at him blankly, unable to even come up with an invented reply.
If you ask any professor in the humanities right now, especially history, you’ll probably be told that the biggest emphasis in the slowly recovering job market is on the ability to do comparative studies. Just knowing Japan is not enough anymore; if you know Japan, universities will want you to teach on China or comparative East Asia. If you study colonial America, they may expect some trans-Atlantic linkages and maybe prefer the ability to teach on European or African fields as well. Any program probably expects you to know at least one other foreign language so you can examine international scholarship. When I was applying for PhD, every department was emphasizing the multiplicities of context and having a “transnational” approach. But when you’re an East Asia area studies student, particularly premodern, the likelihood that you’ve read up on theories of modernism, postmodernism colonialism, postcolonialism, etc. is low; suddenly you’re lost treading water on the open sea of scholarship.
This is not to imply, of course, that our undergraduate and graduate programs in Japanese Studies and other areas of East Asia are failing us completely or inadequate to give us the education we need. Every year enrollment in Japanese Studies is rising, the number of scholars increasing, the level of expectation for future students going up as our knowledge becomes finer tuned to new discoveries in the field. But the field itself, all fields, really, whether history, literature, anthropology, etc. are changing along with our increasingly international world, and students should be aware that they need to also develop accordingly.
As an undergrad, I, naively, never thought that as a medievalist I would need to be familiar with Western theorists (a bullet happily dodged, I thought). Yet as I read some writings by the foremost medieval scholar, Amino Yoshihiko, I noticed that he was apologizing for his early Marxian views of medieval Japan, which he reconsidered in his later work. I wondered, as I read this, what it exactly it meant to be a Marxist historian. And to fully understand Japanese scholarship from Amino’s time, apparently I needed to know. To understand what my colleagues thought in class about Ranajit Guha’s reconsideration of colonial peasant history in India, I needed to know what Chakrabarty said about rethinking history. To grasp Silverblatt’s reconsideration of modern state through the bureaucracy of the Spanish Inquisition, I needed to know about Hannah Arendt’s political theories.
I asked around with my fellow Japanese Studies majors and graduate students and tried to figure out if our lack of theory experience was a common problem, or just mine. The general consensus was that teachings in scholarly theory and philosophy don’t typically happen within Japanese Studies programs at the undergraduate level, though one person who was an anthropology major with an interest in Japan was taught major theorists—but only by professors that were relatively young, who had obtained their PhDs in the 2000’s. Everyone else said that graduate school was the first time they seriously encountered theory. But most of my cohort? They don’t come from area studies, especially not East Asian studies, and these ideas were already firmly under their belts.
So where does that leave those of us in Japanese Studies?
At the welcome breakfast this past fall, one of our speakers said to us, “Welcome to the History department, we like to be intellectually promiscuous.” All joking aside, there’s different layer of truth to that statement: we need to be intellectually promiscuous. We need to expand the understanding of our field and explore great thinkers regardless of whether or not their work may be applicable to “Eastern” studies. For modernists, I think this may be a somewhat easier task, as the question of the West’s influence in Japan raises many theoretical and comparative questions about things like modernity or postmodernism. This year I read excerpts of T. Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy, a book that deals with the role of the Meiji emperor in Japan’s modernization and draws heavily from Foucault’s theories of panopticism. If I had never read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, this book would have likely ended up thrown across the room in frustration as I failed to grasp the nuances of the author.
It is not my intention to lecture about the failings of our Japanese studies education; rather, I want to suggest that our field is ever-evolving, ever-expanding, and we simply cannot afford to close ourselves off from the vast sea of worldly scholarship. In my first semester as a PhD student, I quite purposefully took a course on theorists and how their work applies to the study of Asia. Nearly every single work we read overlapped somehow with and/or was directly relevant to the variety of texts used in my Introduction to Comparative History course. I felt frustrated, and a bit angry, that I’d never pushed myself to learn these things earlier, but so incredibly grateful to be closing a gaping hole in my knowledge. How could I, not knowing the first thing about these ideas, ever hope to function in the discipline of history, with colleagues and professors in other fields? How could I fully understand the comparative implications that will become so essential to my future career (and the interviews to get there)?
Perhaps theory does not have a place in undergraduate methodology courses that already struggle to convey the complexities of Japanese scholarship to students only beginning—perhaps it is something best saved for MA or PhD levels. But what area studies lack, we ourselves should recognize and endeavor to make up for if we intend to seriously pursue academia. If you, your fellow friends, or your students, think that this path to an even higher education is for them, I highly suggest investing in courses in philosophy or theory as early as possible, anything that will take the first steps down this arduous path and start to open up international and interdisciplinary doors. My own shortcomings have made me realize that in Japanese Studies, we may have a problem—in theory.
I would love to hear what everyone else thinks about this, or what kind of experiences they had in theoretical teachings. When did you take classes on the big thinkers? Did you go from an area studies program to a larger discipline that gave you a new perspective on this topic? I welcome comments and questions!