This course explores contemporary debates about the nature of cultural differences through an in-depth study of Japan. At a time when processes of globalization are drawing into question traditional approaches to area studies, this course examines contrasting perspectives on what constitutes Japanese culture. By drawing on materials from history, literature, ethnography, and film (both features and documentaries), we will evaluate different, at times conflicting, paradigms of cultural difference. Substantively, we will explore topics such as the class and gender dynamics of everyday life through the experiences of a Japanese housewife (Secrets of Mariko), the power of media and youth through popular culture (Fandom Unbound), and the experiences of a young woman learning about rural Japan (The Road Through Miyama). The diverse range of materials will introduce students to the different foundations for cultural knowledge. The course teaches is aimed at giving the students the analytical tools with which to evaluate assumptions about cultural difference that inform a wide variety of writings. Although the class will emphasize scholarly work, we will also consider representations in the media (e.g., New York Times articles about Japan) and in popular culture (e.g., in Japanese animation, and American popular culture representations of Japan).
In many ways Japan appears to be a land of contradictions. In mass media, policy forums and academic circles, Japan has become a center of attention and controversy. It is seen as a place of die-hard salarymen, education-obsessed mothers and youth who are either cram-school zombies or pop-culture fanatics. Japan was a brutal aggressor during WWII, but also the only victim (to date) of an atomic bombing. The country's exports have changed the world's entertainment and leisure styles, from Walkmans to karaoke to karaoke and manga. Moreover, aspects of Japanese culture have become part of an international imaginary. Samurai warriors, coquettish geisha, and techno-freak animation characters are part of a global flow of images and ideas that feed back into the understandings of the Japanese.
Too often, however, such superficial images have come to stand for the people themselves. This course is designed to provide a more rigorous grounding in the patterns and experiences of everyday life as well as the aesthetic currents that accompany the historical changes. It is an introduction to Japanese society and culture that aims to replace clichés with cultural analysis.