HY4218/JS4213 Approaches to Modern Japanese History – Discoveries in unexpected places

In this interview, Dr Timothy Amos shares about HY4218/JS4213 Approaches to Modern Japanese History, which will be offered to both History and Japanese Studies Year 4 majors in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

Tell us a bit more about the module! Could you share some memorable experiences you had while teaching it?

The module is basically an exploration of life on the Japanese archipelago. The course starts somewhere in the middle of the 16th century and ends in the post-war period, covering roughly a 400-plus year stretch of time. It’s unusually designed in the sense that it doesn’t conform to any standard periodisation that you’d find in Japanese history. One of the things I’m trying to do in the course is to experiment with periodisation and think differently about what we usually call early modern and modern Japanese history. The focus is very much on the lives of people – social history, primarily – and I’m interested in how people experienced what we might call early modern and modern Japanese history. I’m particularly interested in those people who haven’t had a lot of focus on their lives up to this point in time. With my students, I’m interested in studying the outcast groups, women’s history, people of the underclasses, people who lived in not-so-rich neighbourhoods within burgeoning cities, and so on. Each week, we will look at primary and secondary sources that deal with aspects of life related to these kinds of people in the archipelago.

I’ve taught the class now for ten-plus years, and I’ve had lots of students go through it. The course is unusual, also, because each year I roughly have equal numbers of History students and Japanese Studies students. While they are all fourth-year students, they come bearing very different interests. Each year, I have to make sure that I’m careful to speak to the needs and interests of these two groups, which can sometimes be quite different.

In terms of memorable experiences, perhaps three or four years ago, I’d arranged for us to watch a documentary film on the repatriation of human remains. It was at the end of the course, and we watched a documentary made by a US scholar about a number of scholars and activists who tried to repatriate these remains of Korean labourers during the war back to the Korean peninsula. We were fortunate enough to have the director and producer of the documentary, as well as one of the scholar-activists featured in the film, on a Skype call with us during the class. It was very exciting to be able to ask different kinds of questions to these people about their motivations and some of the other things that ordinarily remain a bit hidden from view in films.

In 2019, I also organised a really big conference on the Meiji Restoration. I think I had thirty-over speakers. Instead of just doing a class on the Meiji Restoration, I got my students to attend that conference, and I changed my assessment for that year so that students would review talks at the conference. Year-on-year, I look for opportunities to mix up the assessments in the course to make it more interesting.

We noticed that the module is dual-coded for History and Japanese Studies majors. How do you merge the two disciplines together in your module?

This is a course that I inherited; I’m not sure how many of these dual-coded modules are floating around, still. It has always been a class that permitted 10 History students and 10 Japanese Studies (JS) students to take the module. I think the idea was to bring both of these groups of students with very different outlooks, understandings, and language abilities together and to learn Japanese history together.

One of the things that JS students excel in is usually the use of Japanese language in reading sources for their course assignments. However, both groups of students have strengths. While JS students tend to have that strong linguistic background, History students tend to have a disciplinary-based training that encourages a certain way of understanding, which holds them in good stead. Even if they might be unfamiliar with Japanese history, they could still imagine the historical processes and get clues about how to interpret the sources, which JS students who don’t come from a History background might not have. 

It’s a challenge to bring the two groups of students together; the JS students might not be interested in History per se, so it’s a bit of a challenge to get JS students to go back 400 or 500 years in time and think about the past. For JS students, I’m hoping that with the discussions that we have and the critical, analytical skills that we use together, the students can learn that these skills are just as effective even if they were working on a topic that covers a period as recent as a year or two ago. Historical skills are relevant right up to the present, so that’s something that I’m getting JS students to learn. 

On the History side, students sense already that Japanese history is pretty interesting, so I’m hoping through the course they can see just how fascinating it is, better than any Harry Potter novel that they could read, for instance. One of the things I also try to emphasise with history students is the fact that it is essential to consider history from the perspective of the lives of the people that deeply matter but have been neglected by historians up to this point. By exploring the groups that have been neglected, I’m hoping to stoke the fire in students’ bellies and be excited about the study of people (among other things) who deserve to be studied but there isn’t much about them yet. I hope that, whether it’s in their honours thesis, or in their future work, that they can go and fill the gaps, so to speak. 

It’s a challenge to balance these two groups of students with not always similar desires and goals, but I enjoy it. 

How might that relate to their understanding of current affairs and the near future?

I have to be quite careful here, because some of the common images of Japan in the early modern period are quite different from the pre-war and post-war periods. For the early modern period, it’s a samurai, geisha level of understanding history, powerful shoguns, women displaced… these images are quite prevalent. I think one of the things I try to do when I talk about modern Japan, which is roughly half the course, is to get students to think about the nature of society, how society was ruled, and what was going on in East Asia. However, very quickly, we’ll focus on aspects of social history, such as Christians in Japan. This subject turns up in Weeks 2 and 3, during Japan’s so-called “Christian century,” and it is there that we will encounter numerous subjects, such as for example, the aposticization of certain Christians. We’ll read primary texts by individuals, for example, to explore the reasons why people who were stridently Christian had, later in their lives, became non-Christian. From there, we’ll think about anti-Christian literature, hidden Christians, Christians who recant, and the marginalisation of Japanese Christians.

The way in which religious minorities can be quickly and comprehensively marginalised is a theme that’s strongly evident in Southeast Asia, China, and lots of other different places. By studying these historical examples, my hope is that students can begin to think about how states embark on that marginalisation process, and what societal discrimination towards religious minorities looks like. Although the examples we cover happen in Japan in the 17th century, there can be very common features across time and space. 

But this is just one example of the way in which what we study together in the course can be seen to have contemporary relevance. The course also looks at the process of the formation and marginalisation of certain “status communities” in early modern Japan; gender-based marginalisation is also a strong theme throughout the course in both the early modern and modern periods.

One of the things I try to be careful about in the course is to show how early modern processes of marginalisation can be very different from more modern ones. Modern forms of stigmatisation are changed and altered through new discourses surrounding class and race, for example. In the course, we try to retain a strong sensitivity towards the processes underpinning marginalisation at a given time and place. There are no assumptions that things remain the same. In fact, part of the objective of the course is to read primary materials and tease out the precise nature of what people are experiencing over time and across great distances, and to figure out together what the changes look like and why they came about.

Race, too, is something that features strongly in the second half of the course. We look at race specifically in the context of the Asia-Pacific war but in a comparative setting. We don’t just think about how race underpins Japanese imperial ambitions but also how race, itself, underpins the project of empire more generally, including in the American involvement in the same conflict. At each turn, we’re focusing on Japan, but I’m careful to put what we’re studying in context and to think about it comparatively. 

Could you share one cool trivia about the module topic?

The thing that I get most excited about in this course, and I think my students enjoy the most too, is the primary source analysis exercise with which we conclude the course. In that assessment, students are required to choose a source and find an illuminating context for it. I leave the definition of the source wide open. I’m very eager for students to bring to the table whatever they want. So far, I’ve had different kinds of source-based projects. Students bring in medallions that their families came into possession of, stamps or baseball cards, music, songs… I’ve had someone present on a grave marker. Students choose and work on all kinds of things that can be considered as primary sources, and their job is to provide an illuminating context for it. It requires digging into secondary material for context, as well as creatively thinking about what the source actually is, why it’s created and who it’s created for. Students present their source and offer their illuminating context and then receive feedback from their peers as well as myself. I think it’s a really fun way of reminding us why we do History and why it’s fascinating.

I remember, many years ago, visiting a second-hand bookstore in Japan and buying a book. I opened it up, and there was an old pre-war postcard in it. It was written in cursive script, so I couldn’t initially read it, and I remember spending time figuring out what it said, as well as who sent to whom and why. It was so much fun, and I realised that this is what the discipline is: we’re investigators, and the core of doing History is loving to look stuff up and understand it. I try to capture these things in the course as well, because if you don’t like doing that, you’re probably in the wrong discipline. It’s not to say that all histories have to be the same, but I think the core activity of investigating is part and parcel of the discipline in general.

Finally, do you have any advice for students who might be interested in your module?

The module is reasonably advanced, since it’s a fourth-year module. At the same time, I’ve designed it in a way that it would be student-driven and allow students to follow their interests. I would encourage students to take the course after studying Pre-Modern Japan with me (HY2208 Pre-Modern Japan: History and Culture), or other modules by Dr Chatani, Dr Lee and Dr Masuda. Having done a bit of Japanese history would be good, and if you haven’t, maybe just pick up Andrew Gordon’s A Modern History of Japan and have a bit of a read during the vacation. There’s also a book that introduces Japanese History by Oxford – it’s quite short, probably a hundred-odd pages, but I think even something like that would be helpful. 

I don’t assume people have a strong knowledge, so I spend the first couple of weeks covering historical background, but I think it’s helpful to have a bit of advanced study to understand better and get maximum reward from the course. 

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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