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Japanese Culture Courses

Here are some of the Japanese Studies courses that are regularly offered. Be sure to check our course gallery and the LSA Course Guide to find out everything being taught in a given semester.

ASIAN 200: Introduction to Japanese Civilization: Japan Before Today

Most of us think we have a pretty good idea of what Japan is probably like. It’s so present in American culture today that even without having been there, many of us can list off any number of things Japanese: sushi, Hello Kitty, ninjas, and the world’s first robot dog. But what we generally think about less often is how all of these are products of Japanese culture’s rich and complicated development over time. This course is intended to take you back to the “beginning” around the turn of the last millennium — when rival chieftains appealed to the Chinese court for recognition before there was a Japan as such — and to move forward through the late 20th century — an age of giant cell phones and fears that Japan was going to buy up the U.S. — to better understand the culture, people, and history behind the phenomena we all know. With a few “flash-forwards” into the 21st century, we will explore Japan’s culture and history through literature, documents, film, and experiential hands-on learning. By the end, you will be able to understand such things as the origins of the warrior, the meaning of “Zen,” Japan’s response to WWII, and why Hello Kitty has no mouth.

ASIAN 246: Make It New: Modernism and Modern Life in Japan

What is modern? When is modern? Now? Last week? Could it be. . .1875? Modern has a history. This course is about the idea and the experience of being modern in Japan, as seen in literature, film, the arts and philosophy from the 1870s to the present. After the end of "samurai" Japan, writers, artists and ordinary people turned their thoughts to what was ahead. They also reflected on immense changes in the world around them. The result was a century and a half of experimentation in how to describe modern life. The course starts with the era of "civilization and enlightenment" of the 1870s and 1880s, cuts to the modernism and anti-modernism of the 1920s and 1930s, explores the return of modernity as an ideal after WWII, and finishes with the world of the otaku, "superflat" aesthetics, and the cyborg in the 1990s and 2000s. From the start of this journey, writers, artists, and others faced nagging questions: Must modern Japan be "Western"? Is a Japanese modernity possible? We try to answer these questions as we trace how ideas of the modern evolved. No knowledge of Japanese is required; some knowledge of Japanese history and society will be helpful.

ASIAN 280: Japanese Narrative Design Lab

How do Japanese narrative arts work and how might we reverse-engineer them to design stories of our own? The Japanese Narrative Design Lab blends critical analysis with creative work, prioritizing hands-on exploration to teach students about Japanese visual culture and the mechanics of dynamic storytelling. In this experimental seminar, we will study Japanese art forms to glean techniques for fabricating new visual narratives. We will dissect medieval tales, noh and kabuki plays, illustrated handscrolls, paper-dramas, manga, and anime to determine what makes them tick. Our close textual and artistic analyses will then guide creative projects where we generate narrative objects in the style of works like The Wondrous Origins of Mt. Shigi, The Tale of Genji Scrolls, Blade of the Immortal, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Akira. Through a range of individual and collective assignments, students will learn how to read original materials closely and then progressively translate their insights into components like plotting, scripting, tracing, layout, inking, coloring, and storyboarding. We will make use of analog (brushes, scroll paper, ziptone screens) and digital (Procreate, Manga Studio) resources for art creation as appropriate. All students will keep a sketchbook and complete regular drawing and writing assignments. The main goal of this course is to train you to become better critical readers of Japanese narrative through practice-based creative work. By the end of the course, your skills of analysis and communication--written and visual--will have improved substantially. You’ll also be a better artist!

ASIAN 311: The Image of the Samurai

The samurai has gone global. Once a soldier and vassal, "samurai" can now mean anything from oriental predator to ghetto avenger. How did this happen? What is the history of the image of the samurai? This course starts in twelfth-century Japan and ends in the global present. Tracing how the image of the samurai developed over time, the course looks at warrior tales, illustrated scrolls, Noh plays and other drama, fiction, and film. We will balance the reality of samurai lives—as soldiers, bureaucrats, paupers—with what samurai meant culturally, politically, and philosophically. Along the way we will examine how Europeans and Americans saw the samurai, how people in Japan reacted, and how "samurai" finally became a transnational signifier.

ASIAN 314: Strange Ways: Literature of the Supernatural of Premodern Japan and China

What is the supernatural? In this course, we will look at the writings and art of pre-modern and early modern Japan and China to explore this question. In both countries, there is a rich and varied tradition of literature on the strange or supernatural that stretches back more than a millennium. But rarely, if ever, are these accounts solely about the ghosts, monsters, and foreigners they feature. In addition to making “good reading,” they also say something about the ideas and values of the societies that produced them. Our investigation will approach the question of the nature and meaning of “supernatural” from a variety of angles. In addition to familiarizing ourselves with the changing contexts of the supernatural, we will also use creative projects to produce our own art and literature of the strange as well as a comparative project to tie what we learn about the supernatural to our own lives and the world around us.

ASIAN 440: Dialogue of Violence: Cinema of the Pacific War

At this present moment with a resurgent fascist politics around the world, this course will explore the relationship of WWII’s Pacific Theater to moving image media in two movements. The first half of the course is a comparative history of Hollywood and Japanese filmmaking during the war, exploring issues of fascism, race, nationalism, propaganda, and violence. The second half of the course continues to analyze these problems by turning to post-1945 attempts to remember, critique and commemorate (or forget) WWII in media as disparate as cinema, television, video art, and the Internet. Specific topics include the Japanese invasion of China, Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the radical violence at the front, the role of women at the homefront, and the atomic bombings—And how all this is remembered and used today.

ASIAN 443: Literature of Empire

What were the boundaries of the Japanese empire during WWII? While we might most often think of them in geographic or political terms alone, the reality muddied lines of ethnicity, culture, race, and language. In this course, we will examine the continuous redrawing of the edges of the wartime Japanese empire in terms of its interaction in literature (and some film) with other Asians and Europeans. By examining materials such as short stories by colonial subjects who had to write in Japanese or “cultural introductions” by Japanese diplomats who sought to persuade their Nazi counterparts of their worth, we will come to understand how language, literature, and the arts—both German and Japanese—were important tools for creating and promoting images of imperial Japan both within and beyond the Japanese state.

ASIAN 442: Gender in Japanese Literary and Visual Culture

How have gender and sexuality shaped the production of literature and visual art in a Japanese context? This course examines Japanese literary and visual culture through the lens of gender and sexuality from the 10th to the 21st century, with attention paid to the intersectional and transnational aspects of these cultural forms. In addition to situating these texts and debates within their historical contexts, we will read closely to understand how their aesthetic properties and political implications overlap. Students will trace how discourses of gender and sexuality emerge at different historical moments and learn how to read and write critically about how they are deployed to different expressive and political ends. Topics to be discussed include aristocratic courtship, medieval prostitution, temple pederasty and religious misogyny, samurai masculinities, erotic woodblock prints, transvestism and gender impersonation in theater, “poison woman” narratives, imperialism and Orientalism, modern feminist debates, queer studies in Japan, and postwar dance. Some previous coursework in literature, Asian studies, visual art, creative writing, art history, or gender studies recommended.