Associate Chair and Associate Professor of Pre-modern Japanese Literature
Current research interests:
I came to the study of medieval Japan via a winding path—from an undergraduate degree in German to three years on the JET Program in Osaka Prefecture, a second BA in Japanese, and an MA in Chinese, before finally settling on the literature and historiography of late-twelfth- through fourteenth-century Japan as my area of primary research for my doctoral dissertation. I suspect that it is in some part a result of these wanderings that I am particularly interested in issues of language and identity as well as the circulation of texts, motifs, and intellectual traditions both within and beyond Japan.
For me, these questions are of special resonance within a context of disorder—when societies are falling apart or regimes are being newly established, issues of how to strike the balance between normative and revolutionary or how the discourse of legitimacy from a displaced regime can be deployed to empower its replacement take on additional urgency. I am fascinated by how people use languages and texts to construct order out of chaos or to make claims to authority.
My work centers on Japan, but for me, this means Japan embedded in larger regional, intellectual, and cultural networks. In particular, preoccupations with classical China and Chinese haunt many of the texts that draw me. My recent monograph, Reflecting the Past: Place, Language, and Principle in Japan’s Medieval Mirror Genre (Harvard University Asia Center, 2020), engages with both the graphological and literary/intellectual legacies of China as part of a larger investigation of the meaning of writing history in medieval Japan. Analyzing the medieval histories known as “Mirrors” (鏡物), I argue these works constitute the definitive genre for processing the past between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. When read in the web(s) of texts and events that shaped each Mirror and were, in turn, shaped by it, the Mirrors collectively demonstrate how medieval thinkers in search of an authoritative voice used the same tools—language selection, a symbolically charged setting, and the shape of the narrative itself—to advance competing narratives that appealed to court- and bakufu-based thinkers alike. I also explore the more explicitly literary curation of China in Japan in multiple articles, most recently “Making Meaning: Lexical Glosses as Interpretive Interventions in the Kakaishō” (Journal of Japanese Studies, 2021).
While I am primarily a classicist, my interest in the power dynamics that underlie language selection in cross-cultural exchange extends beyond the medieval period. This is in large part what drove my translation of Taiwanese author Wang Changxiong’s Japanese-language story Honryū 奔流 The Torrent (Japan Focus, 2017). As another means of exploring this issue, I am currently working on a project that looks at the discursive boundaries of the Japanese empire and the use of language(s) in texts that served as means of cultural introduction, exchange, or mediation between Taiwan, Germany and Japan in the 1930s and ’40s. Some of the early results of this research have appeared as “Refracted axis: Kitayama Jun’yū and writing a German Japan” (Japan Forum, 2015) and “Unsought Knowledge: Japanese Contributions to National Socialist Writing” (in Wissen über Wissenschaft, 2021).
This research has been made possible by the generous support of the Japan Foundation, the Hakuho Foundation, and the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan.
Both my undergraduate and graduate courses tend to have a cross-cultural focus—these include courses on Japan’s cross-cultural ‘encounters’ with China & Europe, pre-modern Chinese & Japanese literature of the strange, pre-modern Japanese representations of China, and literature of the imperial period, including works produced in Taiwan, Japan, and Germany.