Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Year in Review

It's been a pretty interesting year with a cat-and-dog Democratic primary with Hilary and Barack, the ultimate election of Obama, $4 gasoline that fell to under $2 in the blink of an eye, and an economic disaster brought on by deregulators like McCain (economy is fundamentally sound) and his economic adviser Phil Gramm (nation of whiners). I'm not sure I could have guessed in January that we'd be where we are right now. It's been a pretty crazy year.

In comparison, my year has been pretty mundane, just busy.

  • During the spring semester, besides the four courses I taught, I judged haiku written by K-12 students for Mid Atlantic Association of Teachers of Japanese (MAATJ). This sounds pretty hard--most of my colleagues would never even touch something like this. But I find it invigorating that there is such interest in young students in the DC area. I hope they come to study at my school when they graduate.
  • At the end of the spring semester, I gave a lecture at the Foreign Service Institute--a branch of the State Department--on Japanese literature. Mostly its to provide cultural background for those going to Japan, so I positioned the lecture as a lesson on Context and Intertext. That is, how text in Japanese literary history is used intentionally to influence each other over the centuries.
  • In Fall, I taught my usual four courses again. I was also the keynote speaker at the MAATJ group at the Foreign Language Association of Virginia held in Richmond, VA. I talked about haiku and how to incorporate it into class. Perhaps more significant was the reassignment of a colleague of mine. Finding a replacement was not so hard as both she and I were planning to take successive sabbaticals this academic year and we already had someone lined up to replace us both. What I wasn't prepared for was the workload of program coordinator. Usually, a coordinator teaches two classes, but I did not get any course release and taught my normal load. I would have at least appreciated a bonus, but as it turned out, all I got was a pat on the back for university "service."

Amazingly, with all this work, I still had time for J-Drama. My students laugh, convinced that I must not be that busy. It's probably the only thing that kept me from going crazy. I allowed myself the luxury of totally escaping work for a few hours a week, thereby preventing a mental breakdown. We gotta do what we gotta do, y'know?

The saddest thing for me this years was the totally inept UCLA football team. *sigh* Will I ever live to see them win a National Championship? Go Bruins! (please?)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Cheer

Yesterday was the only day I go to school this week and next, and guess what? I get a package. There's no one on campus, no one in the department, except me.

"It's either work or an important Christmas card," I tell Mr. Fedex.

"It's from a CB," the delivery dude said and looked at me in anticipation.

Aaah, CB. A former student who graduated a year ago. She's was as cute as a button, and as sharp as a tack. One of the best and most insightful student I had in my Lit in Translation course. She often came to office hours to say "hi" and chat a bit, and we got to know each other pretty well considering that she never studied anything else related to Japan. She told me that she wanted to invite me to a "distinguished student dinner" last year, but refrained as it conflicted with my late class. I ended up going anyway when another student asked me. I never pass up a free dinner.

Anyway, the last thing I remember of CB was at the end of Finals period last year. She came by the office to say "good-bye" and that she enjoyed the classes from her "favorite teacher." We hugged and she left for bigger and better things on the West Coast.

"Ah, my girlfriend in California," I smiled at the delivery dude.

He grinned as I signed for the package, and he descended down the hall seemingly pleased at the thought he was delivering joy instead of work over the holiday season.

I knew better, of course. As any experienced professor could have easily deduced, inside the package was a request for a letter of recommendation. *sigh*

Merry Christmas Eve everyone!

Monday, December 15, 2008


"Takes a licking but keeps on ticking."

That's how an old Timex commercial went after abusing the watch by placing it in a stram of water, or run over by a car. I think they had an elephant step on it once, although it actually broke. Hahahah. Well, after this semester, with all the extra work as coordinator, but the same heavy teaching load, I'm beat. Like that Timex watch, I too took a licking, but I keep on ticking even with this, as of today, 53 year old body...

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Next Fall semester, I have an extra slot to teach.... ha! Like I need another course to teach! So I've submitted the following proposal for the Dean's seminar to teach a course on The Tale of Genji.

Genji, the Shining Prince, was not just about a dilettante and playboy, although I can understand such comments by students in a survey course of Japanese literature. But when a student compares this icon of Japanese literature to a suspect on MSNBC’s “To Catch a Predator”—even in jest—I am compelled to consider a course dedicated to a deeper appreciation of one of the masterpieces of Japanese literary history, The Tale of Genji. A Dean’s Seminar would provide an appropriate venue for such a course.

Misconceptions concerning the Genji are not limited to my students. The Japanese novelist and nun, Setouchi Jakuchō, regards Genji’s actions as more than seduction: “It was all rape, not seduction.” If Setouchi—a recognized “expert” on classical literature in Japan—can make such a comment in a New York Times interview (1999.05.28), then comments such as those uttered by my students should not surprise anyone. Using an abridged version to accommodate a survey course, that covers more than a thousand years of poetry, chronicles, diaries and essays, simply compounds the problem. All available abridged versions primarily cover the early chapters when Genji is young and sexually active. As a result, even an astute reader such as Virginia Woolf fails to capture all that the Genji has to offer. In a review of the first volume of Arthur Waley’s Genji translation, Woolf writes: “Some element of horror, of terror, of sordidity, some root of experience has been removed from the Eastern world so that crudeness is impossible and coarseness out of the question, but with it too has gone some vigour, some richness, some maturity of the human spirit.” (Vogue, Late July, 1925) Such conclusions, based only on the first few chapters, are unfortunate but inevitable. Time, effort and, of course, reading the entire text are necessary to appreciate fully the Tale of Genji.

The Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu (b. ca. 973-d. ca. 1014), provides a view into the culture of the Heian court, a place both foreign yet somehow familiar. For example, political power was controlled by a branch of the Fujiwara family, a control based on political maneuvering: Through the mid-Heian period, Fujiwara leaders arranged for their daughters to become the primary wives of succeeding emperors, ensuring their position as imperial advisor/regent by virtue of being the grandfather of the crown prince. In the Genji, this legitimacy is challenged when the Genji—charismatic and beautiful since birth—is born of a lesser imperial consort. His mother is literally bullied to death and the emperor’s primary wife reveals herself to be an evil step-mother, coddling her own son the crown prince while tormenting Genji. The emperor, all too aware of the situation, ensures his son’s safety by assigning Genji to a distant branch of the imperial line, thereby disassociating him from any issue of succession.

However, knowledge of the political and cultural realities of the time is not the only requirement to appreciating the Genji. Japanese literature is notorious for its open-endedness. Anyone who has read “In a Grove” by Akutagawa Ryūnoske—later made into the film Rashōmon—will have experienced the Japanese sense of non-closure. This is certainly the case in the Genji, in which the main character dies with one quarter of the story remaining. The narrative continues, focusing on Genji’s descendants and how they are influenced by his past actions, whether by karmic affect or a confluence of circumstances. The effect on the reader is an appreciation of the open-endedness of life as portrayed in a story that seems to continue on regardless of the absence of the protagonist. Life goes on no matter who dies.

A course on the Tale of Genji will deal with topics such as these, through readings of the main text and selected secondary sources. The main text is a recent translation by Royall Tyler (2001). The fact that it is in translation should not detract from any appreciation of the tale; Tyler has provided a translation that is remarkably faithful to the original, making it just as accessible as the Genji monogatari translated into modern Japanese for college students in Japan. Secondary sources will provide insights that will lead to deeper discussions and analyses of the story. Ultimately, the course will reveal the vigor, richness and maturity of the human spirit in the Genji that was lost on Woolf, while encouraging diversity in thought and flexibility in opinion for our incoming Freshmen through an understanding of a world centuries away.