The last few posts on here have been focusing more on the things I am reading and although I do inject my thoughts into those posts, I thought that it may be fun to deviate from the usual strictly books-only posts and discuss something a little more personal: why I study Japanese Literature and how I ended up here – particularly since this is not the route I originally started on.
My relationship with literature, in general, is a very cliche one: my interest in books, like most readers, has been around since I was a kid. My mother was always very against TV, video games, and so on, so I spent a lot of my time reading. I was also very introverted and was, generally, afraid of people – so books were a happy escape. Due to this affinity towards books while I was growing up, I eventually decided to major in English Literature at university..
.after being a biology major and premed for all of one year. Anyway.
My undergraduate institution was a great place to be, but it was very traditional in the courses that it offered, so the English department was very focused on set time periods and authors, as opposed to theory or more explorative topics. In fact, the very first time they even offered a course that devoted time to theory was in my third year. Even then, we covered topics that I now consider very basic and, frankly, out of vogue with what was happening in the broader field – for example, we studied narratology, structuralism, and a very tiny bit of post-colonialism. There is nothing wrong with any of this stuff, but I remember that it was all packaged as very “cutting edge” and even radical in a way, when this stuff is very commonplace and, at the end of the day, not very radical anyway (aside from post colonialism). From this description, you might think that I regret where I went to school – but I don’t at all; I definitely received extensive training in very classical philosophies and aspects of literary or critical theory that has served me well.
That being said, another downside to the place was that (at the time I was there) there was no East Asian department, let alone a Japanese department. The only courses offered were either language courses or survey courses on the history of Asia. Since the institution was so narrow in its Japan-related offerings, I always believed that studying anything that we would call “Area studies” essentially meant you would only ever teach language courses with that type of degree and all that you could ever study was language. Because of that, I was never interested in stepping foot in any East Asian department – ever.
Although I was happy studying English literature, by the end of my undergrad degree, I was beginning to feel that the field was a bit stale for me. When I was doing my Master’s degree, I tried to rekindle the interest I had in English by focusing on the aspect I loved the most: theory. I found affect theory and trauma studies to be fruitful for my thesis, and I began inching towards non-Western imperialism in terms of postcolonial studies. But I still found that I wasn’t really excited by English literature anymore. It was because of this “falling out of love” feeling that I ended up taking, on a whim, a class in the East Asian department with someone who I came to find out was a huge scholar in the field: Michael Bourdaghs. The reason why I name him here is less about showing off a CV and more to bring attention to someone whose work really showed me how compelling East Asian studies can be. After taking his course and seeing him give a paper presentation at a regional conference, I realized that his comparative approach was exactly the type of scholarship I was looking for. I could still bring in all the theoretical background I gained from my days working in English into Japanese studies and gain new insight into the nature of literature, writing, subjectivity, and modernity. So even though I have a MA in English literature, I study Japanese literature now!
Since focusing on Japanese literature as my object of study, I have been able to push theoretical boundaries much further and I have been able to do comparative work that I find more impactful than what I was doing in English. There are more stakes for me in this area of study and, on the flip side, it allows me to just enjoy reading novels in English for fun now – so all in all the switch was a good one for me. I thought I would share this with any interested parties because I know a lot of students follow me on IG and, although I have many, many friends who found their area of study and stuck with it for years, I think there is no harm in changing direction if that is what calls to you. Likewise, I have learned that there is no “right way” to do graduate work. I remember when I was younger I always believed that you must move from undergrad to graduate studies immediately if you were going to be of any use at all to academia. This is simply not the case. Again, I know many people who did go straight to graduate work after finishing their university degrees, but I also know many who took a year off, a few years off, a few decades off, even. I also know people who switch fields in the midst of their graduate studies. All of these people have a lot to add to the conversation and all of these paths are interesting for me to hear about.
Hopefully this was interesting for you to read as well!