Course Profile: A History of Japanese Visual Culture (HIST 24609)

Diana Funez
Photo Credit: 
Steven Zucker, Flickr, CC

Exploring the Life of the Object

To many students, Japanese visual culture might bring to mind watching Godzilla destroying Tokyo, reading the popular manga Hunter x Hunter, and admiring the art of Spirited Away. But a new course this Winter Quarter offers students the opportunity to go deeper into the history of this modern culture.



According to Professor James Ketelaar of the History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations Departments, “some objects are so old that you have to wonder ‘Are they Japanese? Are they Japanese because they were found on the island that is now known as Japan?’ Because when they were made Japan didn’t exist yet.”



These are the kinds of questions Ketelaar plans to raise in his course, A History of Japanese Visual Culture (HIST 24609). Through readings, films and visits to local museums, the course introduces students to historical interpretation of visual artifacts ranging from ancient times through modern day anime, manga, and film.



Ketelaar wants to challenge students to think critically about modern and ancient visual imagery. “I’m interested in how ideas and culture interact,” Ketelaar said. As an example, he cited how one iconic symbol of Japan has evolved from ritual to entertainment. “[The Art Institute of Chicago] has a 2000-year-old artifact that is a sumo wrestler,” he said. “And we have to wonder: why do we see this sumo wrestler in a tomb where a sumo wrestler today is on TV?”



This artifact can be found in the collection of Haniwa, or tomb figures, he said. “It served as a testimony to the strength of the people (wrestling was an event staged before the kami (deities) in celebration of the community).  Sumo, like music and dance were all part of divine celebrations to bring the kami and the people together.  It was always a form of ‘entertainment’ in other words; the sacred aspect of this entertainment has been thinned over the centuries though.”



In his research, Ketelaar treats modern visual media like ancient artifacts. “Film is studied as the past, as a historical document. We work with the visual and how to think,” he said. In a previous course that focused on film, Ketelaar screened The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi) a 1945 feature directed by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa faced issues with censors, surprisingly for opposing reasons.



“The Japanese thought it was too defeatist, and the Americans didn’t like it because they felt it celebrated Japan,” Ketelaar explained. To understand how each side could form such different readings, he said he took on the “burden of historical interpretation” and walked students through the development of the story to kabuki play to film that led to the perspectives of the Japanese and Americans.



Among the readings that students can look forward to are The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari) and The Record of Yoshitsune (Gikeiki) which both center on a twelfth century civil war in Japan and tie into the event depicted in the Kurosawa film. “Translations of the kabuki play will also be brought in here to show how War Tales, Historical Chronicles, film and theater all work with ‘historical events’ in distinct ways,” said Ketelaar.



In addition to studying these films, artifacts, and readings in class, students will visit the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Smart Museum to speak with curators and experts in art history and learn more about the goals of museum collections. “The Field Museum collects things for different reasons than does the AI, and the Smart too is distinctive in its interests and parameters,” Ketelaar said. “They also display them differently.” Students will learn about ‘the life of the object’, he said, and consequently the course is cross-listed with Art History.



Students are the major reason why Ketelaar enjoys teaching at the University of Chicago. “They are genuine and engaged,” he said. “They are willing to take intellectual risks.” Though Japan is his passion and he considers it a vibrant field for the kind of visual analysis done in this course, Ketelaar wants his students to experience new approaches to History itself.



“I’m not interested in students memorizing the emperors of Japan,” he said. “I want them to think in a crucial, engaged sense about why there were Emperors. I want them to think critically about engaging with the past.”