When I arrived for the first day of classes at summer school in Tokyo, I was worried. My worries were those that most students have at some point: would my courses (intensive Japanese and Japanese Literature in translation) prove beyond my capabilities? Also, how would I cope in this new social situation? My attempts to decipher a Glaswegian classmate’s accent four years previously had proved taxing enough: I hoped that I had gleaned enough from studying Japanese history that I would not cause any offence during my one month stay. Thankfully, however, these worries proved unfounded and soon faded from my mind, which was absorbed in the pleasure of reading Tokyo.
This pleasure that I discovered came in two forms: reading Japanese and reading Japanese literature. Having already studied two Japanese courses at the University of Edinburgh’s own Centre for Open Learning, I already had some very basic conversational Japanese, but my grasp of written Japanese was still quite poor. My intensive Japanese course at Sophia University changed that significantly. Through two hours of class each day (and a good many more of personal study in the evenings) I learned hiragana and katakana (the two syllabic Japanese scripts) and 50 kanji (the logographic characters shared with Chinese, of which there are over 2000). An anecdote from my daily commute to the University demonstrates the difference this made: each day I took the Tokyo metro, and two successive stops always puzzled me “Ginza” and “Higashi-Ginza”. They were the only two stops that didn’t have (to my ears) radically different names. For all I knew “Higashi” was the area of the city next to Ginza. That was until I understood that the kanji “Higashi” means East. Though I felt, for a transitory moment, like I had just discovered the Rosetta Stone, this is one small example of how my increased understanding of Japanese transformed my experience of Tokyo.
Then there was Japanese Literature and the City (as our course was called). As a joint honours graduate of Literature and History, I have always been very interested in understanding the latter through the former. In my dissertation on the Allied Occupation of Japan, I used novels and films as historical sources. In this expertly taught course, I found a vindication of this viewpoint. Whether it was the contrast between junbungaku and taishubungaku (canonical and popular literature), the significance of Japan’s literary prizes, unique Japanese literary forms, or the prevailing influence of works like The Tale of Genji, or authors like Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kenzaburo (Japan’s two Literature Nobel Prize winners), my understanding of Japanese culture grew through understanding Japanese Literature. Our focus on Tokyo-based literature also once again transformed my mental map of one of the world’s largest cities.
Ultimately I also learned many things in Tokyo that I haven’t had space to mention here. But whenever I think back on the sheer deliciousness of katsudon, the friends I made, or the things I saw, I remember: it all started with reading.
Shibuya’s (in)famous Spider Crossing.
The Temple of Hachiman in Kamakura
A market area in Asakusa.
The tomb of Tokugawa Iemitsu in the Tosho-gu temple complex in Nikko.
Japanese Literature and the City (I am second from the right in the front row)