East Asian Languages & Culture
This course will introduce the major historical, social, cultural, and artistic traditions of Japan from the Neolithic period to the present. Our approaches will be both chronological and thematic.

First, we will consider how Japanese civilization developed in and through history. While this course is a survey it is not meant to be comprehensive or to tell “the story of Japan” in an unbroken narrative. Instead, we will focus on specific epochs and moments in Japanese history that reflect the changing status and roles of aristocratic, monastic, Shogunal, and merchant culture; the transition from a feudal to a modern society; war and recovery; natural and manmade disasters, and the formation of the modern Japanese nation as we know it today.

Second, in our study of Japanese civilization we will also engage with six major themes: 1) cultural encounters; 2) national identity; 3) religion; 4) gender; 5) war; and 6) the environment. Throughout the semester we will examine how these themes express the changing social and political landscape of Japan. We will also use these six themes to engage fundamental questions such as: What is the nation of Japan? Who are the Japanese? Through the twentieth century, intellectuals and cultural leaders in Japan were strongly focused on the idea of “national character” or kokuminsei 国民性. Is there such thing as a national character?

In addition to these objectives, this course will serve as an introduction to humanistic inquiry by helping students develop basic academic skills that will help them throughout their college career and beyond. These skills include the ability to identify and use of primary and secondary sources; critical thinking, writing, and looking; and, a facility for expressing ideas orally to peers, both in formal and informal settings.

• To study keys aspects of the history and development of Japanese civilization.
• To develop critical and analytical tools for looking, reading, and writing about Japanese history and culture.
• To identify and differentiate between primary and secondary sources as well as learn how to use them.
• To understand the historical relationship between texts, objects, and images, as well as our own relationship to those objects.
• To become comfortable and fluent in expressing your ideas aloud in front of others.

The Lotus Sutra (AKA Saddharmapundarīka sūtra, 妙法蓮華經Miàofǎ liánhúa jīng, Hokke kyō, etc.) is one of the most widely revered scriptures in the world and it is by far the most popular Buddhist text in East Asia. We will read (an English language translation of) this book in its entirety and it will constitute our main focus. We will also be studying various aspects of the philosophy, doctrine, and practice of this sacred text through secondary sources and images. In this class we will range widely, examining, for example, the idea of “skillful means” (a notion that combines ethics and ontology), Buddhist theories of language, practices of the body, visual culture, notions of gender, and other topics. The course assumes a working knowledge of Buddhist doctrine, but even people who have taken a basic course on Buddhism will certainly be stretching to understand some of the material we cover. That is well and as it should be; the topic of Buddhism is a vast and unbounded one, as is indeed the topic of the Lotus Sutra. We will move forward together with an attitude of mutual respect and joint exploration. Towards that end, pairs or trios of students will be responsible for introducing the week’s reading and leading discussion each class meeting. We will establish this order at the second class meeting on 1/30. This course will demonstrate how one book can contain worlds and inspire centuries of philosophical development, doctrinal debate, literary production, artistic endeavor, and ascetic practice.

The learning goals of this class can be summarized under three rubrics: 1) becoming better readers; 2) developing proficiency in oral presentation and in the facilitation of group discussion; 3) working towards mastery in research and writing. While the “content” of this course is very interesting and valuable, the deeper point is to focus on growing as a reader and a communicator. The practice that you have here in comprehending difficult and unfamiliar material and making intelligible and relevant to yourself and others is the real work. The ultimate objective is to sharpen your skills of reasoning and analysis through thinking, writing, and talking while learning more about Buddhism.