An Interview with Professor Suzuki Jun of Faculty of Letters and Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, the University of Tokyo

Interviewer : Yijiang Zhong (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia)

Suzuki Jun, Professor of Letters and Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology

Prof. Suzuki, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed today. I have three main questions to ask. First, your opinions about studies of Japan here at the University of Tokyo. Second, your opinions about Japanese Studies in general in both Japan and overseas. Third, your suggestions for the development of the Global Japan Studies network. First, could you introduce your field of specialization?

My field of specialization is history of machine industry of the Meiji period. But because there are only two professors of modern Japanese history, me and Prof. Kato Yoko, in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, we have to supervise PhD students who study topics having nothing to do with machine industry or diplomatic history of Showa Japan, the field of Prof Kato. As a result, we have to accommodate a variety of student interests by opening seminars on urban history, government, and political history. In universities overseas, history is often a faculty of its own. It is different here. There are many professors of Japanese modern history at Todai but only two of us are at this department which is directly involved in education of modern Japanese history.

Two people is certainly too small a number.

So we receive support from other professors by asking them to accept our students to their seminars and supervise thesis. Nevertheless, it is our responsibilities to supervise our students until they finish their thesis. It is also true that in our engagement with students our own research perspective expands as well. This is of course welcome.

How many students are you currently supervising?

About ten graduate students.

Ten? That is a lot.

Seven of them are still in the stage of coursework and three are writing their thesis.

I believe that is quite time-consuming.

Right, especially during thesis supervision. We can compare it with overseas universities. In the U.S., when people finish their PhD thesis, they read and comment on each other’s thesis in order to revise them to be books. In Japan, however, this is rare. There is not such a kind of relationship between PhDs and not everybody’s thesis is ready. As a result, I have to help them to prepare their thesis for publication as books. That’s why thesis supervision is time-consuming.

That must be the case. One thesis have hundreds of pages.

Right. To transform thesis to a book requires application for publication funding and substantial revising of the manuscript. But in Japan, there is no institutional arrangement to facilitate this process. In particular, we don’t have the university culture of reading and critique of each other’s work.

I see. Although there are seminars, students read primary sources rather than each other’s work.

Yes. At a seminar, students present once on primary sources and once on their research. Two presentations altogether for one seminar. Besides this, students organize research groups and they conduct certain amount of discussion there. I am telling students repeatedly to keep that format and continue to reach each other’s work after finishing their PhD thesis. But it is difficult to sustain it because many people find jobs immediately after graduation.

So there are two professors of Japanese history in the Faculty of Letters.

There are two professors in modern Japanese history. Here, Japanese history is divided into ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern periods. There are altogether six professors covering these four periods. Students come here because this is the PhD program of the University of Tokyo not because of the professors. That makes it necessary for two of us in modern Japanese history to supervise a variety of research interests of students.

Are there students working on the postwar period?

There is one student in Prof Kato Yoko’s seminar starting on postwar Japanese history. There are also students who studied the prewar period and graduated but returned to study the postwar period after working for some time. In April 2015, for the first time, a student entered the Master’s program after writing a BA thesis on postwar Japan.

In the U.S., study on postwar Japan is increasing.

Yes, in the U.S. it is a lively field now, especially on the occupation period.

On the contrary, very few people study medieval and early modern periods any more. From your perspective, what are the overall characteristics of study of Japan at Todai?

When talking about Japanese history at Todai, we have to start from the Historiographical Institute. Japanese history education at Todai started by teachers from or associated with the Historiographical Institute. Such people as Kume Kunitake and Shigeno Yasutsugu emphasized the importance of primary sources and promoted historical research focusing on collecting and reading source materials. But the Institute does not study modern Japanese history. So we have to start from collecting primary sources ourselves at such places as the Constitutional Government Archives (Kensei shiryō shitsu) of the National Diet Library or houses of document-owners. Most distinctive of historical study at Todai is its source-oriented feature. As our educational principle, we emphasize evidential research and let students to decide what perspective to bring in for interpretation of the sources.

Study of Japanese history overseas such as in Germany or the U.S. belongs to area studies. How do you characterize the study there? What are the differences from studies in Japan?

Indeed Japanese studies in these countries are area studies, but it is part of the entire area studies field which encompasses studies of history, anthropology and so on which examines the entire world. This is their largest merit. All kinds of ideas emerge from studies of other countries and are then applied to Japan. Japan is placed in the study of history of the entire world.
  In the U.S., for example the history department of Yale University, there are about twenty people in American history with their respective specializations. They can focus on a small span of period and develop their own features. I envy them. It is an environment where you have a comprehensive image of the world while at the same time many people are working on their own country’s history and ideas are born. These ideas are then used to ask questions about Japan. Rich ideas emerge which you can’t find when studying Japan alone. Furthermore, students who share your interests and questions come to study with you. In the conversations research goes deeper for you and the students. France also has strong research on its own history. There are about twenty historians of France even in regional universities in France. In the case of Japan, it is quite regrettable. There are many scholars in Japan as a whole but they have to look after their own students having little time to deepen their own research.

I heard in Japan scholars connect by way of academic associations rather than through universities.

There are the Historical Science Society of Japan and The Japanese Society for Historical Studies which are large associations in Japanese history. University of Tokyo students of modern Japanese history however seldom join these associations. Rather, they join more specialized ones such as those in economic history, political science, or diplomatic history. There is the Socio-Economic History Society which is close to my field.

Does the Socio-Economic History Society include history of other countries or just of Japan?

It is only the history of Japan but there are associations focusing on other countries.

Historians of Japan overseas, like myself, rely on historians in Japan for primary sources. Without the sorting out of source materials, in particular kuzushiji materials, into print form by Japanese historians, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for historians overseas to conduct their research. In this sense I think the question is how to connect and combine the strength of both historians from Japan and from overseas. You pointed out this difference. It is the goal of GJS to make this happen. May I ask about your advice on this?

This is a rather difficult question. But it seems to me the two are already in some ways connected. There are some foreign students who studied with me. Most of them come from China and Korea. I try to communicate with them and support them. On the other hand, I hope Japanese students familiarize themselves with research in English. But it would be helpful if there are more opportunities within Todai for students to access research overseas. Whether students want to go out of Japan is up to them to decide. Knowledge about historical studies in English language remains superficial here at Todai so it would be helpful it Todai becomes the venue for obtaining that knowledge.
  Prof. Nakamura Naofumi of the Institute of Social Science is hosting a research group in which I also participated. This is a very important format. I am urging graduate students in Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology to participate in Prof Nakamura’s research group. But this research group is operated by Prof Nakamura single-handedly. It should be systematized and practiced more widely at Todai. Japanese specialists overseas want to come to Todai but we don’t have a venue for them to give lectures. We don’t have lodging or office for them either. Nevertheless, if they know people of Todai, most foreign scholars will be happy to give lectures here. They seek connections with Japanese scholars. We don’t yet have that kind of network.

Exchanges with foreign scholars in Todai, as you pointed out, is a very realistic observation and advice.

We should try our best to disseminate this kind of information. For example, in Graduate School of Agriculture and Life Sciences scholars on Japan from the U.S. convened a symposium, but I would not have known it if not for a professor from the school who told me about it. Information is not widely shared in Todai.

Indeed. Information is not being circulated university-wide.

I am subscribed to the mailing list of Asian Studies at Yale University and I get a lot of announcements. We should be more active in networking. Actually both graduate and undergraduate students at Todai are very interested in obtaining information about research overseas. It would be great if we have a website that everybody including students can view for this kind of information. Maybe you already have such a website. It is important to further make it known to more people.

You are absolutely right. Right now information of GJS events is not reaching students. But we have a plan to make participation in GJS lectures into a credit course.

Making it a credit course is one method. Another important point is to develop the institutional setting that can respond efficiently to people who want to speak at Todai. This is something meritorious for both Todai and scholars overseas.

Indeed, so far nobody who was invited turned down the invitation. It is a valuable chance for scholars from overseas to be able to speak at Todai. The point you made is very practical.

Although at present students of Japanese history don’t have strong foreign language skills, I think it will be ideal that first-year undergraduate students at Komaba access research overseas and get solid training in Japanese history, and then move on to graduate study in the U.S. or other countries. This is very important for the internationalization of Japanese historical studies. So I would be grateful if you can advertise this to students at Komaba campus. It would be interesting to join discussion on Japanese culture in the U.S. with solid knowledge in Japanese history but we don’t have an environment that fosters that kind of desire in students. Todai undergraduate students in their first two years at Komaba are probably not taught that there is a world of Japanese studies in Europe and the U.S. You mentioned credit course, which department will grant the credit?

GJS has an education and a research component and lectures and seminars are in the research component. The credit course is meant to connect the education and research components.

I see, so seminars will become education.

Prof. Fujiwara Kiichi in the Faculty of Law and Graduate Schools for Law and Politics is in charge of GJS education. So very likely the credit course will be taught by Prof. Fujiwara. Another possibility is Prof. Sonoda Shigeto of Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies who is also a key member of GJS.

Maybe GJS lectures and seminars can be integrated into the University Open Seminars as a credit course. For example, students can come to GJS lectures three times and write reports to receive a course credit.

Thank you for your valuable advice. We are thinking about turn GJS seminars and lectures into a credit course by asking students to participate say, ten times in an academic year. But it would be easier to blend GJS events into current curriculum.

Right. University Open Seminar should be relatively easy. But I am not sure whether students at Komaba can make it to GJS events. It depends on time schedule. It may be necessary to organize GJS lectures at Komaba.

GJS seminars are scheduled at 5PM on Thursdays.

Oh, so the time is set.

It takes about an hour to get to Hongo from Komaba.

Then fifth period on Thursdays seems difficult.

This is one possible format. Some people can make it some can’t.

You know, first-year students want intellectual stimulations. But it is said when they come to Hongo they lose their vitality.

This is probably not the case.

We will change. It is our job to make students motivated.

Prof. Suzuki, thank you for the rich conversation and valuable advice. I would like to conclude today’s interview. Thank you very much.