MO3335 Fall 2014

The Japanese Empire and Its Aftermath

I’m writing this review half a year after the end of the 2014 end of this module, so this year’s review will not be a full one. Instead, I’ll record a few thoughts as I think through how I will teach this module again (for a third time) this coming fall.

This course has some unusual elements to it. A very large proportion of the readings and discussion are on Japanese colonial rule, especially in Korea and Taiwan, and its wartime empire in China and elsewhere. In other words, geographically the classroom discussion spend an almost equal amount of time in Korea, Taiwan, or Manchuria, as in Japan proper.

This is not a traditional survey course on modern Japanese history. I have had students drop out of the class when they learn, in the first week, that they will learn far less about Japan, domestically, than they might have originally thought. I designed the course in part out of a desire to move a bit away from a situation in which the story of Japanese colonialism and wartime empire are fit either into a Japan-centric approach, or taken up piecemeal in courses on the national history of China, Korea etc.

I’m still not fully satisfied with the module as I have designed it. One of the real challenges is that most of my students have never studied the history of East Asia before. It isn’t surprising, then, to find that some of my students struggle to get a command over not only some of the basic background necessary to understand the Japanese context, but then, in addition, the complexities of the Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese contexts that dominate the themes from week to week.

Some possible solutions to this include:

  1. Stop trying to be comprehensive, and focus on one colonial experience in far greater depth
  2. Ditch the Japanese wartime empire so less time is spent trying to understand the differences between Japan as a colonial power and the shift to its later invasions and innovations in Manchuria etc.
  3. Shift the focus, as some other courses I have seen on Japanese imperialism do, further to the Japanese domestic political and social context.

I’m not terribly happy with any of these alternatives. There is a great deal to be gained, I think, in thinking about both Taiwan and Korea, with nods to Okinawa and Karafuto. Leaving out the wartime empire is dangerous, I think, because it risks carving out an image of Japan as “just another colonial” power along with Britain, France, etc. without seeing the important ways this transforms in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, I also don’t feel comfortable shifting too much more of the time to the domestic context, because it is the experiences and challenges of those under Japanese imperial rule that I think gets all too often left out or reduced to a side theme except within narratives of resistance and suffering in courses on, for example, Korean national history. The course already has close to have the weeks being heavily Japan or Japanese intellectual/political in its focus, and I’m reluctant to shift any more in this direction.

I think I will leave the structure in place, and continue to experiment with ways to help students adjust by improving the readings, which are still not well balanced and sometimes poorly chosen for some weeks.

Some ideas

  • I’m going to introduce some of the changes to course structure that seem to have worked well in my China course MO3337
  • I’m going to introduce some pair-writing exercises that have worked in a module I co-taught with a colleague
  • I’m toying with the idea of creating, in some weeks, a three track reading process. The idea would be that students would choose from three sets of readings each week: Korea focused, Taiwan focused, or a third set depending on the theme (which may have to do with Manchuria, China mainland, or Southeast Asia), then have at least one student from each make short informal presentations on their reading in class for comparison.
    • This approach could be fantastic, but it creates certain challenges for me: I will need to be even more careful in crafting my examination questions to ensure that no matter what set of readings the students chose, they will be able to write a solid exam. One solution to this is to shift to a 100% coursework model.