Sharing Syllabi: Japanese Women

Smaller Volleyball Immortals

I saw the immortals overlooking the volleyball court on our recent visit to the Kona side of the island, and felt an affinity. The Waikoloa Hilton is like that. It’s a massive resort complex, complete with its own trams and boat shuttles, littered with art both ridiculous and sublime, much of it Asian in origin or theme. The odd juxtaposition of beach party atmosphere and cultural decor which triggered my professional interest was mitigated only by the fact that our four-year-old still won’t slow down much for art. It all seemed like such a metaphor for Asianists in the American academy…

Anyway, I thought I’d continue the series we started last year and talk about my one Asia-related course this semester: Japanese Women. This is the second time I’ve taught it, and I’ve arranged things quite a bit differently. (First syllabus here) Some things are the same: strong emphasis on primary sources for class discussion and secondary scholarship in the hands of students — reading, presenting, writing about. Like last time, it’s a large group (almost thirty) and it’s a mix of history majors, Japanese studies majors, women’s studies majors (the class counts for major credit in all three departments) and students taking the class out of general or specific interest; lots of juniors and seniors, and — unlike last time — a cadre of students who’ve had classes with me before.

Some of the material I’m using this time is the same: Murasaki’s Diary, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, Hane’s Reflections on the Way to the Gallows, Bumiller’s Secrets of Mariko. I dropped Anne Walthall, The Weak Body of a Useless Women: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration because, as much as I liked it, it was hard for students to see through the politics and exceptional nature of the character to deal with the gender issues (I’m going to be teaching a Meiji seminar in the Spring, though, and I’m bringing it back then). I added two books to compensate: Smith/Wiswell’s classic The Women of Suyemura and the recently translated Women of the Mito Domain by Yamakawa Kikue. I’m more excited about the former than the latter, though the little bit of Yamakawa that we used as a ‘warm-up’ reading this week worked quite well. As much as possible, I like to use autobiographical writing, or first-hand observation. And, like last time, students get to write short papers, priming the pump for discussions, on each of these works.

What’s changed, more than anything else, is the structure of the class. Last time I interspersed student presentations of secondary scholarship and my own lectures with the primary source readings; this time we’re reading primary sources first, with some lectured background, followed by student presentations/discussions of secondary materials (either a monographic work or multiple article/chapters on a subject). What I’m hoping is that this will give students more time and better background before they select their topics and sources

One of the first assignments was to go on the web and see what kinds of information about Japanese women’s history they could find. The results were quite diverse. Some of it came straight from the google search, but there were some outlying items as well, and some high quality resources. I perhaps spent more time than necessary talking about how obsessive interests can be valuable resources for historians and other scholars, and the collective intelligence of the internet. Students did notice the distinct lack of material relating to medieval/early modern women (except geisha) and the odd martial fixation of some of the highest ranked sites. With regard to the big gap between classical and modern women, I am still struggling to find good primary sources which cover that period. I could assign some of the early Tokugawa literature or Noh drama, but I’d prefer some diaristic or autobiographical material, and I just can’t find much.

I might have other syllabi to talk about in the next few weeks. In addition to a upper-level seminar on Meiji Japan, I’ve just been tagged to teach a course in our US-China Masters program, on “Problems and Issues in Contemporary China”; I’ll be giving it an historical spin, of course!


  1. I like your idea of setting up the class into three parts: primary sources, lecture,
    presentation. Last year, some students in my class complained about the primary
    sources as reading assignment. It might be a good idea to read the primary sources
    together with students in the class, raising questions, and then proceed with lecture.

  2. Total self-promotion here, but I just posted a translation of “O-an monogatari”, an 18th-C document which, although probably written by a man, is (allegedly) a reconstruction of stories his great-aunt told him about her sufferings as a young woman in wartime. Not autobiographical, but the next best thing, and very different from the usual “sit around in twenty layers of clothes” court lady stuff…

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