Friday, December 7, 2018
Corey Creekmur

Japan Foundation Trip Report, Corey K. Creekmur

With the generous support of the Japan Foundation Institutional Support Grant to the University of Iowa, and with additional support from International Programs, I was able to accompany a small group of my faculty colleagues on my first trip to Japan in late July and early August of 2017.

While I have been fascinated by aspects of Japanese culture since I first saw a handful of Japanese films as a teenager, and even took Japanese language and literature courses in college, Japanese studies did not become the focus of my academic career: my primary research is on American and Indian (Hindi) cinema, and on American popular literature, especially comics.  However, I remained attentive to Japanese cinema and comics (manga), both of which I have often incorporated into my teaching.  However, despite my continued interest, I had never managed to visit Japan: in fact, two previously planned trips to Japan had to be canceled, so I felt that this trip was long overdue, and jumped at the chance to take it.

The itinerary Professor Kendall Heitzman designed for our trip could not have been more effectively or creatively constructed: it took us where first-time visitors have to go (especially the major cities of Tokyo and Kyoto) while also exposing us to locations few tourists (and even, I suspect, many scholars of Japan) ever see.  This plan provided a vivid impression of the variety of modern Japan, and offered a range of experiences at all levels, extending from the notable differences in regional cuisines and modes of transportation to the sheer sensory opposition between urban and rural spaces: even our varied lodgings, which included a Godzilla-themed hotel in Tokyo, a thatched-roof farmhouse in Hattoji, and a renovated machiya (wooden townhouse) in Kyoto, provided an unfolding lesson in the architectural diversity of Japan.   Indeed, one of the most illuminating results of this wide range of experiences was a view of the distinct cultures that define Japan, which is too often depicted in unified (and thus simplifying) terms.

The many sites we visited were also skillfully designed to be “interdisciplinary,” responding to the varied specializations of the scholars on the trip: because travel between locations allowed me to talk to my Iowa colleagues about their research (ironically rare when we are all “at home”), I was able to appreciate their unique insights during various parts of the trip, while other moments pertained more directly to my interests.  To provide a single example among our daily discussions, visiting sites that chronicle Japanese history – and seek to define cultural identity --in the company of a Chinese and a South Korean scholar offered me an illuminating understanding of how those sites appeared from their cultural perspectives.  (Additionally, insights from a Spanish colleague and a historian whose research focuses on modern Germany offered an additional range of compelling conversations.)  Moreover, the opportunity to also meet and even briefly interact with an interesting Japanese scholar (Professor Shoya Unoda), a brilliant creative writer (Ms. Kaori Fujino), and two wonderfully hospitable school teachers (Ms. Miho Matsumoto and Ms. Mika Miki, who patiently led us through a tea ceremony) was also an invaluable and highly enjoyable component of this trip. 

The theme of our trip was “Culture from the Margins,” which was perhaps most directly expressed by our travels throughout Kochi Prefecture on the southern island of Shikoku -- most visitors to Japan will never leave the main island of Honshu -- and a special tour of the thriving Korean market in Osaka, guided by Professor Unoda, an expert on the status of zainichi (Korean residents of Japan).  At the same time, we certainly also experienced a good deal of what Japan celebrates as its “central,” traditional, or “high” culture, including some of its most important surviving castles, most beautiful gardens, and most prominent Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.  (A rainy day in Kyoto that took our drenched but intrepid group through bamboo forests and into a series of astonishing temples, which we had virtually to ourselves, was especially memorable in this regard.) 

I was especially pleased, however, to explore another form of cultural “margins,” the “low” or mass, or popular culture of modern Japan, which is central to my research and teaching interests.  Alongside its celebration of its pre-modern past, Japan has now integrated the history of its cinema and comics into representations of its cultural heritage.  I was fascinated to see how the remarkable Edo-Tokyo City Museum incorporates the (relatively short) history of cinema production and reception among its millennia-spanning displays, for instance.  Visits to two museums devoted to major mangaka (comics artists) were especially vital for me as confirmations of how Japan now values these relatively recent (and mass-produced) contributions to its modern cultural identity.  The Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum in Kochi -- dedicated to the life and work of Ryuichi Yokoyama (the first mangakadesignated a Person of Cultural Merit in Japan), and more broadly to the many cartoonists from Kochi Prefecture -- was both beautifully designed and richly informative.  (I was pleased to acquire a catalog of its exhibits that I will share with students.) It only paled in comparison to the entire town of Sakai-Minato in Tottori Prefecture, which has given itself over to celebrating the creations of native son Shigeru Mizuki, who is also the focus of an imaginative museum.  While I have visited a few other museums dedicated to cartoonists or comics in general, I had never before seen an entire community so fully transformed by its identification with a creator of comics.  My courses on often center on the shifting cultural status of forms of popular culture, and I will certainly now be sharing my experiences of these unique locations with my students.

In addition to viewing these very dramatic displays of the role manga plays in modern Japan, I took advantage whenever I could to slip into a bookstore to simply observe how this material was displayed and being marketed.  This view of the working of Japanese fan culture was most overwhelming in our visit to the shop (actually a series of linked rooms) Mandarake in Tokyo’s Nakano Broadway arcade.  Again, even a brief time spent in this pop culture treasure trove gave me a strong indication of how forms of popular culture originally designed to be ephemeral (and with virtually no cultural capital) now occupy a distinctive place in Japanese cultural memory and history.  American comics fans (and scholars) often hear that Japan, unlike the United States, has long respected comics as a significant literary form for adults as well as children, and while I generally trusted that this account was true, it was valuable to have this “rumor” so thoroughly elaborated and confirmed at moments throughout my trip.

Although the trip included many additional highlights, many of my most vivid enduring impressions came from the daily, accumulated experience of ordinary details, found in the acts of negotiating modes of travel, unfamiliar options on a menu, or the overwhelming choices available in Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines.  The small but significant cultural rituals involved in how to pay for items (by placing your money on a tray rather than handing it to the cashier), or in pondering the considerable differences between what Americans and Japanese eat for breakfast, among many such examples, inform an overall experience that cannot be summarized by citing the most dramatic events and awe-inspiring locations on a trip such as this one.  (Yes, our group had more than one discussion about those amazingly high-tech Japanese toilets as well.)  While I found a trip to the Lafcadio Hearn Museum and residence in Matsue of special interest (having encountered some the writer’s work decades ago), such designated stops were neither more nor less powerful than an aimless walk through a bustling shopping district or down narrow streets packed tightly with hundreds of tiny but lively bars and restaurants.  Overall, I experienced this trip as a welcome sensory overload made up of both small and large pleasures and insights.

I want to thank the Japan Foundation IPS Grant and International Programs for the opportunity to take this unforgettable trip, a long-delayed dream come true.  My interest in Japanese popular culture has been reinvigorated, and will surely inform my ongoing teaching and research (including the production of video essays on Japanese cinema).  I also must thank our warmly generous hosts in Japan (identified above) as well as Professor Kendall Heitzman, whose careful planning, sound advice, and energetic leadership were fundamental to the success of this adventure.  I also wish to thank my University of Iowa colleagues Lisa Heineman, Jiyeon Kang, Luis Martin-Estudillo, and Wenfang Tang, whose good humor, enthusiasm, and intellectual curiosity remained consistent across thousands of steps (we kept track of them) and high humidity.


Corey K. Creekmur is an associate professor in the Departments of Cinematic Arts, English, and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa.