Friday, December 7, 2018
Jiyeon Kang

Japan Foundation Trip Report, Jiyeon Kang


I was part of the 2017 Japan Foundation faculty tour, “Regional Japan: Culture from the Margins” between July 26 and August 8, 2017. The two-week trip from Tokyo to the town of Sakaiminato in Tottori, to southern Shikoku, and to Kyoto—and many other cities and villages en route—offered me an invaluable experience of being immersed in Japan’s historical and contemporary culture and experiencing both its cosmopolitan and rural regions.


When I applied for the grant, I hoped to gain exposure to Japan’s contemporary culture, particularly youth culture, which would help me prepare for a project on national identity in China, Japan, and Korea. This trip exceeded my expectations and showed me various aspects of Japan’s culture, and furthermore left me with additional questions that I am motivated to explore. Among our many stops, the Mizuki Shigeru Museum in Sakaiminato and Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki were the two most fascinating places to me.


The Mizuki Shigeru Museum and the entire city of Sakaiminato are dedicated to the manga artist most well-known for GeGeGe no Kitaro, the long-running comic series that follows a boy-spirit (Kitaro)’s adventures and encounters with spiritual creatures from all over the world. The museum was full of Mizuki illustrations, which are often dark, intense, and highlighting the uncanny features of the natural world. More intriguing was how his personal experience affected his story: while stationed in an island in the Pacific during WWII, Mizuki became fascinated with the spiritual world in the region, and later traveled the world to collect ghost stories. One of the most haunting and beautiful images was the beginning of Kitaro’s journey, in which his father’s spirit inhabits an eyeball from his father’s decaying body. His originality and unique plot drew me in. It also made me curious about the place of WWII in Japan’s memory, the meaning of family and the loss of it. I came back with a note to myself—to read his masterpiece, Showa: A History of Japan, which I only began browsing in the top floor library of his museum.


The other striking place was the Ohara Museum of Art in the beautiful canal city of Kurashiki. It was the last place that I would expect to step into the art of the Belle Époque. In the 1910s, a local merchant and connoisseur sent a young art collector to Paris so that he could socialize with emerging impressionist and avant-garde artists and collect their works—often way before they achieved international fame. The level of sophistication and taste in a city far from any metropolitan area made me wonder about Japan’s national identity and its place in the period.  What was it like here in the 1920s–30s when Japan defeated Russia and China and annexed Korea? How did it see its membership in the West and its civilization?


These are only two snapshots from this exceptional trip. I could have written another long reflection about a walking tour of Osaka’s Korea town with an expert on zainichi, Koreans resident in Japan; a long meeting with writer Fujino Kaori—whose works fascinated me for so many reasons—in an old Kyoto neighborhood; a tea ceremony with a local tea master in Sukumo; and numerous conversations with Professor Kendall Heitzman and the rest of the team about Japan’s history, literature, and culture throughout the trip.



Jiyeon Kang is an associate professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Iowa.