The University of Iowa

National Myths

September 19th, 2009

About a week ago, I attended an informal brown-bag lunch presentation by Professor Stephen Vlastos based on his research on post-war Japanese national myths.  The presentation was the first in the fall roster of events offered by IP’s Center for Asian and Pacific Studies (CAPS), led by Professor Sonia Ryang.  These presentations are valuable to me as dean since they allow me to hear about the vibrant research and teaching efforts of University of Iowa faculty (and, perhaps less surreptitiously than I like to imagine, to gauge the interest these events muster!).  I was pleased to see that the room was packed with faculty and staff from multiple departments.

Stephen’s presentation focused on aspects of post-war Japanese identity.  It struck me how many national myths revolve around uniqueness.  The Japanese people are unique; there is what the French call l’exception française; and everyone has heard of the exceptional quality of 20th-century American identity.  Perhaps this is merely related to the perceived necessity of nations to distinguish themselves from each other.  Therefore, each is unique (in its own way!).

One of the more interesting questions Stephen raised was whether or not there is such a thing as trans-national myths of identity.  Are there myths that found European identity, for example?  As Europe creates increasingly coherent economic, educational, and even political ties, I wonder if myths of identity are forming or have formed to sustain these transnational entities.

Food for thought…

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