A View from the East? Slavic Studies in Japan

Interview with Professor Mitsuyoshi Numano, Tokyo University

by Tsypylma Darieva, coordinator of the international research project "Transformation of Sacred Spaces and Concepts of Hybridity in the Caucasus" at Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena
(At the time of this interview, which was conduced on November 9th 2012, Darieva was Associate Professor at University of Tsukuba, Japan.) 

Prof NumanoMitsuyoshi Numano is Professor of Slavic Language and Literature at the University of Tokyo with a specialisation in Russian and Polish literature and currently President of the Japanese Association for the Study of Russian Language and Literature. He graduated from the University of Tokyo and studied at Harvard University as a Fulbright fellow, and won a 2002 Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities for “A String of Sleepless Nights: Essays on Exile Literature” and the 2004 Yomiuri Literature Prize for “Utopian Literature.” Professor Numano is a co-organizer of the first ICCEES World Congress to be held in Asia, which will take place in Makuhari, Japan, on Aug. 3-8. 2015. Read the ASEEES announcement here.

TD: In 2015 the World Congress on Slavic Eurasian Studies will be held for the first time in Japan. How did the idea to hold the Congress in Japan come up, and why is the event special for Japan?

MN: We never imagined holding such a large international conference in Japan, so I think it is going to be a very important land mark in the history of Slavic study in Japan. We are now stepping into the world and joining global Slavic studies. Until recently, specialists of Russian culture or history were oriented only toward Russia as the main source and the main land of the study and exchange. I think that for big events such as this upcoming congress, individual efforts are very important. In this particular case, the existence of the Slavic Research Center at Hokkaido is particularly important, especially all of the individuals who are working there. They are very exceptional people in the sense that in Japan, scholars are very clever and know a lot of things, but are reluctant to go outside the border of Japan, yet the scholars at the Slavic resource center have been very active in inviting foreign scholars, like you for example. They also very often hold international conferences. So, in that sense, the Slavic resource center, and especially Professor Matsuzato, is the engine behind the international organization of Slavic studies in Japan. Professor Matsuzato has been very active in preparing for such an undertaking as the upcoming World Congress. I'd like to name the following:

The Japanese Association for the Study of Russian Language and Literature (of which I am currently the president);
The Association for the Study of Russian History;
The Japanese Association for Russian and East European Studies;
The Japanese Society for Slavic and East European Studies;
The Japanese Association for the Study of Slavic Languages and Literatures (JSSEES).

All these associations publish ademic journals regularly (annually in most cases), but most articles are written in Japanese, with the only exception being the journal of the JSSEES, which is entirely in English or Russian.

TD: When were Slavic studies established in Japan? 

MN: Each field has its own history, but speaking of regional studies in general, I think the Slavic Research Center at Hokkaido University was one of the first such official institutions. In the field of Russian literature, Japan has a very old tradition of studying and translating Russian literature. And actually, after the Meiji Restoration, Russian literature was one of the major European literatures, which influenced the very formation of modern Japanese literature: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov, but not Pushkin. In that sense, we have a very long tradition, but it was not an academic field of Russian studies. And of course it was almost limited only to one language – Russian. We didn't use the world term Slavic studies or Slavic literatures, because we knew only Russian literature. I believe it was in the 1960’s when some scholars appeared in the field of Russian philology and literature there with a wider scope toward the Slavic world. So, these people tried to enlarge the academic scope of Russian studies.

TD: What are the key educational centers in Japan?

MN: Speaking of universities, we have very few independent institutes such as the SRC at Hokkaido University, but in major Japanese universities, in the Faculty of Letters or in the Department of Comparative Relations, there are specialists who are connected to the study of Slavic countries and Russian literature, language and so on. Within the University of Tokyo, there is the Faculty of Letters - Bungaku-bu, or the Faculty of Philology. It is very small and shrinking, because the popularity of Russian literature has already passed in Japan and we are now having very serious difficulty in attracting students. At the graduate level, we used to accept five or six students every year, a very large number for a country like Japan. Now, the number is decreasing and we  average two or three graduate students every year. However, I’m talking just about the study of Russian literature here; each department has other specialists. For example in the Department of History, there is a specialist in Soviet Russian history, Professor Iishi. He has already educated about 10 professional historians in Russian history, most of whom successfully finished writing their dissertations and many of whom are already teaching at various universities in Japan.

TD: What is the main focus of research in the field of Slavic literature in Japan?

MN: Generally speaking, research focuses on the periods before and shortly after World War II,. We have a strong tradition studying classical 19th century writers. However, then a strong left-wing pro-Soviet group of intellectuals cropped up in Japan, and those people were interested more in Soviet writers like Gorky or Mayakovski By the time I was a graduate student in the 1970s, young graduate students preferred the 20th century Russian poets and writers, who suffered under the Soviet regime; for example Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Platonov. So by that point, such 20th century writers were more popular professionally than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Some scholars are tracing «самую современную литературу», Pelevin, Sorokin. There has been a similar trend in historical studies. The study of Russian history in Japan focused on the meaning of revolution and the Soviet history and at one point half the scholars in the field of Russian history concentrated on the history of the Russian Revolution.

TD: Why the Revolution? Why not the Russian Empire?

MN: That is a very good question, but I am not a specialist in history. My answer may be sort of amateurish, but I would say that, for those people who were interested in the history of Russia, the starting point was the Revolution. Most of them are left-oriented and are ideologically interested in the Soviet Union, so the starting point had to be the Revolution. Before that there was nothing, you know.
There are several historians who were very influential, but I will only name one name- Professor Wada. Haruki Wada, still energetic and working, is a free person and doesn't like any official power. Anyway, his personality has attracted many other talented scholars. He has been at the center of the study of Russian literature and, actually, we owe much to him in heightening the level of Russian history studies in Japan. In the field of philology, there was Professor Shoiichi Kimura, who passed away in 1986. For a long time there was no academic study of literature, just translating, interpreting and writing some essays about Russian literature. While activities in the field have been limited, Professor Kimura lifted our field of Slavic studies to an internationally acceptable level. Professor Kimura, in his younger years, spent a year at Harvard, where he attended lectures by Roman Jakobson.

TD: Are there are any specific archives or libraries specializing in literature on Russian immigrants in Japan?

MN: We do not have a lot of material about Russian immigrants who came to Japan after the Russian revolution. There weren’t so many. Still, Russians were here and they conducted their activities in Japan. For example, the Russian futurist David Burlyuk spent two years in Japan, and he had a lot of friends here. It was just a short episode in his life, but at least we have some materials to study here.

TD: Could you please characterize the recent transformation in the Japanese academia, which took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

MN: Well, speaking in terms of the university academic system, we are very slow and lag very much behind changes in the world order. The fall of the Soviet Union caused a lot of changes, and professional associations had to adopt new ways of naming the field. Until recently, ideologically oriented scholars in social sciences typically called their fields just “Soviet and East European studies.” Today, professional associations have renamed their organizations; for example, we had the association “Sorentoo gakkai” – the Association for the Study of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – which is now “the Association of Russian and East European Studies.” Also, Ассоцияция Дружбы между Советским Союзом и Японией (“NISSO kyokai”) has been renamed “Nihon Eaurasia kyokai”, or “Japan – Eurasia Association”. Now we are forced to rethink the framework of our study as well, and try to include the Caucasus and Central Asia in the field of larger Eurasian studies.
 As a part of mutual efforts in this new field, we have just published a five-volume series on Eurasian studies through the University of Tokyo Press. These volumes are devoted to various aspects of Eurasian studies and are edited by myself, Professor Shiokawa, and Professor Komatsu. We put our energy together and invited about 40 young scholars to contribute to these five volumes. The series is called “Eurasia Sekai” – “The Eurasian World”, which was unthinkable before, but in this case, we wanted include the scope of Central Asia, Mongolia and the Caucasus.

TD: You mentioned an interesting aspect of the kind of new dialogue between Japan and neighboring countries. What kind of dialogue do you have with Americans and other parts of the world?

MN: Of course, that is also very important. I studied at Harvard for four years, so I have personal ties with Americans, but generally speaking the ties with the world of American Slavic studies are still not very strong. So, we also have to direct more efforts in that direction. Somehow, however, a language barrier still exists. I think most scholars of Russian studies don't feel comfortable using English. We know, for example, the Slavic Review, an American journal, which has the highest standard for the world scholarship. It is hard for us to enter the American world, and I think very few Japanese scholars have succeeded in contributing articles to this journal. There are two reasons, and one of them is language; the second reason is a difference in approach. Perhaps we have too traditional an approach to how to organize an article. I think we have to write more in English, as well as  in Russian, and not only in Japanese.
 I am also trying to enlarge my partnership with other Asian scholars; Korean and Chinese scholars on Russian literature. They all can express their own opinions about Russian Literature and we can talk freely on the same level with western scholars and Japanese scholars. Paradoxically, China, Japan and Korea are all countries which look in the same directions toward the Russia or Western world. We never looked together before, even not being conscious of the existence of our neighbors in East Asia in this field. I think each country has its own tradition, and it is very hard to generalize. I think in Korea the older generation of scholars is more moralistic and conservative, they don't like modernistic literature. But, on the other hand, in China, although ideological restrictions are still felt, there are young scholars who are interested in very contemporary Russian literature. They are actually ahead of us in following and studying contemporary Russian literature.

TD: Is there any specific Japanese view on Slavic studies? To what extent can we consider a particular way of understanding this world area? I don't want to say “the Asian view,” but something of that kind?

MN: As a man of literature, what I say is not very scientific, but rather romantic. I would say that we have a very special position between the Russian/Eurasian world and Europe. Russia has always been considered as something very “Eastern” and something very exotic in the Western civilized world. However, we Japanese never look at Russia in that way, because Russia is something in-between, and we too are a kind of mediator between these two worlds. It is precisely in that aspect that Japanese scholars of Eurasian studies could show their own special viewpoints, because we look at Russia not with the eyes of Western countries, who seem to tend to look down on Russia. But, I think we have some cultural affinity with the Russian and Eurasian world. So, we are in a special position to understand more closely and I hope that in that function we can perform a mediation in the world of Slavic studies. That is why we are now opting to hold the congress, and I hope that Japan will be a good meeting place for the various Wests and various Easts, not in singular, but in plural. We know that the contemporary world is complex; there is no single West and single East, but various Easts and various Wests.