Course title and instructor

Traditional Culture and Contemporary Issues in Japan

Erin Davis, Sociology professor

Syllabus description

This off-campus course, taught in Japan, examines the interconnections between Japanese cultural traditions and contemporary issues. Cultural ideologies, social practices, and public policies related to gender, race/ethnicity, and human rights will be emphasized. Specific topics may include: gender roles; work and family life; intimate relationships; interpersonal violence; birthrate and aging concerns; youth culture and the current challenges faced by young adults; national identity; race/ethnicity, immigration and human rights; historical preservation and urban development; and the juxtaposition of traditional and popular culture.

Initial sessions will provide an orientation to enduring historical and cultural foundations and values as well as contemporary issues that inform everyday life in Japan. While in Japan, class members will participate in a variety of activities and discussions; will complete field excursions to historical, cultural, educational, and religious settings; and will read materials relevant to these themes. Students will also explore contemporary culture by observing and interacting with Japanese citizens and hearing from guest lecturers.

Course highlights

  • Exploring the Kyoto-Osaka, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, and Tokyo regions
  • Traditional cultural performances and Japanese arts, such as tea ceremonies and ikebana
  • Visits to museums, gardens, festivals, baseball games, and other cultural attractions
  • Interactions with Japanese university students
  • Individual and collective journals that record observations and interpretations about the course material and the Japanese people and places

Class journal excerpt

Japanese gardens

Despite there being many types of Japanese gardens, each one reflects aspects of Japanese society. The gardens themselves can be thought of as "Tatemae." The gardens are tamed nature, being our creation; they are what we want nature to seem like. As opposed to raw, powerful nature, which embodies the concept of "honne." The gardens also express the concept of Uchi/Soto, wrapping, enclosure, borrowed scenery, and Zen Buddhism.

The most popular, and accessible, of the gardens in Japan are the strolling gardens. These are gardens that contain paths, allowing one to walk through it. They may be all greenery, include lakes and streams, and have dry gardens also, but the fact that you can walk through them puts these gardens in a class of their own. This is not to say you may go anywhere in the garden. Quite the contrary, there are specific boundaries.

The ideas of wrapping, uchi/soto, and enclosures is shown here. Many gardens want you to only see certain parts of the garden at one time. By being inside (uchi) the garden, they can accomplish this through large Foliage and the like (enclosure). Furthermore, to "tame" the nature, many are wrapped with scaffolds to make trees grow in a certain way.