Japanese Studies: we have a problem—in theory

Photo by Alex E. Proimos

There are plenty of stereotypes about graduate students, but one of the most persistent images is that of the intellectual snob. Using obscure words in everyday conversations, sprinkling buzzwords into explanations in class, and name-dropping the scholars or theorists they’ve studied. When I decided to continue to my PhD, these were some of the real fears I had—was I not smart enough? Would I not fit in? Would I never find a down-to-earth person who would be my friend instead of my competitor? Of course, stereotypes are just that—sometimes rooted in a grain of truth, but overall a generalization that can be dangerous, offensive, and very much untrue. Sure, there are some intellectual snobs out there, and sure, there are some truly intelligent people who are nice as anyone else and just seem to operate on a whole other level. But my real fear of this gap, whether hostile or amiable, was where I, as a student of Japanese Studies and East Asian Studies moving into the broad arena of a History department, fit into this fearful mix of unknown PhD students in the intellectual field. My biggest concern and problem? Theory.

Theory: What is a student of area studies supposed to do with it? Who is important to know? And more importantly, why in God’s name hadn’t I had any before I got here? When I entered my new History department, I was overwhelmed; I was the only person strictly pursuing an East Asian area in my research in a huge incoming cohort, and one of only two premodernists. The people around me were largely post-nineteenth century Americanists and Europeanists, and many if not all of them came from backgrounds in history, anthropology, even archaeology, where the big names of Western theory loomed dominant and intimately woven into decades of research. They had Western philosophy and theory from the very beginning of their academic careers, whereas I was lost in a sea of names.

Some of you (particularly BA students) may wonder, when I say Western theory, who am I talking about? These are people like Karl Marx, Georg Hegel, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Max Weber, Benedict Anderson, and Walter Benjamin, to name a few past and present (note: lots of men). And equally important, particularly as non-Western theorists that question Western theory, Edward Said, Dipesh Chakrabarty, etc. For those unfamiliar with philosophy and theory, that list was probably one long heart attack. That’s exactly how I felt entering a history program. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who were couching their explanations in terms of “That’s so Foucauldian,” or “It seems as if the author is taking a Derridian approach in his framework.” Don’t get me wrong, my cohort is an incredible group of people who are kind and supportive. But as I sat in class with these fellow future historians, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of fear and ignorance of all that I did not know.

This mild terror raised an important question for me: What is the place of theory in Japanese Studies, and when should we learn it? Most area studies programs, whether BA or MA, will likely offer some kind of methodology/methods course to help prepare you for a future in the field. But what should a Japanese Studies department teach us about Hegelian theory? Are Foucault’s ideas on discipline applicable to East Asia, or do they feed into, as Said or Chakrabarthy might argue, the tendency to (potentially erroneously) approach the study of Asia using Western, post-Enlightenment views of what history or reason is? Especially as a premodernist, theory never really held much relevance in my work (and being inherently bad at abstract philosophical concepts, I avoided it like the plague). My undergraduate methodologies course focused primarily on reading different types of sources on Japan and discussing the content and approach the authors took, as well as getting exposure to some of the dictionaries and compendia that exist in Japanese scholarship. At the MA level, a Japanese bibliographies and research methods course that took a similar approach to using libraries was only offered every other year, was not required, and I unfortunately missed it when I spent my second year abroad. I came into my PhD with a total of nothing under my belt about theory and most methodological approaches. When my MA advisor asked me about my thesis research proposal, he said, “What sort of theoretical/methodological framework are you taking?” I stared at him blankly, unable to even come up with an invented reply.

If you ask any professor in the humanities right now, especially history, you’ll probably be told that the biggest emphasis in the slowly recovering job market is on the ability to do comparative studies. Just knowing Japan is not enough anymore; if you know Japan, universities will want you to teach on China or comparative East Asia. If you study colonial America, they may expect some trans-Atlantic linkages and maybe prefer the ability to teach on European or African fields as well. Any program probably expects you to know at least one other foreign language so you can examine international scholarship. When I was applying for PhD, every department was emphasizing the multiplicities of context and having a “transnational” approach. But when you’re an East Asia area studies student, particularly premodern, the likelihood that you’ve read up on theories of modernism, postmodernism colonialism, postcolonialism, etc. is low; suddenly you’re lost treading water on the open sea of scholarship.

This is not to imply, of course, that our undergraduate and graduate programs in Japanese Studies and other areas of East Asia are failing us completely or inadequate to give us the education we need. Every year enrollment in Japanese Studies is rising, the number of scholars increasing, the level of expectation for future students going up as our knowledge becomes finer tuned to new discoveries in the field. But the field itself, all fields, really, whether history, literature, anthropology, etc. are changing along with our increasingly international world, and students should be aware that they need to also develop accordingly.

As an undergrad, I, naively, never thought that as a medievalist working on Japan I would need to be terribly familiar with Western theorists (a bullet happily dodged, I thought). Yet as I read some writings by one of the foremost medieval Japanese scholars, Amino Yoshihiko, I noticed that he was apologizing for his early Marxian views of medieval Japan, which he reconsidered in his later work. I wondered, as I read this, what it exactly it meant for him to be a Marxist historian. And to fully understand Japanese scholarship from Amino’s time, apparently I needed to know. To understand what my colleagues thought in class about Ranajit Guha’s reconsideration of colonial peasant history in India, I needed to know what Chakrabarty said about rethinking history. To grasp Silverblatt’s reconsideration of modern state through the bureaucracy of the Spanish Inquisition, I needed to know about Hannah Arendt’s political theories.

I asked around with my fellow Japanese Studies majors and graduate students and tried to figure out if our lack of theory experience was a common problem, or just mine. The general consensus was that teachings in scholarly theory and philosophy don’t typically happen within Japanese Studies programs at the undergraduate level, though one person who was an anthropology major with an interest in Japan was taught major theorists—but only by professors that were relatively young, who had obtained their PhDs in the 2000’s. Everyone else said that graduate school was the first time they seriously encountered theory. But most of my cohort? They don’t come from area studies, especially not East Asian studies, and these ideas were already firmly under their belts.

So where does that leave those of us in Japanese Studies?

At the welcome breakfast this past fall, one of our speakers said to us, “Welcome to the History department, we like to be intellectually promiscuous.” All joking aside, there’s different layer of truth to that statement: we need to be intellectually promiscuous. We need to expand the understanding of our field and explore great thinkers regardless of whether or not their work may be applicable to “Eastern” studies. For modernists, I think this may be a somewhat easier task, as the question of the West’s influence in Japan raises many theoretical and comparative questions about things like modernity or postmodernism. This year I read excerpts of T. Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy, a book that deals with the role of the Meiji emperor in Japan’s modernization and draws heavily from Foucault’s theories of panopticism. If I had never read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, this book would have likely ended up thrown across the room in frustration as I failed to grasp the nuances of the author.

This is a panopticon, by the way.

It is not my intention to lecture about the failings of our Japanese studies education; rather, I want to suggest that our field is ever-evolving, ever-expanding, and we simply cannot afford to close ourselves off from the vast sea of worldly scholarship. In my first semester as a PhD student, I quite purposefully took a course on theorists and how their work applies to the study of Asia. Nearly every single work we read overlapped somehow with and/or was directly relevant to the variety of texts used in my Introduction to Comparative History course. I felt frustrated, and a bit angry, that I’d never pushed myself to learn these things earlier, but so incredibly grateful to be closing a gaping hole in my knowledge. How could I, not knowing the first thing about these ideas, ever hope to function in the discipline of history, with colleagues and professors in other fields? How could I fully understand the comparative implications that will become so essential to my future career (and the interviews to get there)?

Perhaps theory does not have a place in undergraduate methodology courses that already struggle to convey the complexities of Japanese scholarship to students only beginning—perhaps it is something best saved for MA or PhD levels. But what area studies lack, we ourselves should recognize and must endeavor to make up for if we intend to seriously pursue academia. If you, your fellow friends, or your students, think that this path to an even higher education is for them, I highly suggest investing in courses in philosophy or theory as early as possible, particularly if your mentors are not already recommending to do so, anything that will take the first steps down this arduous path and start to open up international and interdisciplinary doors. My own shortcomings have made me realize that in Japanese Studies, we may have a problem—in theory.

I would love to hear what everyone else thinks about this, or what kind of experiences they had in theoretical teachings. When did you take classes on the big thinkers? Did you go from an area studies program to a larger discipline that gave you a new perspective on this topic? I welcome comments and questions!

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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42 Responses to Japanese Studies: we have a problem—in theory

  1. Chris Kern says:

    My knowledge of these modern Western philosophers is very slight; I’ve read a couple of articles by Benjamin and not much by Foucault or Derrida. I’ve never been very big on literary theory, which is one reason why my PhD is on a heavily primary-source topic that doesn’t require as much of it. The Japanese articles and books I’m reading in connection don’t bother with any of it. The major dissertations by Harper, Caddeau, and Gatten barely mention it either — so I feel like I’m OK for my dissertation at least.

    When people bring up Derrida and Foucault in literature classes I’ve taken, I often feel like they’re just doing pompous name-dropping, although I have to shamefully admit that I mentioned Aristotle in one of the literature classes so I guess I’m just as bad. I also think that some of the articles I’ve read on Genji and other pre-modern JP literature that invokes those modern philosophers borders on incomprehensible. I think that if you have a clear idea for a project that doesn’t need them, it’s OK…but what do I know?

    You raise a good point about being expected to know it, but I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

    • Paura says:

      Thanks for the reply, Chris! I think it’s tough for us to approach questions of theory, especially when we’re a generation that missed out on the period in time when pretty much EVERYTHING needed a theory. And being in area studies (and not an area where such theory originated!) just makes it all the more complicated. I once heard from a professor that some departments have high expectations of theoretical groundwork, and that they knew people in the past who had been forced to essentially reframe their entire dissertations to get it chocked full of theoretical underpinning. Scary thought. Who knows!

      • Chris Kern says:

        I guess I just have a basic objection to the idea that in order to write about Japanese Genji commentators of the Muromachi to Edo periods, I have to read 20th century French philosophy.

  2. Jasmine says:

    As a communications postgrad, Derrida, Foucault, and Habermas came heavily into the discussion – but in my cohort, only one or two other people had studied communications theory or media theory before. The remainder were a mix of history students, area studies students, literature students, a couple of business students here and there.

    Now, I will agree as to the lack of theory at the undergraduate level for Japanese Studies courses (or East Asian Studies courses generally). As an undergrad, I took both English literature and East Asian Studies as majors. But that might simply be indicative of the change from undergrad to graduate studies. My cohort was not expected to know theoretical underpinnings of our course beforehand, but were expected to at least have read major works by a scholar or two in our field of study for our dissertation, once we had a project clearly defined, etc.

    Caveat: I am not studying Japanese history or literature (though that is a hobby of mine). I focus on online communications and how people interact with others online, which can lend itself to finding studies in Japanese and how localization affects people there, but is wildly different from the projects you and Chris seem to be working on.

    • Paura says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’m sure that depending on the field the approach to theory or use of it at all is, as you say, wildly different! Especially who you might focus on. I think in my history cohort it was sort of an underlying expectation that we have familiarity with it, although people have been by no means critical of those who don’t. I’m just glad I decided to take a crash course sort of class on it– theory still has such a strong hold on so many different areas of academia, I just can’t imagine going forward without a firm grasp on it! If anything, I wish a sort of 101 class in undergrad had at least prepared me for the type of thinking necessary to wrap your mind around it. Heavens knows I’m no good at it now. 😉 Thanks again for your input!

  3. Aaron says:

    Hey ya’ll,

    Greetings, I thought this was an interesting topic, one that I have struggled with for years, so I thought I’d throw in my 3 cents.

    As a Buddhist studies PhD student (3rd or 4th year?), naturally we have a heavy focus on language. I have to be able to read at least Modern and Classical Chinese and Japanese, and many of my friends have Sanskrit, Tibetan, and other languages added in there too. Therefore, it seems as if there is little time for (big ‘t’) Theory. But given the colonial past of my discipline, emphasis on theoretical competency is also stressed. Just like, for example, anthropology, over the last 25 years, my discipline has undergone a through restructuring as people came to realize the imperialist nature of most scholarship, and as a result, new ideas and research methods have been flourishing.

    I actually came from a religious studies background with an emphasis in Japanese studies. In both my BA and MA, theory was emphasized very strongly within my own department, but my advisers (whose home departments were actually in East Asian studies) emphasized a more conservative philological approach, so I got a mix of several perspectives. Whether we (as aspiring intellectuals) want to accept it or not, Foucault, Derrida, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Marx, etc., are just part of the common canon of intellectual discourse. (If we were in Classics, we’d be dropping names like Aristotle and Plato… I wonder if Classicists complain about name dropping?) In other words, if you want to be comprehended in the academy, you need to be “functionally fluent” in the ideas of the most important social theorists. If you think Japanese studies feels pigeon holed, you should see Buddhist studies. Talk about an insular discipline! But through critical revaluation of our theoretical and intellectual “genealogy,” we are making ourselves more relevant to other fields. We are speaking a common language…

    If the PhD level was the first time you have encountered theory, that is unfortunate. I have students here at Michigan in the literature department and Asian language department, first semester freshmen, and they are already knee deep in comp lit theorists. Certainly, these students can “speak theory” as a second language, and by the time they go to grad school, they will be fluent. From my own experience, I just assumed that this was a given… Without knowledge of the most important theories and theorists of the modern period, how will we as a discipline be able to speak to each other or those outside our field?

    And on top of this, there are of course the many great thinkers in our own sub-fields. For example, like many Japanese medievalists, I need to be aware of the thought and theory of Kuroda Toshio, who was heavily influenced by Marx, so I also have to know Marx, who was responding, in some respects, to Hegel, whose work I’ve also had to suffer through….

    The metaphor of Indra’s Web comes to mind: the web stretches throughout the cosmos, and at each node, there is a jewel, and each jewel reflects every other jewel, so no matter where you stand, you are in infinitely compounded relation to everything else…. Tracing ones intellectual lineages can feel like this some times 😉

    So, does all this mean that “Theory” is a key focus in my research? Absolutely not. In fact, when I was applying to PhD programs, I straight-up asked, “Does your department have a heavy emphasis on theory?” On the one hand, I see the necessity of being fluent in the great thinkers of our time, but I am also hesitant to employ European thinkers as the key medium for reading the premodern Japanese past…. Perhaps this is because it often feels like name dropping, or the misapplication of foreign ideas to another context. However, in order to enliven our own research, in order to make our own research relevant to those outside our field, in order to develop a critical apparatus for evaluating the truth claims of the object of study (as well as the truth claims of scholars “creating” the object of study) we need to be able to develop a basic fluency. In addition, when I am writing on, for example, medieval Japanese religion, I try and find ways to put the theorists of the “Western canon” in dialogue with the philosophical ideas I encounter in the Japanese context. With the necessary caveat that these groups of thinkers are arising from radically different circumstances, within the (admittedly) artificial environment of academic writing we can put them in dialogue with one another for the time being. Not because they have an “inherent” relevance, but rather, because the event of a modern academic writing about this period provides a context in which they may be put in dialogue. Problems arise when people, in my own field, start claiming things like “Derrida and Nagarjuna are basically saying the same thing…” This is when critique of over theorization is essential. (but without a basic fluency in theory, how might one go about critiquing its over use…?)

    In many departments, you need to pick up a second research language. I’ve seen some people take a simple “French for reading” class. (I substituted Mandarin Chinese as my second modern language.) That way, they can at least say that they have the ability if they need it. I think “high theory” is like that. It’s good to have when you need it. It’s good to have when you need to think critically about the history of your own discipline, or respond to ideas in a way that makes them relevant to scholars outside your field. But in general, I think we need to keep our focus on the context in question.

    My apologies for such a long winded comment. 🙂


    Aaron Proffitt

    Buddhist Studies PhD Student
    Univeristy of Michigan – Ann Arbor

    • Jasmine says:

      With respect to the esteemed University of Michigan (incidentally, I used to live by there and have a contact or two there), having a foundation in comp lit theory is all well and good, but UofM is heavily research-heavy even at the undergraduate level. In a time in which most undergraduate students DO NOT go on to graduate studies, is making them become fluent in the language of theory a good choice?

      Of course it will help them if they decide to go to graduate school, and of course finding out you are woefully behind on the foundations of your field by the time you enter the PhD level is never a good thing, but I would respectfully say that the proper time to learn theoretical foundations would be at the Master’s level, when the people who do wish to take on scholarship make the choice to be there, instead of getting an undergraduate diploma just to be considered for work. (For some employers, yes, they may want to look at your research and studies at the undergraduate level, and there is something to be said for the rigor of UofM’s programs of study. But not everyone in undergraduate studies moves on to further graduate studies, either.) But now we’ve entered into a meta discussion about how the educational system works, rather than problems in one field of study or another.

      Good luck in your studies, though, Aaron!

      • toranosuke says:

        Aaron, my thanks to you and everyone else for such a lively discussion. I do have a knee-jerk reaction to contribute, though, to one of your comments.

        You write, “how will we as a discipline be able to speak to each other or those outside our field?”

        And my answer is, by speaking straightforwardly. I’ve just finished an excellent book by Prof. Constantine Vaporis (to take just one example), describing the sankin kôtai (alternate attendance) journeys made by daimyô to the shogunal capital of Edo. Now, in understanding the power structures inherent in how and why this worked, Foucault or the work of certain other Theoreticians could be informative. But in describing how people traveled, where they stayed, what they brought with them, what they purchased while they were in Edo, how the Edo mansions were constructed and organized, how the city itself was organized, what rules applied to retainers and other subjects of a daimyo (members of the procession) while they were on the road and while they were in Edo… etc etc., there is no need whatsoever to bring Theory with a capital T into it. And in going into the details of the political relationships in the specifically Edo period Japanese context, how certain daimyo were granted exceptions in recognition of the need for them to maintain their forces in their home territory to defend the coasts, for example, there is no need to make mention of capital T Theory.

        It is in understanding, and clearly, straightforwardly conveying, the political, economic, social, and cultural structures and situations of various times and places that I think focus should be placed, at least within the discipline of History, in order to reach across the aisles, so to speak. If we put away all the Theory, and just talk plainly and directly about the actual historical subjects at hand – whether it be an individual, a particular set of policies, a particular development or event – I think we can explain ourselves quite clearly and be understood across the discipline, and across different disciplines.

        I apologize to go on longer, but speaking of going across disciplines, I think the issue of avoiding Theory is even more important. As an Art Historian who often speaks to Philosophers (specifically, philosophers specifically focusing on aesthetics, with whom we should therefore have some serious common ground), I find that, while the philosophers may not be fully familiar with jargon such as “the way this artist employs modeling and atmospheric perspective in this composition,” once we start talking about Theory, we are completely lost and cannot follow one another’s meaning at all. I haven’t read Kant or Hegel or Heidegger, nor Confucius, Mencius, or Dôgen, and they have never heard of Judith Butler or Clement Greenberg. But when we avoid naming names and just assuming the other understands all the Theory behind it, when we put that all aside and speak plainly, clearly, and directly, we have fantastic conversations.

    • Paura says:

      Thanks for your long (and welcome!) reply, Aaron! I have to say, although my comparative studies of Asia course (which gave me the basic run down on all of the big names) was a really excellent introduction, what I actually wish it had included was more non-Western theorists. I learned a little bit about them for Japan with a course on the history of philosophy and thought that I took as an MA, but it would be nice for people who study Asia to learn more about the ideas that actually came out of Asia, instead of, as you have said, assuming (dangerously) that we might be able to apply “Western” thoughts to “Eastern” peoples. Run a lot of risks even using those terms! The question of how to approach theory is so complex by field and even departmental demands. But thanks so much for your insight here!

  4. Aubrey says:

    I think the majority of theory should be taught in graduate-level courses, but that undergraduate methods courses should give a decent overview of the field’s major players. I don’t have experience with Japanese or East Asian methods, but I don’t think this lack of theory is a problem in those areas alone. What I remember the most from my undergrad Sociology methods course was a heavy focus on learning how to do research; we skimmed over theory and our main textbook was more about research ethics than the philosophies that influenced Sociology. When I was in graduate school for cultural studies, I was surprised at how many people in my program were unfamiliar with basic anthropological and sociological concepts, and I think a huge failing of my program was that they did not have any courses that focused on these specifically.

    • Paura says:

      I definitely think that finding a way to teach basic methods and concepts is really difficult no matter what the field. Of course, perhaps because Asia isn’t where the “big theorists” emerged is part of the reason why programs have so much trouble talking about theory and its application in Japanese Studies. It seems to me that of the people I’ve met, the Europeanists tend to have a really great grasp on theory. And why not? The Europeans largely came up with it! 😉 I definitely think that in-depth studies of theory are best left to grad level studies, but it would be nice if the undergraduate level offered a kind of primer-level introduction tailored towards why it’s important to think about certain methods for Japanese, perhaps. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  5. toranosuke says:

    My history teachers in undergrad were particularly old school, with a strong emphasis on names and dates and narrative, rather than interpretation (or reinterpretation), questioning or problematizing based on Theory. I was first introduced to the concept of Marxist history in my first grad program (an MA in Japanese Studies focusing on modern history), a concept I find important if only to know how to accuse others of doing it and to berate them for it. In my current program, a MA in Art History, most of my exposure to theory came in three courses: one in Art History Theory & Methodology, a required core course for us, of which I gather most departments have an equivalent, the second, a graduate seminar in Orientalism & Orientalist Art, which introduced us mainly to Said, his supporters, and his detractors, though not to Chakrabarty, who I’d never heard of before reading this here post. The third, a course in Museum Studies: History & Theory, basically repeated or reintroduced a lot of what I’d covered in the previously mentioned two courses, but with a particularly Hawaiian/Pacific Islands indigenous peoples post-colonial anti-Orientalist bent.

    I’m very glad to have had this exposure to theory, in part so that I can understand what others are talking about when they use the names of major theoreticians. But more important for me is the way it actually gets me to rethink my core assumptions. I’m very glad to have come out of these courses with a more nuanced understanding and approach to history, and an appreciation of what to avoid (and what is unavoidable) in our efforts to avoid being accused of being Orientalist, for example.

    But, all in all, I dislike using Theory myself in any direct and obvious way. My nuanced and careful approach may be informed by certain theoreticians, and my current research draws heavily upon Foucaultian ideas of discourse – in which everything influences and is influenced by everything else – but I have basically zero desire whatsoever to quote Foucault or even name him by name.

    So, I do think it important to understand the basics of Theory, who these people are, so that you can understand what other people are talking about, and also for the rethinking of assumptions that a Theory & Methodology class can offer. But, as Japanese historians, I think it much more important to know Totman, Hall, Sansom, Reischauer etc., to understand who they are, their approaches, how they differ, how their treatments of Japanese history may be biased or flawed, or where they have strengths. And I think it important to get to know theoretical concepts as more directly related to the subjects you’re studying – e.g. the origin of the nation-state, and the forms pre-modern or early modern national identity might take, specifically as pertaining to Japan, as described by Berry, Morris-Suzuki, Toby, and others. Reading non-Japan scholars and applying their approaches to the Japanese case can be extremely useful, I am sure, but even then, I would look to historians of this country or that country, and not to big-name general overall Theory people such as Hegel or Weber. …

    I’m glad for those classes I took, and what I got out of them, but if I never have to take another theory class again, I’ll be really happy; and I feel it is more than sufficient to continue to get my theory through materials I’m reading that are more directly related to what I’m studying. One day it may be quite beneficial for me to read “Imagined Communities,” since that’s actually directly grounded in the kinds of issues I’m interested in looking at, but for now, I’m more than happy getting my theory from Berry, Toby, Vaporis and others who are pre-modern or early modern Japanese historians, discussing issues and topics directly relevant to my interests, and selecting out for me the most salient points from these otherwise innavigable tomes by the major theoreticians.

    • Jasmine says:

      “Imagined Communities” was helpful to me, and is more accessible than, say, Weber. If it is relevant to the issues you are looking at, by all means, I do recommend it.

      • toranosuke says:

        Thanks. In reading essays by Ronald Toby, I’ve come across quite a bit of reference to (and quotes from) “Imagined Communities”, and I do think it will be useful if and when I eventually get around to reading it.

        But, still, I think (I hope) that when I start my PhD next term, coming into it having read a lot of Mary Beth Berry, Mark Ravina, Constantine Vaporis, Ronald Toby, Conrad Totman, and John King Fairbank, will prove more helpful, and more applicable to my own studies, than any of the big-name Theory writers. (Said, Anderson, and a few others excepted,)

    • Paura says:

      “But more important for me is the way it actually gets me to rethink my core assumptions.”

      I think that this is one of the big things that keeps popping up for me. My advisor is very good about getting me to reconsider certain word choices, especially generalized terms that we’re tempted to use to help non-specialists understand our field. I’ll have written something and she’ll say “No no no, that sounds Marxian. You can’t really use that word.” And I have to really dig deep into implied meanings (thanks for nothing, theorists!). With prelims not too far off I know I’m also going to have to be digging into the “classic” “Japanologists,” as it were (implied meaning alert!) and I’m sure I’ll have to think much more critically than I have thus far about their approaches. I definitely agree that we have to think a lot about how previous scholars couched their work in their biases and approaches too. Thanks for your input! 🙂

  6. Steffen says:

    I was quite frustrated when I was writing my master thesis, because we were required to write one whole chapter on theory, but never had any courses on it. I really wish we were offered courses where we could learn about the most important theories, which we weren’t. Pretty strange when you’re required to include a chapter on theory, I know.

    • Paura says:

      Definitely strange! Sometimes it seems that everyone wants it, but doesn’t want to teach it. 😉 I don’t blame them, but theory is really not something you should be left to your own devices with! Even after my class on it I’m not sure I fully grasp a lot of them. Not to mention that the major theorists had LOTS to say about LOTS of different things. A single course just can’t cover it all! Thanks for your comment!

  7. Kathryn says:

    This is such a wonderful post. Thank you for addressing these issues in writing on a public forum.

    I have been thinking about this issue – what place does theory have in Japanese Studies? – quite a bit recently. Every time I have a job interview, and every time I sit down to revise the introduction to my dissertation, I find myself questioning what I am doing and what my goals are as someone who teaches and studies Japan.

    I think a great deal of the emphasis of what both undergraduate and graduate students study is on language. This is partially because Japanese is hard. I think it’s also partially because of the way the language is taught at the college level (this has to do with teaching strategies and learning goals held over from the early nineties, and I don’t want to get into it right here). For whatever reason, while students of French (an “easy” language) can read Proust after two years, and while students of Hebrew (a “difficult” language) can read Amos Oz after three years, fourth-year Japanese students are still struggling through newspaper articles. As a student of Japanese, unless you’re a heritage speaker or someone who has spent a half dozen or more years in Japan, your language study is probably going to continue on into your graduate career. Likewise, while methods classes in other disciplines (both at the graduate and undergraduate level) tend to focus on theory, methods classes in Japan Studies focus on how to handle the sort of language issues you’ll need to deal with in order to engage in research. And that’s not counting the fact that the vast majority of grad students in Japanese Studies will be required to learn both Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese. Meanwhile, on the job market, unless you’re entering at a very high level (ie, you’ve already been tenured somewhere), no one will want you unless you’re capable of teaching Japanese language classes. I therefore think that language study tends to crowd out theory in Japanese Studies at the graduate, the undergraduate, and the professional levels.

    That aside, however, Japan Studies as a discipline is more of a safe space than a methodology. In your post, you describe the experience of being the only Asianist in a History department. That must be hellish sometimes. It is my own experience that, when I leave my own field and department, either in terms of classes or in terms of conferences, people don’t necessarily know what I’m talking about, and I have to sacrifice rigorous theoretical analysis for the dissemination of basic information. One more paragraph explaining what the Edo Period is is one less paragraph explaining how a certain scholar’s framework is Foucaultian, for example. If you stay within Japanese Studies, you can get as theory-oriented as you want, but no one else will know what you’re talking about – not because they don’t know who Derrida is, but rather because they don’t know who Nakagami Kenji is. As a field, a major component of what we need to do in order to be truly interdisciplinary is to make other people understand that what we’re studying is interesting, important, and relevant, and this involves much more than simply quoting Judith Butler.

    Before this turns into an even more long-winded rant, let me summarize by saying that I agree with you that Japanese Studies does indeed have several problems involving theory, methodology, and interdisciplinary-ness. One might even wonder, in one’s more cynical moments, why people even bother with Japan Studies in the United States. However, the alternative – not teaching “content” courses on Japan at the university level – is unacceptable.

    On the bright side, my advisor once taught a graduate course on “Japanese Literary Theory,” and I think I can honestly say that her course completely altered the way I think about just about everything. I therefore know from experience that it is entirely possible to have excellent courses in theory in Japanese Studies. Also, if theory is taught alongside course material (as it is possible to do in undergraduate classes on Japan; I know it is because I’ve done it), it can become much more accessible than it is when taught in a more free-floating, contextless manner. Gender performance theory, for example, becomes much clearer and easy to understand when taught alongside Kabuki or Takarazuka. I think, then, that Japanese Studies as a discipline can offer an approach to theory that, while non-standard, has an extraordinary amount of potential.

    Anyway, thank you again for this post. I enjoyed reading it, and I appreciate having the opportunity to think about this topic in greater depth. I’m also enjoying reading the other comments. So – cheers to you!

    • Paura says:

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment! I’m so excited so many people have taken an interest and replied. I hadn’t thought too much on the fact that language study tends to crowd out theory in Japanese Studies, but I can definitely see this as one interpretation. Japanese is indeed so utterly time-consuming as a language that it’s difficult to delve more deeply into fundamental methodologies for dealing with the materials that you have. I also think that Japanese Studies suffers simply for the fact that it’s approached as just that– Japanese Studies. Not history, not anthropology, literature, etc. Each of these has its own unique set of methods. That was part of my hesitancy in applying for a discipline program– as an undergrad, only History majors could take the historical methods course, just like only Education majors can take the Education methods courses, etc. It’s easy to shut out people who don’t fit into your disciplinary boundaries and then just expect them to squeak by later. By saying “Japanese Studies,” we often collapse all of these disciplines under a single label. People often asked me when I was a BA “What is Japanese Studies, exactly?” And I would have to say, “Well… I know a little bit about a lot… some literature… history… theatre… art history…” And it’s not until now that I’ve really been able to reflect more clearly on what a problem that is. But to be fair, it’s also a great thing! How well-rounded I feel in an art history survey when I can make the broader connections to historical events and literary trends that are contemporaneous with a particular piece! Japanese Studies can certainly be a double-edged sword. But I most certainly agree that there are great ways, like those you suggested, to integrate our methodology into coursework without making it a daunting and anchorless task.

    • Chris Kern says:

      That’s such a good point — especially if you are in premodern Japanese studies, but really in any east-Asian field, the language barrier is so high that a lot of your research time at the beginning is taken up by just learning to read articles and primary sources. No time for 20th century European philosophy!

  8. Nyssa says:

    Fantastic post and a lot to think about! I agree with Kathryn’s comments about Japanese language in undergraduate and I’m intrigued by courses with theory interposed with content.

    Paula and I were in the same BA program in Japanese Studies. I also minored in Anthropology (accompanied by its own problems and insularities), and took separate courses for Methods and introductory Theory in my senior year. Yes, there were times when wanted to throw my textbook across the room. It was always in the back of my mind as we read Western theorists that I really wanted to know what, if anything, this meant for me. At the time, I felt a disconnect between my understanding of Japanese Studies and Anthropology and it had to do with the level of theoretical rigor. I was also one of the few Asianists, which sometimes made it seem not worth the extra explanation to bring up Japan. I couldn’t find my voice because I was still learning in Japanese Studies. While my anthropology cohort was learning the language of modern anthropological theory, we didn’t have the same connection in Japanese Studies. I wasn’t willing to do that extra work to build the bridge, but now I’m interested in picking it up again.

    As I’ve just entered an MA program in Intercultural Relations, where my cohort has a diverse background (political science, history, journalism, classical languages, economics, international relations, to name a few), I’m thinking about what we’re going to “do” with theory as it is clearly weaved into the syllabus as a goal for increased professional competency. Difference is clearly valued and treated as a resource. Already I’m hearing classmates asking, “But what do we do with the theory? How am I going to use this in my career?” because many of us (myself included) will not pursue academia, but we must be engaged with it. I’m glad I struggled through some anthropological theory before and I can recall a certain mindset, even when I’m trying to unpack research assumptions in cognitive psychology and political science (which I’m woefully uninformed about). I would vote for an overview of Theory in undergraduate (not necessarily “the sooner the better,” though) with the bulk of the load in a graduate program.

    • Paura says:

      I think this question of “what to do with theory” is an interesting one, and perhaps one of the most relevant though ultimately unsolvable ones here. Is it useful outside of academia? Is it practical? It’s certainly helpful for reevaluating our own approaches to things academically and in every day life, but it’s sometimes hard to see the connections. I certainly don’t have a clear cut answer. But it’s interesting that so many people from different backgrounds are having the same wall-hitting experience with it in your program! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  9. Ai-Lin says:

    I really wish someone had told me to take more philosophy or theory as an undergrad. I took many East Asian area studies courses and literature courses as an undergrad and it just wasn’t emphasized. But with the graduate courses i’m taking this semester I feel like I’ve suddenly been cornered in a dark, dark alley by Derrida, Marx, and Hegel (who all have great wikipedia portraits btw) – and somehow everyone else already knew how to get around that alley! I don’t even know how i’ve been getting by without this knowledge! I would love a quick crash course even now.. but.. sometimes I feel that i’m lacking pointers towards the right direction and how any of it applies to my studies.

    • Paura says:

      I think “cornered in a dark, dark alley” by theorists is a great mental image of that inner feeling. Although visually I get more of a shunned by sneering old dudes holding little glasses of liqueur at a party image. 😉 But yeah, it can be really frustrating to suddenly show up in a discipline and go “Man, why didn’t anyone tell me?” Graduate school is definitely a good time to invest in little primers on theory and crash course books, if that’s the only option available to you.

  10. Nele says:

    So many mixed feelings about theory in Japanese studies… We had little to none of it in my undergraduate and MA course, and when it was time for me to write an application for a PhD grant, I was in big trouble because all the committee judges were from theory-heavy disciplines and my first fumbling attempts at using theory were laughed away.

    On the other hand, as I searched for the theoretical framework that would be the best fit for the Japan-related research I want to do, I was also glad that I could approach theories from all disciplines with an open mind. There’s no possible way to teach Japanese studies undergraduates about every discipline-specific theory that might possibly help them in their research, precisely because area studies is so ‘open’. And I also agree with the people who mentioned above that studying theory may really be quite useless for the vast majority of Japanese studies students who won’t go on to actually need a thorough theoretical background.

    So, I think it’s definitely a good idea to guide and prepare those students who know they’ll go on to pursue a career in an environment where knowing theory will matter. But it may not be feasible or desirable for instructors to try and feed all Japanese studies undergraduates the theories they believe those students might need later. Lack of an overarching ‘worldview’ is a strength of area studies, one worth preserving, I think.

    • Paura says:

      I definitely agree that striking a good balance is a challenge that current and future teachers need to deal with. Trying to cram it all in just isn’t a feasible solution. Of course, if students are fairly sure they want to pursue academia, I believe that a certain level of responsibility falls on them to take the initiative as well. I think my problem was that I didn’t have an awareness of exactly how important philosophical/theoretical thought was going to be, so I never had that chance to say ‘Okay, I need to look into this or this.’ But like you said, mixed feelings! Every experience and focus is different, and area studies is indeed broad and unwieldy at times. Experiences like those you said you came up against for grant proposals are terrifying prospects!

  11. Sorry to jump in without having given all the comments above the same attention. I was wondering about the origin of this lack of critical theory in Japanese studies. Why are there critical theory modules in Slavonic, French, Italian departments, but not in Japanese studies? I have a feeling that this has to do with how the field is set first of all in Japan. If we complain about the lack of critical theory, what should Japanese students say? Cultural studies are rare in Japan (offered only in big places like Todai or Waseda), and even more rare is their presence in publication. Recently I have done quite a lot of work on theatre historiography in Japan, and was quite shocked at the absence of what the ‘anglo-saxon’ method considers theoretical substantiation of arguments. I come from a theatre studies dept. in London, where people would ask you ‘who are you using in your thesis’ (referring to critical theoretician) before even asking what your PhD is on. However, I have met quite a lot of people who, in Japanese unis were simply compiling lists of things. With great detail, maybe, but still lists, mostly devoid of analytical depth. Many of these people were Western grad students, who wished they did their PhDs in the states…

    • Chris Kern says:

      But does every literary study need 20th century European philosophy? Why should someone doing pre-modern Japanese studies feel required to incorporate Derrida or Foucault? I have no problem with someone wanting to use those philosophers in their study, but I don’t like this idea that if you don’t use them, your work is “devoid of analytical depth” and considered just “lists of things”. I read three dissertations before working on mine about Edo-period Genji commentators and issues of text and narrative structure — none of them mentioned Benjamin, Derrida, or any of those other people but I thought they were very interesting and made a good contribution to the field.

  12. Pingback: No Fun Link Friday today | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

  13. Chris, this was the complaint of many fellow grad students in Japanese universities, working in fields close to mine (theatre and performance), and I could see their point: there are different kinds of scholarships, and different definitions of what constitutes a PhD thesis (according to different institutions). I think that using what we are now referring to as ‘critical theories’, helps you to project your research beyond the boundaries of the historical case-study you are looking at, and allow to talk to a larger audience. In the case of Japanese studies, a sectarian field, critical theory might help your research to be interesting for somebody who does not belong to your field. I must admit I am not a theory-obsessed person, and I actually found a bit annoying this instrumental use of critical theory (which is a sort of synonym for 19th-20th century philosophy) in the anglo-saxon world. For example, it would be very unusual to see a scholar using Aristotle or Kant as foundation of his/her research. A friend in my department used Chinese painting as critical theory to analyse the use of European post-modern theatre – that, to me, could be seen as critical theory.

  14. Kevin Taylor says:

    I am a PhD student in philosophy but spent three wonderful years in East Asian studying Japanese Buddhism. I am now working on the greening of religion in East Asian religions. Talk about a lot theory! If you fear Asian studies lacks strong theory I would like to tease out the other end of this thought. I found the new research in East Asian studies to be its strength. Scholars are putting out some amazing research and its still gearing up as far as I can tell. I found that many of the grad students were not lacking. Many focused on a single thinker, Merleau-Ponty for example. Wonderfully, my department required a graduate seminar that was essentially an introduction to theory. This class was a great cursory synthesis of the useful theory in the field. But if you want to see transcendental thought in Emerson and Shinran, you would have to develop that on your own. This brings me to my final thought I would like to tease out: do you want to use theory to analyze Japanese studies or do you want to do comparative philosophy? Because the strength is not in comparative but in the original research. I am interested in your thoughts since I’m on the theory side of this conversation but prefer the Japanese side 🙂

    • Diego says:

      Yes. Kyoto school would be a wonderful example – but I understand this is post-Meiji, hence Western-influenced local theory. I myself have used Watsuji extensively in my PhD.

    • Paura says:

      Thanks very much for your thoughts, Kevin. I can’t say that I have any authority whatsoever on a religious or philosophical approach, so my response won’t be nearly as thoughtful as yours. But you raise a very good question about whether (Western?) theory should be used to analyze Japanese studies or be executed for comparative analysis in one form or another. To me, it prompts the question as to whether or not we should be learning theory to know it and engage in the intellectual discourses of other fields, or learning theory in order to scaffold our own work. (Both, depending on the topic, I think!) The applicability of major theorists to Japanese studies is another beastly question entirely (a la Said, of course), but as I mentioned in my post, just knowing of major works and patterns of thought is extremely helpful in understanding and/or reassessing approaches to Japanese scholarship worldwide. Whether we choose to actually employ those theories for singular or comparative work is a highly individual decision but definitely one for consideration. Sorry for the scatterbrained reply, but I very much appreciate your feedback on this subject!

      • Kevin Taylor says:

        There are of course benefits to doing any one of the angles of approach outlined above. What I continue to find incredibly important is a working knowledge of history of intellectual thought in the field you’re researching so you go in knowing the limitations. This gives the scholar a knowledge of his/her weaknesses and the arguably unsolved issues in the fields we are approaching. Approaching the field this way brought forth the difference be sex and gender in the feminist tradition. I think this knowledge both engages in intellectual discourse of other fields AND teaches us ways to scaffold our own work. Since theory is largely drawn from the European traditions, those of us in Japanese studies may feel very uncomfortable, as if our work risks becoming Eurocentric. Finding a good balance between using a theory as a tool (can we divorce the cultural assumptions that come with them? I don’t know, philosophy aims at universal knowledge but I don’t think it’s ever demonstrably succeeded) and accepting our limited objectivity is difficult (you may not be using a Western theory but you are a Westerner with your own cultural assumptions). What I see most frequently are scholars using Kant for example to say “look here, we see something in Japanese thought that Kant was talking about and this proves/disproves/complicates his claims!” Still productive but maybe not the the central thesis of our work. What’s great is when a Kant scholar calls us on this observation and although we may not hold our own in theoretical discourse, they can talk our examples and research and fold them in for a whole new topic (or not).

        Theory is good but working knowledge of that theory’s intellectual history is better. But I think this depends on the thesis of the work in question. Some are of course more descriptive (400 pages of never before seen research should be forgiven for not being terribly theoretical). Where the criticism comes from the best, in my opinion, is when someone does focus on theory but completely neglects tradition of that thought. Why would you talk about alienation of labor and not once talk about Marx? Why talk about Marx but only use Capital? Why talk about freedom without reading some social contract theorists? And yet in the end it’s like shopping for a computer. If you keep waiting for the next best thing, you’ll never get one. Eventually you just have to jump in and get your hands dirty. You’ll make some theoretical mistakes but hopefully few to little of the “glaringly obvious” mistakes. I can’t tell you how many environmental thinkers I haven’t read that people tell me “I can’t believe you have read her! And you call yourself an philosopher!?” Well, I call myself a grad student. Perhaps when I’m 80 years old I’ll have a better grasp of the field. Until then, try to be productive and introduce new information. Other people will pick up the ball afterwards regardless.

  15. Daniele says:

    Dear Paula,

    thank you for the illuminating post. As a first year M.A. student in History (with a background in Asian Studies) I did share your same fears and frustrations. Luckily enough in my first semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was given a chance to take a course in Historical Method where I was exposed to important thinkers such as Marx, Hegel, Foucault, Habermas, and so on. While feeling totally lost during the discussions, I am now very thankful to the professor and to her selection of works. Just like you, I was assigned Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy for an independent reading course in Japanese modern history a few weeks ago and only because I had previously read Foucault, Bourdieu, and Geertz I was able to make sense of Fujitani’s arguments. Having earned both my B.A. and M.A. in Italy, I can’t say much about theory studies courses in American undergraduate programs, however I feel like Italian undergraduates in Japanese studies do experience the same problem. In my undergraduate program, a course in Western philosophy was mandatory, however most of the time those courses focus only on one big thinker (I read a lot of John Locke for example). As grad students in Japanese History I do believe theory plays a key role in our academic training and I think it is a smart move to dedicate enough time to master it. As a matter of fact, if you decide to stay in the academia you will be required to teach not only your own specialty, but also more general courses such as Global History or Historical Research seminars, where historical theory will prove vital.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and congratulations for the very interesting blog which I just found out about!
    Best wishes and good luck on your studies
    Daniele Lauro

    • Paura says:

      Hello Daniele,

      Thank you very much for your input on this topic! It’s so interesting to hear from people in academics from all over. I agree that dedicated time spent on theory is very important, as the interdisciplinary implications of the job market and teaching in general are very much an integral part of moving forward. It’s difficult to say exactly when and how it should be approached (as the variety of comments here demonstrates) but it’s definitely something we cannot afford to do without and I think we should start thinking about early if we know academia is definitely on the horizon for us. I certainly don’t have the qualifications to debate the educational side of how methods courses in Japanese Studies should be taught, but it’s a question I’ll certainly have in the back of my mind as I continue in the field.



  16. Michael Toole says:

    While there are certainly problems with starting out any major project thinking about which”theory” one is going to use instead of focusing on the content, I do think there is a place for theory in Japanese studies. However, the use of theory should be restrained, necessary, skillfully applied and subordinated to the primary sources.

    I am a first-year PhD student in Japanese literature, and I must admit that a course of Research and Methodologies outside my home department has made me think critically about what assumptions I make when starting a project. Someone above mentioned their confusion when writing a Methodology section. I felt very similarly when writing my MA thesis. But now having taken a course that focuses on the connections between Epistemology (a theory of how knowledge is produced, disseminated etc.) Methodology (a theory and analysis of how research should proceed) and Method ( the actual techniques for gathering evidence, for premodernists probably involves gathering texts), I see how much these issues affect research projects – whether or not we are even aware of them. As long as we are cognizant and critical of the “theory” we build within the confines of our own theses or dissertations, shouldn’t that suffice?

    • Paura says:

      Hello Michael,

      Thank you very much for adding to this conversation. Personally I agree that a solid focus should be given to content with theory subordinate to as well as supporting it. Having theory overwhelm your own work to the point that your project isn’t recognizable isn’t helpful to anyone. There’s no denying that theory does affect how we approach our projects and helps us become more aware of our own methods and assumptions. There is indeed a place for it, and as you’re suggesting, cognizance and balance are critical issues. Having read a variety of historical monographs for my intro to comparative history seminar, it was fascinating to see the variations on how historians of all types of studies integrated theory into their work. Or, didn’t, for that matter. I still have questions about how important theory will be to my own writing and research, but for now learning the ins and outs and knowing just how important it is to develop a keen awareness of the place and execution of theory in Japanese Studies (amongst others) is, I think, a good starting point. Thanks again for your feedback!

  17. Tom says:

    I’ve arrived here from the PMJS list.

    Having received my PhD from a place that does a lot of theory (in the history dept in general, not necessarily among the Asianists), and working happily now in a tenure track position at a good school (research u, but not ‘top tier’) in a great city, I can tell you that you don’t have to feel bad about theory or lack thereof. You’ll pick it up throughout grad school, just like most people do.

    Most people I know in the Japanese history field of my generation (PhD’s 2004’ish-present) did not do much at all with theory during their undergrad years (unlike the claim made by one of the commentators) and had only a brief intro during the grad years. True, some people and places are into it, and they publish through presses that love ‘theory’ (another topic entirely–Duke) but when you’re on the job market nowadays and trying to publish, you don’t have to drop ‘interpolate’ into every sentence…in fact, most people interviewing you will be Americanists who either loathe, or appreciate, but don’t use, theory. It’s good to know, and having a bit in your work is appropriate, but don’t force it.

    Email me if you want to hear more.

    • Paura says:

      Hello Tom,

      Thanks very much for your input on this topic. It’s wonderful to get another perspective. The historical monographs I’ve read for recent seminars show wonderfully diverse approaches, from completely lacking a theoretical framework to drowning one’s work incomprehensibly in it. It has definitely made me think more critically about how theory is executed, and it is indeed my hope that picking up the major approaches will become easier over time. Thank you again for your comments!

  18. Steve von Maas says:

    I’m pretty sure that what you mainly need are some Cliff’s Notes and a little more practice in bullshitting. Date a lawyer or a professor who you think knows and has read everything until you learn their secrets. Practice more set phrases. (By the way, the Japanese culture should provide plenty of inspiration for this: There’s no reason English speakers shouldn’t be allowed to memorize and use a few carefully-crafted phrases for various occasions.) Spend your leisure time playing Balderdash with graduate students until you are consistently beating them. Moreover, fight back: You should be ever alert to new and obscure Japanese philosophies with which you can label your colleagues’ approaches to their topics du jour, and urge them to become more multi-cultural if they have difficulty understanding your explanations. And remember, anytime you are stumped, you can always nod contemplatively, explain that your acquaintance has just given you something to consider further, and hurry off to your next important meeting, which he wouldn’t understand. In fact, anytime you get stumped, you will need to “continue this fascinating discussion to another time” and make your exit, because you are at the cutting-edge of your field and always in-demand elsewhere.

  19. Tony Nguyen says:

    It took me awhile, but I finally managed to read the article and all of the thoughtful comments. I think if I recall the BA in Japanese, I spent the majority of the time focused on grasping the complexities of the language and linguistics; not to mention endure the harsh criticisms of my kanji. Getting through a conversation in Japanese was quite the accomplishment. Reading a chapter and being able to understand it was a feat to itself. So no, I can see how theory would escape a typical BA in Japanese. It’s more of a fact gathering period, not a critical analysis of theory for many students.

    It wasn’t until I decided to get a second degree in International Studies and took 700 level courses to get that BA that I was exposed to theorists and connected their theories with actual actions. Though I felt a bit lost at times, I found that the exposure made many epiphanies occur. While it’s frustrating, I think you’ll find it rewarding in the end.

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