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  • Working Words:New Approaches to Japanese Studies
  • Jordan Sand (bio), Alan Tansman (bio), and Dennis Washburn (bio)

This project began as an attempt among scholars from an array of disciplines to find ways out of comfortable analytical habits toward more open possibilities for writing about Japan. Amid the enormous diversity of approaches that have emerged in the field over the past generation, what persists as both common and privileged ground for everyone doing some form of Japanese Studies is the universe of the Japanese language: the rich traditions of literature, philosophy, and the visual arts, the vast bodies of scholarly writing, the torrents of Japanese journalistic writing, and the distinctive forms of popular discourse—some tributary of which any writer must navigate in order to address a social or cultural phenomenon in Japan in any depth. Only a minuscule portion of all this Japanese writing ever gets translated into another language (although many times as much gets translated from European languages into Japanese), and apart from academic specialists, few native speakers of English or of other European languages develop the fluency to read it comfortably. As a consequence, those of us who do research in Japanese and write in English continue in some degree to play the role of translators and interpreters even as we engage contemporary Japanese scholarship (and Japanese scholars engage ours) in a multi-polar, globalizing field.

To encourage interdisciplinary conversation in Japanese Studies, a series of workshops was held over the course of several years at various venues in the United States. The idea of collecting essays based on particular key terms in Japanese (and, indirectly, in other languages) emerged out of these workshops as a simple but effective tool for scholars to present the insights of their own work in a form that would be digestible and meaningful to other scholars and students across disciplines. Each of the essays attempts to show how words—not just any words, but words central to our various disciplines—give shape and expression to the worlds we study and to our methods for studying those worlds. [End Page 1]

The essays presented here are less concerned with etymological or lexical tracings (though these are often important too) than with the relationships of words to the larger historical, political, ideological, or aesthetic fields they inhabit. They examine the constellations of words around words, the patterns of a word’s movement, including the suppression of one word by another, or the ways one word comes to stand in for others. We have chosen words that transform intransitively and transitively, that act as levers for rethinking cultural history, very broadly construed, and for imagining our disciplines anew. Some of these words have become commonsensical; we hope that here they are made strange again. Some are protean; others are resistant to change. For us a word is what Richard Poirier calls an “active, not merely reflective response to the given….” It is a trope, a turning against words already in place, and also an act of power over the worlds, imagined and real, that those words already in place have brought into being.1

Because words are a means by which consciousness mediates its relationship to the world, they come into being and undergo semantic shifts as part of a complex production of knowledge. As such, the ways in which words work and travel provide insights into the fundamental questions about how we come to know what we know, both in the general sense and within the specific contours of our disciplines.

Although this project might be pursued across the entire history of a language, the essays in the present volume are more situated in recent time. This is because the past two centuries in Japan have been marked by the conscious production of a new culture—and a new language—spurred by an encounter with radically different ways of knowing the world. As colonial power in East Asia and as colonized subject of Western power, Japan has been a kind of borderland in which competing ideologies and values have intertwined. This history has left its traces throughout the Japanese language, which has been powerfully affected by the translation of vocabulary and concepts...