Recently appointed Terasaki Chair Thomas Rimer discusses U.S.-Japan relations, cultural diversity, and integration.
By its very definition, the Terasaki chair connotes duality. Established in 1999, its primary function is to facilitate, educate and when needed, differentiate between the cultural, social, psychological, and economic characteristics that both unite and divide Japan and the United States. Clearly, the dynamic is one fraught with complexities. And yet, the recently appointed Thomas Rimer doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
“The cultural diversity here is extraordinary,” he says. “I don’t think you get that on the East coast -- even in New York, it’s not the same.”
Of course, we all know diversity to be a rather breezily held conceit. In its ideal state, it allows for a proliferation of new images, new ideas, new outlets for expression. But then there’s the flip side of the coin: complacency about the privileges it affords, as well as the potential for a lot of woefully misinformed folks. Luckily, Rimer not only recognizes the need for diversity, but of integration too.
“[Coming here is] To see how a community in the arts works when Asia is part of the community, not something exotic,” he says. “We would bring things to Pittsburgh, Japanese Noh plays, for example. They were looked at from outside by the people who live there as fascinating, strange, interesting. Here it’s a part of everything already.” He adds his final thought: “I’m looking forward to seeing how the equation changes.”
It’s inevitable that the equation will change, not least for Rimer himself. As a professor of Japanese literature, theatre and art at the University of Pittsburgh, he was accustomed to hearing about the things he teaches as “exotic.” Now, he’s not only expected to frame that knowledge differently -- these are UCLA students, after all -- but to determine what needs to be fundamentally examined -- or reexamined.
“One of the things I was asked to do was what I would like to do in terms of research and if I could do something new,” he says. “One of the things that’s fascinated me more and more over the years is American-Japanese connections in the arts: what they’ve been, how they’ve changed and what they mean. It’s also very hard to study in the abstract, but I’m starting to develop a sort of overview of how that functions, what the rhythms of that are, and the dynamics of it.”
If all that sounds a bit hefty and overreaching, it might very well be. But as the Terasaki chair, Rimer can’t afford to seek out shortcuts or bide his time.
“I want to figure out where the problems are, as well as the history of the thing,” he says, belying the age-old notion that academics live in an ivory tower. Still, he knows that only time will tell if he succeeds. “I’m just at the beginning,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “Ask me next spring and we’ll see what happens.”
Of course, in order take in the bigger picture, one needs to ensure that it’s not clouded by the smaller, pricklier details. And Rimer is sure to face plenty of those in the courses he’ll teach at UCLA, beginning with one tentatively titled “The Tale of the Heike” -- Japan’s answer to The Odyssey.
“It has become the source for pop culture and films and all sorts of things -- the stories that are taken out of it,” he explains. “So I thought, why not read the original?” When he taught the course in its previous incarnation at Pittsburgh, he was pleasantly surprised by the number of students who recognized its themes in several prominent anime and manga stories. Yet, though he admits he’s “too old to be a pop culture person,” he continues to be “fascinated by students who turn up in classes who’re all excited about Japan because of things like anime and manga,” which, he readily confesses, “are things I don’t know a lot about.” All the more reason for him to dive back in: “I thought it would be fun to try that again.”
Rimer is a jack of all trades -- art curator, professor, writer, scholar, activist, even former Army man -- but a master of at least one: unbridled curiosity. Curiosity is his impetus to go where others have been afraid to, to understand what drives the passion of others. It also keeps him on his toes; he’s all too aware that his role as Terasaki chair is an ever-evolving one -- not unlike our own cultural perceptions.
“For people who want to learn to understand and appreciate Japanese culture, you can actually go from contemporary culture and go back and see where it came from, see how effective indirection can be,” he says, referring to the antiquated notion that Japanese culture tends to focus on what’s unspoken. He hopes to reverse that paradigm of thinking by addressing what he unaffectionally calls “American triumphalism.”
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Americans were much more interested in the rest of the world, including Europe,” he says with a tinge of regret. “Now, that’s all stopping. It’s not just that we don’t know about China or Thailand; we don’t know about France or Germany.”
Everything’s not lost though -- ultimately, Rimer believes that the advancements made in cultural studies are more-than-promising. “Before, everything was ghetto-ized and clumped together,” he says, referring to the fact that everything -- Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. -- was thrown under the umbrella of “Asian studies.” Now? In a word: integration.
“Things are much more integrated into education. That can’t but help,” he says. “In the university environment, people will take courses that they never would’ve dreamed of years ago, even if they existed. That’s a tremendous change. In that sense at least, Asian has stopped being exotic and is being accepted on its own terms. I think that’s great; I think that’s wonderful.”