One for all, and all for one: The Japan Center's Graduate Student Symposium

One for all, and all for one: The Japan Center

The Graduate Student Symposium for Japanese Studies faces its share of challenges. Not least of all the question of how to do so much in such little time.

Few academic ventures wield greater intellectual clout than the graduate student conference. Think about it: a throng of tomorrow's best and brightest minds in academia gather to share deep thoughts and even deeper ambitions while today's tastemakers (read: professors) hover over them, quietly, nonchalantly assessing. It's what separates the wheat from the chaff; it's also enough to mire even the most stalwart academic in self-doubt.

At first glance, the graduate student symposium for Japanese Studies appears to fit that bill, conjuring up images of dour-looking professors and nervous-nelly grad students. But the symposium is far from a static, one-off event. For the process behind it—along with the symposium itself—finds its roots in cross-cultural connections and heterogenous themes.

Which begs the question: what exactly is the function of the Japanese Center's graduate student symposium? Jordan Smith, who helped organize this year's version, explains.

"My personal goal in doing this was to provide our community of graduate students—who are studying Japanese language or culture or politics or history—the opportunity to get together and reflect on the issues that we're struggling with in our classes and in our research."

Sounds self-explanatory enough. But that's still a rather hoity-toity undertaking; a bunch of smarty-pants huddling together purely for intellectual gratification. Luckily, conferences like these are assembled with more than just fancy jargon in mind.

"I think the conference provides a unique forum for the graduate students because it brings together people from all over the nation," says Smith. "We work with a limited number of professors, but in working with other graduate students, we get to see how other advisors have turned them onto different texts, authors, points of interest and specialization in their fields. So I think we gain the most by our contact with peers throughout the nation and the world."

Koichi Haga, one of the four organizers of the 2005 conference, seconds that notion. However, he is quick to point out a less obvious benefit.

"Graduate students are sometimes very isolated. So my first motivation was to get to know other people. And I made some very good friends—and more people outside of UCLA."

Friendship—and teamwork, both of which are frequently marginalized in the insulated world of academia.

"One thing I learned was that organizing a conference is a very collective effort. I had a lot of fun," Haga is quick to add.

Merrymaking aside, the infrastructure of any successful symposium is manpower. Mostly, this means a combination of tedium and persistence. And phone calls. All of which are as vital to the end result as intellectual vigor.

"I think as an academic, it's important to learn how to organize these conferences, because it's part of your job to know how to meet other people in your field, to exchange ideas, and make contacts," says Hisayo Suzuki, who organized in 2003 and presented in '04. "Professionally, it's very helpful." Though not nearly as helpful, of course, as understanding the bigger picture.

"In terms of the content matter or the subject matter, it's interesting to hear what other people are working on," continues Suzuki. "In a way it serves to illustrate the direction in which the field is going."

Which brings us back to the papers—and the people who present them. While the field of Japanese studies is much too vast and ever-evolving for anything resembling a unifying front, certain trends and themes have emerged time and time again. Namely, ones that depict Japan as an assemblage of disparate parts rather than a cohesive whole.

"My understanding of [2004 topic "The Other Within"] was that rather than focusing on Japan as a homogenous whole, we focused on voices that would challenge the idea of Japan or Japanese people as a single homogenuous entity. So for example, there would be papers on the outcasts of society or ethnic minorities or women rather than men—these kinds of voices," says Suzuki.

2005 also yielded a similar framework. "Our title was ‘Japan With/out the West,'" says Haga. "The concept was that Japan is always interpreted through those Western concepts, but it's also outside of the West. So we tried to play with the terms."

And then there's this year's topic, which rejiggers Japanese (multi)cultural identity yet again.

"The title of the conference is ‘Transculturation and National Signifiers: Japan In, After, and Via Disapora and Return'", relays Smith. "One of the questions that we're asking is: ‘If Japan doesn't mean like it used to, how can we understand Japanese cultural production in and outward from zones constructed in various ways as marginal and diasporic?'"

In many ways, the conference is a variation on the tried and true call and response method. There's a call for papers, then a response from graduate students. A call from the students to the professors, then another response. Once the conference is underway, it's not just a matter of preaching to the converted; one has to be prepared to reciprocate, to expostulate, and when necessary, to acknowledge that perhaps the premise was flawed to begin with.

"I would be actually really happy in this conference if my grand vision was completely obliterated and turned inside out," Smith proclaims triumphantly. "For me, that would be the most productive and interesting kind of conference—to lay bare the critical, theoretical assumptions that guide my drafting of this conference call for papers."

If that sounds like some sort of thinly veiled death wish, don't blame the organizers of the conference. Their goal is to facilitate a free-flowing exchange of ideas, no matter how off the cuff and contradictory and contrarian they may seem at the time. One might question how effective it is to plan an event around topics or themes that may or may not fully materialize. On the other hand, what's not to like about a conference with such strong and dedicated personnel?

"I was especially surprised at the strength of the commentators," says Haga. "We communicated often before the conference and I let them know what kinds of materials we would be talking about, but I didn't think we would have nearly enough time to give such a strong performance. So I was very impressed. And the papers were very intensive."

This year's graduate student symposium, entitled "Transculturation and National Signifiers: Japan In, After, and Via Disapora and Return," will take place Saturday, April 22 in the Covel Commons West Coast Room. Check for upcoming details at the Center for Japanese Studies website.

Published: Monday, February 20, 2006