Scholar-translator heads up new Japanese Studies program
Professor Michael Emmerich. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Scholar-translator heads up new Japanese Studies program

Or how a translator met an entrepreneur, helped devise a new company slogan and ended up running a unique collaborative program in Japanese literary studies.

The current expansion of English-language programs at Japanese universities means less support for the kind of detailed archival scholarship in which many Japanese literary scholars are now engaged, and fewer opportunities for these scholars to pass on the knowledge they have accumulated.

by Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, November 25, 2014 — A recent $2.5 million gift from Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Uniqlo, one of the world’s fastest-growing clothing retailers, will fund a unique collaborative program between UCLA and Wasda University in Japan. The new initiative will support graduate student exchanges, visiting scholars and cultural figures from Japan, and annual workshops and symposia over the next six years.

Michael Emmerich, who directs the new program, is not your average literature professor. Which makes the back story to the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities an interesting read.

An associate professor of Japanese literature in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures (ALC), Emmerich is both a scholar of pre-modern and modern Japanese literature and a veteran translator. He was wooed to UCLA from UC Santa Barbara in 2013; the hire was made possible by a Japanese Foundation grant to the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies

Emmerich’s recent monograph — “The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature” (Columbia University Press, 2013) — examines how translations of the 11th-century tale, both in Japan and around the world, have endowed it with its reputation as a literary classic and re-invigorated its appeal to new generations of readers.

But Emmerich’s interest in Japan goes beyond literature; he is actively engaged in contemporary Japanese culture, writing regular columns in Japanese on topics of his own choosing for the Kyodo News Agency, the general interest magazine The Thinker and a Japanese radio program that teaches English.

One of his recent columns dealt with how the Japanese names of vegetables have entered the lingua franca of U.S. farmers’ markets.

The art of translation

Emmerich’s abiding interest in the art of translation began as an undergraduate, when he submitted a translation of a collection of short stories of Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata, “First Snow on Fuji,” as his senior thesis. This translation received rave reviews in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and elsewhere when it was published in 1998. 

By the time he was a graduate student at Columbia University, Emmerich had published a few more book-length translations and was regularly attending PEN American Center translation committee meetings.

To date, he has translated 17 works of Japanese fiction by such authors as Banana Yoshimoto (5 books), Gen’ichirĊ Takahashi, Mari Akasaka, Taichi Yamada, Rieko Matsuura, Hiromi Kawakami, Hideo Furukawa, Yasushi Inoue and Yasunari Kawabata.

As young children, Emmerich said he and his sister dreamed of learning seven languages so they could speak a different language every day of the week. (They abandoned the plan when they figured out they would only be able to speak to their parents one day a week!) Which makes it slightly less surprising that both children of a monolingual household became fluent in a foreign language (she in modern Greek) and translate literature in that language.

Translator meets entrepreneur

Emmerich’s work as a translator led Masashi Matsuie, editor of The Thinker, to recommend him to maverick Japanese billionaire Tadashi Yanai of Uniqlo (the sole advertiser for The Thinker).

Uniqlo (from Unique Clothing Warehouse) is a Japanese clothing manufacturer and retailer whose mission is to provide high-quality wardrobe basics at low prices to people of all ages. About four years ago, the company started thinking out of the box about how to advance its ambitious plans for overseas expansion.

Rather than commission a U.S. or British advertising agency to develop brand-new copy for its advertisements, Uniqlo decided to work with a translator — someone who would understand the nuances of the messages that the company wanted to communicate in Japanese. Over the years, Emmerich has spent time with Yanai and the Uniqlo staff in Tokyo working on various projects.

“In a sense, translating advertising copy is like translating poetry,” said Emmerich. “It’s one of the purest forms of translation because you have no choice but to be creative — you can’t rely on dictionary definitions, you can’t abdicate your responsibility as a translator to the dictionary. All you have to go on is your sense of language, of meaning, of style.”

At one point, the UCLA professor received an 18-page PowerPoint presentation in Japanese about the company’s history and mission with the request that he reduce it to one word in English. The ultimate result — LifeWear — is the company’s new slogan.

A shared concern about the future of Japanese literary studies in Japan

The impetus behind the Yanai Initiative can be traced to Emmerich’s longstanding concern about the future of Japanese literary studies.

Literary studies in Japan, especially as they relate to pre-modern literature, have a somewhat different emphasis from literary scholarship in the west, with more importance placed on archival research. Old books and manuscripts are still lying in storehouses around the country waiting to be discovered, and the discovery and transcription of works that were previously unknown or difficult to access is an important part of the scholarly process. This tradition, and the various forms of knowledge it has preserved, is imperiled.

Japanese universities are reeling in the face of falling population growth and two decades of recession. Many will be forced to close. In order to survive, many others are creating English-language degree programs to attract international students.

These programs mean that many courses on Japanese literature will soon be offered in English instead of Japanese. The teaching of these English-language courses is, moreover, likely to fall to younger faculty who completed doctorates in the United States or elsewhere in the west.

As a result, there will be less support for the kind of detailed archival scholarship in which many Japanese literary scholars are now engaged, and fewer opportunities for these scholars to pass on the knowledge they have accumulated over the decades to the next generation.

Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Uniqlo. (Photo: Fast Retailing.) When CEO Yanai expressed his own worries about the future of Japanese literary studies during an informal meeting with Emmerich in December 2013, a lively discussion ensued. The upshot was a request for a proposal.

After seeing an initial version, the Japanese businessman asked Emmerich to write a new proposal for a collaborative program between UCLA and Waseda University. (The latter was then in the midst of developing a “Super Global University” project, one focus of which was Japanese literature.)

Emmerich went to his colleague and friend Hirokazu Toeda of Waseda and a month later, they submitted a new proposal to Yanai. Half-an-hour later, Yanai gave the green light to go ahead with the project.

Waseda is one of Japan’s most respected institutions of higher learning, with an exceptional faculty in Japanese literature and the best open-stack library collection in the country. “It’s a great university for literary scholars,” explains Emmerich. It is also known for its many graduates in the creative arts in Japan, including actors and writers (Haruki Murakami among them).

Becoming a hub in a global network of Japanese humanities studies

Today, Emmerich chairs the committee that oversees the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities. His colleagues on the committee are Seiji Lippit (professor of modern Japanese literature and associate director, Terasaki Center, UCLA), Torquil Duthie (associate professor of early and classical Japanese literature, UCLA) and Hirokazu Toeda (professor of modern Japanese literature and dean, Office of Cultural Promotion, Waseda University; and 2014–15 Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations, UCLA).

A gift in the millions of dollars to spport literature studies is so rare in American academia that it qualifies as a minor miracle. But the Yanai Initiative is equally remarkable for the programming flexibility it permits. Monies are fungible across categories and years, giving the governing committee the discretion to, say, fund a greater or fewer number of visiting scholars in a given year, or spend less on a workshop one year in order to sponsor a larger one the following year.

In addition to funding annual international workshops and symposia, the initiative will bring Japanese scholars and cultural figures to UCLA to teach graduate seminars in Japanese; support Japanese PhD students to attend courses and do research at UCLA; and fund two UCLA graduate students to travel to Japan each year, one for a summer and one for a full academic year.

The program will also make it easy for UCLA faculty in Japanese Studies to do research at the Waseda University Library. Not only will they be given borrowing privileges at the library while there, they will also have an opportunity to apply for available office space and living accommodations. Best of all, a designated staff member at Waseda will coordinate all the details of their research visits.

The Waseda administrators with whom Emmerich crafted the Tadai Initiative were enthusiastic about making the university more accessible to international researchers, despite the fact that this would require changing many university procedures. And they agreed with Emmerich that invitees from Japan should not be limited to Waseda faculty, but include writers, critics and intellectuals not necessarily affiliated with the university.

The fact that Waseda University has been collaborating for several years with Columbia University, home of the most renowned Japanese Studies program in the United States, will give the UCLA program visibility at the outset.

In the vision of Emmerich and his colleagues, the three universities will become hubs in a global network of Japanese literary studies that brings together graduate students and junior and senior faculty from institutions of higher learning across Japan, the United States and the world. The next six years may well develop a shared American-Japanese pedagogy for teaching Japanese literature.