‘The disaster in Japan may turn out to be a turning point’
‘There is no such thing as a timeless Japanese soul,’ says newly appointed Professor in Modern Japan Studies Katarzyna Cwiertka. The first month of her professorship turned out to be a crucial test: Japan was hit by a destructive earthquake and tsunami, and Cwiertka had to keep her head in the midst of intense media attention.
Government and citizens
According to Cwiertka, this disaster is the worst to have hit Japan since World War II. ‘It is hard to tell what this will mean for Japan in the long run, but I am quite sure that in twenty years time, this period will be spoken of as a turning point in Japanese history.’ Cwiertka explains that the already fragile relationship of trust between the Japanese government and its citizens will be particularly damaged by this disaster.
Cwiertka was appointed Professor in Modern Japan Studies on 15 February. After the earthquake, she was immediately thrown in at the deep end and had to handle a barrage of media contacts. The experience made the frequent mismatch between research and media abundantly clear to her. Cwiertka: ‘It is of course notoriously difficult for a researcher to operate in a television programme such as RTL Boulevard. But that a newspaper such as De Groene Amsterdammer, a newspaper for which I have great respect, should publish articles on the Orientalism that are full of clichés, that was a real disappointment.’
It is precisely because this is such an important time for Japan that the media must now make an effort to portray the events in a correct and more balanced manner, says Cwiertka: ‘Unfortunately, what we see are the same old clichés: that Japan has a strong shame and guilt culture, that the Japanese show little emotion and that the individual always sacrifices himself in the interests of the common good. But these are all anthropological observations dating from the 1940s which were used by the Americans especially to depict Japan as an exotic enemy. Since the 1960s, Japan has fast developed into a modern country which is much less different from ours than it may at first appear. There is no such thing as a timeless, unchanging Japanese soul.’ Apparently there is enough work for Japanologists to do, even in quieter times.
People and objects
Cwiertka is still very busy with the media circus and the problems arising for master’s students who were about to leave for Tokyo for their studies, but as soon as she can, she intends to return to focusing on her research. Her research is in the field of Asian modernities and traditions, one of the eleven key profile areas appointed by Leiden University. ‘I study material culture,’ says Cwiertka, ‘objects that form the context of our daily life, such as clothing, food, electronic equipment and public transport. Actually, it’s about the relation between people and objects in Japan and East-Asia. I would love it if Leiden became the place to be in this field.’
( 21 March 2011)
About Katarzyna Cwiertka
Katarzyna Cwiertka grew up in Communist Poland. As a child, she became interested in the Far East and longed for Capitalist Japan. Cwiertka: ‘As a teenager, I had painted a rising sun on the ceiling of my bedroom and I ate all my food with chopsticks, after first cutting it up with a knife and fork.’
In 1986 Cwiertka went to study Japanese in Warsaw. After two years, she spent three months in Japan. ‘It was as if the world suddenly went from monochrome to full colour,’ says Cwiertka. After graduating in 1990 she lived for a few years in Japan, where she completed her MA. She defended her dissertation in Leiden in 1999 in Leiden on The Making of Modern Culinary Tradition in Japan. She remained affiliated with Leiden University and was appointed Professor in Modern Japan Studies on 15 February 2011.