Interview with Japanologist Prof. Constantine Vaporis

Prof. Vaporis at Todaiji Temple, Nara

Interview in Greek

Constantine N. Vaporis is one of the leading Japanologists in America. He was born in Pittsburg, PA (USA). He is Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Graduate Program Director in the same department. 
He studied East Asian Studies (History concentration) at Princeton Univeristy (Ph.D and M.A.) and “Japanese language and literature major” (BA) at Ohio State University.
Among the courses he has taught are “East Asian Civilization”, “Japan to 1800”, “Japan Since 1800″, ‘Women and Gender in Asia”, “City and Society of Edo/Tokyo”, “Contemporary Japan”, “Japan in the Shogun Age”, “From Samurai to “Salaryman”: Japanese History through Film and Literature”.
He is the author of the book Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan, Harvard University Council on East Asian Studies, 1994, Harvard East Asian Monographs (ISBN: 0674081072) and Tour of Duty: Samurai, Service in Edo and the Culture of Early Modern Japan, University of Hawaii Press (ISBN: 0824834704).


First of all we should like to thank you for this interview. You have Greek origins, and that is something which honours us particularly, proving once more how much Greek academics of the Diaspora contribute to the development of sciences internationally. Would you say a few words on your Greek roots and your relations with Greece today?

It is my pleasure. My family’s story is perhaps quite typical. My grandfather, one of at least eight children, left his island of Kalymnos at the end of the 1910s, went to Buenos Aires to work as a stonemason. His brothers went to other countries, like France and Algeria. From Buenos Aires he emigrated to the U.S., to live in Campbell, Ohio, where there are many Kalymnians. Once of his brothers was supposed to come to the US but never made it to leave Marseille. (I recently met this man’s son and his family in Lyon.) My grandmother also came from Kalymnos. My grandfather came back from the US to marry her after her brother showed him a picture of her. Three years later my father and grandmother made the trans-Atlantic journey to the US (my grandfather had returned to the US), through Ellis Island, like millions of other hyphenated Americans. My mother’s side is from Mesohori and Loga. After emigrating to the US and opening a restaurant, my grandfather decided to move the family back to Greece. After a few years, however, because of the tide of war, they moved back to the US (in 1938). My mother grew up in a Greek neighborhood in New York City, in Washington Heights.
I lived in Greece for a year as a child, in 1964-65, while my father was a Fulbright Scholar, on Leoforos Alexandros in Athens, and remember vividly the demonstrations against the King. I have been back for a number of summers. I particularly remember getting a haircut before my trip in 1973 because of news that the junta’s officials were forcing people with long hair to cut it off. Though I have spent most of my life in the US, I am drawn to Greece, its sun, its food, its music, its people. Growing up the son of a Greek-Orthodox priest, and having lived much of my childhood on the campus of Hellenic College in Boston, there has always been a deep connection with Greece and our faith.

You have wide academic experience and accomplished a great deal in your pursuit of Japanese Studies. You are aware of the situation in Greece: in Greek universities Japanese studies barely exist. Please give us your opinion why it is necessary to institute a university department of Japanese studies in Greece.

I was quite surprised to hear that Greece and Albania are the only European countries without programs in Japanese Studies. Given Greece ‘s economic ties with Japan , this is particularly puzzling. A program should exist – if for no other reason – because of Japan’s tremendous economic importance in the world. (This fact tends to be obscured because of China ‘s current meteoric rise, but it remains true.) 
In the US, many programs were established in the 1980s, at the height of Japan’s economic success. Of course there should be Japanese Studies in Greece also because of Japan’s long and rich cultural history, its artistic and aesthetic traditions (everything from product design, graphics, clothing, to anime) which impact world civilization today. I hope that several universities in Greece will establish programs in Japanese Studies soon, as I am sure they would attract many young Greek people.

How did it come about that you turned your attention to Japan? And furthermore, what brought you to interest yourself particularly in the Edo period? What attracted you to this period especially?

I have always been fascinated by foreign languages. As a teenager my father offered me the choice to study Chinese or Japanese, and I selected Japanese. My first teacher was a then-seminarian (Father George Tsougranis) who had served in the military in Japan in the early 1950s. My father also took me to see many Japanese movies that were playing in Boston.
Those experiences changed my life, and ever since I began teaching I have offered a course “Japanese History through Film and Literature.”

I was first drawn to the Edo period, I must admit, because it was the era of the samurai, but I have remained a historian who specializes in that period due to the rich documentary sources from then which remain for us to study. In college I studied in Japan for a semester, and I have gone back something like 16 times.
In any case, I have lived in Japan for roughly seven years.

We read that that you have in preparation a new book entitled “To Edo and Back”. What was a day like, in those times of Edo?

Actually I have a new working title: “Tour of Duty: Samurai, Service in Edo and the Culture of Early Modern Japan.” It is a study of the system of alternate attendance, which required the 200-odd daimyo, or lords, to spend every other year in the shogun’s capital of Edo (Tokyo). More specifically, it focuses on the experience of the men who accompanied the lord – what the experience of a year in the capital was like and how it affected their lives. One particular interest here is the intellectual elite – the Confucian scholars, artists, artisans, and martial artists – and the human networks (cultural salons) they formed. Many of these elite were able to gain certification as instructors (for example in a certain artistic tradition or a certain school of martial arts) or important exposure to intellectuals from other parts of Japan during their time in Edo, which greatly helped their careers once they returned home.

What are the trends nowadays in the study of the history of Japan in the United States?

The field has grown so much that it is difficult to keep up even with the scholarship in my own discipline. Scholarship has also become quite specialized. This is not a necessarily a bad development but we still need some of the “grand-sweepers”, scholars who are able to see the big picture, as was more common when the field was young, in the 1960s in particular.

Does the same interest in Japanese studies subsist, as earlier? In Europe a decline in Japanese studies is observed, while Chinese is coming to the fore. Is it the same case in the study of the Japanese and Chinese languages?

Yes, there has been a relative decline in Japanese studies in the US, but the field is still strong because of the program-building that occurred in the 1980s.

A class in East Asian Civilization, dealing with the history of the traditional societies in China, Japan and Korea is one of those you teach. What is your viewpoint on the relations between those three countries today, the tensions of which have an impact on the international political scene. Do you believe they will be able to overcome the problems arising among them from the past?

I regularly teach a course on historical memory, and have lived and traveled in China, so these issues that you raise greatly concern me. As long as politicians (mis-)use history it will be difficult for these countries to reconcile themselves. The issue is complicated by the fact that a few Japanese politicians have a tendency to make outrageous statements which inflame Chinese and Korean sensibilities, while Chinese leaders want to continue to use the Rape of Nanking for political purposes, to gain economic benefits from Japan and to try to stymie Japanese attempts to gain a seat on the UN Security Council. Unfortunately these tensions will probably grow as China seeks to exert more influence on the world scene.

Are you planning to visit Greece soon? If so, we would heartily wish you to give a lecture.

Thank you for the invitation. I hope that this will be soon but for the immediate future my plans are still uncertain. Until then, thank you for this opportunity to communicate with them through this forum.

February 2006
H Ελλάδα συναντά την Ιαπωνία. 2001-2024

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