Smithsonian Study Leader James Ketelaar is Professor in History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. James lived in Japan for 10 years, primarily residing in Kyoto, and has conducted extensive research on Japanese culture and tradition. Here, we chat with him all about Japan. Click here to join James on his next visit.
Smithsonian Journeys: After living in Japan for ten years, what is your favorite lasting impression?
James Ketelaar: (Laughs) As you might imagine, there are really too many impressions to select only one. I first went to Japan when I was 18 years old as a junior in college and thus was full of enthusiasm and energy. I recall many 20 hour days as I ran around exploring Tokyo and environs. The last year I was in Japan (2008-09), I served as the Resident Director of an undergraduate program in Kyoto working with students who were very much like me, 30 plus years ago. This is one way to stay young, at least in heart (as I admittedly do not stay up as late as I used to)!
Here are a few snapshots of lasting impressions from over the years, in no particular order: waking at 4 in the morning to complete the climb to the top of Mt. Fujii and then, after the sunrise, running down through snow fields on its sides; watching the evening sun come through rice-papered windows inside a Zen meditation hall on the Japan sea coast; flying into Hokkaidô, the northern island in the winter and realizing how much the topography looked like the upper mid-west of the United States; talking with truck drivers on an overnight ferry heading to Kyûshû and learning about their lives and, in one case, how important ground fish was for fertilizer and the local economy; walking into a favorite restaurant and being greeted with the warm smile of recognition and looking forward to a great meal with a great conversation with the owners, and those sitting nearby…
Q. Our travelers will visit famous Shinto shrines as well as Buddhist temples. In fact, in many places they coexist next door to each other. Why is this? And is there any special protocol to observe when visiting?
A. This is one of the main areas of my research, writing, and teaching. In fact, I just led a 3 hour seminar on this topic here at the University of Chicago. A (very) short reply here is that Shinto and Buddhism have always been deeply intertwined. The late 19th Century attempt to create two distinct threads or traditions was only partially successful. In fact, the close relation of Shinto/Buddhism proves much more of a difficult issue for observers who expect these to be distinct religious traditions. This being said, some places are indeed clearly “Shinto” and others clearly “Buddhist.” One enjoyable aspect of our travel across the country will be our opportunity to visit the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) combinations of how the gods and the Buddhas live and work closely together in the midst of this very modern world.
In terms of visiting sacred or religious cities in Japan, one need not be overly concerned about protocol beyond common sense ideas of decorum. Photos are generally allowed (more in shrines/temples than in museums in fact), and there are no requirements such as head scarves or long sleeves as can be found in other Buddhist countries, for example. Most popular sites are also active tourist destinations for the local population, and as such, are well planned to handle a wide array of visitors.
Q. The evolution of Samurai culture began as long ago as the tenth century. Technically, the age of the Samurai passed with the Japanese transition from a feudal to an industrial society, yet the “romance” of the Samurai has lived on, captured, for instance, in the enchanted films of Akira Kurosawa. How else do the Samurai live on?
A. We will have the opportunity to visit several samurai-specific locations on this trip, enjoying gardens, castles and cultural practices invented, enjoyed and perfected by this cultural elite. Thus, in terms of material culture and art forms, quite a bit of what is currently identified as distinctly “Japanese” can in one form or another be traced to periods of samurai rule. Indeed, excepting some decidedly popular forms of religion, art, music, painting, and literature, most things one might imagine as “Japanese” will find a samurai in some prominent place in its history: from tatami mats and tea ceremony, to ink brush painting and gardens, temple or villa construction to city planning and economic structures, all find traces here. There are also many very modern re-imagined samurai traces that can be found in the ubiquitous consumption of video games, animated films and inter-net worlds with samurai themes. And of course, let us not forget those who fail the university entrance exams or who are laid off from work and who then call themselves rônin: of masterless samurai!
Q. Imposing Mt. Fujii lies at the intersection of three tectonic plates, yet hasn’t erupted in 300 years. Can you tell us more about this Japanese icon?