3171 Syllabus

New Cabell 309

MW 200-315

Course Description: When did the samurai become Japanese? It’s not as absurd a question as it seems. No good samurai would have considered himself “Japanese” in 1100, or 1400, or even 1700. A loyal servant of a one’s lord or a member of a warrior family, perhaps, but surely not “Japanese.” In fact, a good case can be made it was not until 1899 when the book Bushido, The Soul of Japan was published that the samurai became Japanese. Even stranger, this means that the samurai became Japanese three decades after the last one ceased to exist. How—and why—did this happen? The secret lies in the ideology and practice of the nation-state, a new form of identity so powerful that once it starts it, reaches back into the past and rewrites it in its own image, telling the story of itself to itself. In the process even those good samurai of 1100, 1400, and 1700 became Japanese. And this is just one of the nation-state’s many tricks. We’ll study this trick specifically in week nine. Before and after that we’ll have many chances to uncover and reveal other hidden historical accidents, mistakes, slippages, and contingencies in something so seemingly natural and obvious as national identity. One more from week four: Why is it so important to serve beef prepared according French recipes when the Duke of Edinburgh is coming to visit?

Using Japan’s transformation from the samurai warrior government to a modern nation-state in 1868, we will constantly move back and forth between general theories of nationalism and national identity and the concrete experience of Meiji Japan as a way to interrogate the rise of both the nation-state of Japan and its location within a global system of nation-states. In the process we will explore the concepts of national borders, the idea of national progress, the invention of national culture, forms of government and representation, the struggles over national identity, managing populations, and the role played by coincidence, contingency, accidents, ideology, and violence in the whole process.

Course Objectives: The mission of this course is to explore the nature of the nation-state as a historically specific form of politics, economics, society, history, and identity. We will achieve the overall goal of the course by pursuing the following objectives:

  1. Identify and describe the key perspectives and actors from Japan’s modern transformation into a nation-state from roughly 1868-1912.
  2. Become proficient at reading a text in order to uncover its assumptions and the relationships and logic of its categories (the concepts it uses to explain the world). For example there is a deep and occasionally violent struggle over the proper relationship between the nation and the state; careers were ruined, people were jailed and even killed in disputes over the theory and practice of the hyphen in the deceptively simple term “nation-state.”
  3. Analyze the various theories and ideologies of nationalism in general and more specific inflections of this ideology in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Japan.
  4. Using the experience of Meiji Japan, discover the social mechanisms and mediations by which complex and abstract ideologies are manifested in daily life.
  5. Identify and frame useful questions for further research and exploration.
  6. Compare and contrast the historically specific form of the nation-state in Meiji Japan and the forms it takes in both contemporary Japan and our own time and place.

Requirements and Grading: There will be occasional in-class writing, a review paper, another short paper, a group bibliography project, and a final take-home paper.

Occasionally, at the start of class, you will be asked to write a short paragraph or take a quiz on the day’s or week’s readings. These will be graded as either ✓- (did not respond to the issues), ✓ (shows knowledge of the text’s issues), or ✓+ (shows knowledge of the text’s issues and relates them to our course’s themes). You get one free miss for any reason whatsoever. But this also means that any misses over two will count regardless of excuses. Note that a score of “✓-” is one you’d probably like to drop as your free miss. In other words, don’t do what some have in the past: skip one class and then get sick for a second, because that second, sick miss will count. These “check” grades will make up the “in-class writing” assessment below.

Review Paper                                15%

short writing/quizzes                 25%

Bibliography Project                   20%

Final Take-Home Paper             40%


  1. Bushido, Nitobe Inazo
  2. The Book of Tea, Okakura Tenshin
  3. A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government, Nakae Chomin
  4. Kokoro, Natsume Soseki