A new series where we ask our instructors about their early lives, career development and proudest accomplishments. Our fifth interview features Dr. Peter Nosco, Professor in Japanese History and Culture.
- Dr. Peter Nosco has been teaching at UBC since 2003
- Published in (co-ed. with Simone Chambers), Dissent on Core Beliefs: Religious and Secular Perspectives (Cambridge Univ. Press 2015.) and, (co-ed. with James Ketelaar and Kojima, Yasunori) Values, Identity and Equality in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Japan (Leiden: Brill, 2015). This second one is about to appear later this month in Japanese translation, published by Kashiwa Shobō.
- Teaching: ASIA 314-315, ASIA 387, ASIA 101.
Can you explain to a non-expert what you research?
Basically my work sits at the intersection of the intellectual and social history of Japan about two-to-three hundred years ago. I’m currently wrapping up work on a book that will come out next year on the theme of individuality in Japan from about the 1680s through to the end of the Tokugawa period in the 1860s. One of the more common stereotypes of Japanese people is that they are homogenous and behave collectively rather than individually. This book basically argues the exact opposite, i.e., that there were probably higher levels of individuality in Japan 200 years ago than today.
How and why did you start your journey in Asian Studies?
When I was a first-year student at Columbia, my roommate dared me to take up an Asian language. I ruled out Chinese because in those days a U.S. citizen couldn’t visit China; I ruled out Korean because in those days there were only six students studying Korean at Columbia, and all were graduate students funded by the CIA. I thought about doing Sanksrit which seemed cool, but the truth is I don’t like hot climates so I ruled that out. This just left Japanese by process of elimination. I intended to go to law school because I thought that having a Columbia law degree and knowing Japanese would lead to my making a fortune. I unexpectedly got a scholarship to Cambridge University, where I was forced to learn classical Japanese, Japanese linguistics, traditional literature and history. To my surprise I discovered that I actually loved this study, and I quickly abandoned the study of law, which was really just about money anyway.
What was the experience for you learning a second language?
Before I studied Japanese I knew Czech, Slovak, French, Latin. Japanese was by far the most difficult language I ever studied and I liked the challenge very much, I have a gift for languages. On that first day of Japanese class, there were about 22 students in the class at Columbia. On the second day of class, there were 16. 13 were graduate students. For those graduate students, an A- was like a failing grade. So it was without question the most intensely competitive atmosphere I’d ever been in. There were many times when I thought about quitting. I talked to one of my teachers and expressed my intention to quit and they inevitably told me what, in retrospect, I call “the big lie” which is “Stay with it Peter because next semester it gets easier.” It never actually got easier but it certainly was satisfying. At the end of my second-year at Columbia, having studied Japanese for two years, I did go to Japan for 8 weeks basically to see the country whose language I was studying. Could I reasonably imagine living there, and things like that. I travelled like a crazy man, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, tip to tip. Rarely stayed in any one place for more than two days. I took hundreds of photographs and when I got home I couldn’t tell what was what because I didn’t label them properly.
Was there a point in your journey when you struggled or questioned yourself?
My career, if one puts it under a microscope, has been a story of advances and reversals and there have been any number of reversals from which I have in every instance emerged stronger, but there was no way to assume that would happen at the time of the reversal. So have I questioned myself? Many, many times. I’ve been determined to put one foot in front of the other, pick myself up, dust myself off, and see what happens.
Is there a project that you are most proud of?
I’m proud of all my projects, I’m sorry if that sounds vain or anything like that. I’m at a moment in my life where I’ve had a long career, and I’ve been reflecting on my career with immense satisfaction because of the extent to which my scholarship has moved the field. There are topics relating to Christianity in Japan, Kokugaku nativism, ways of looking at Confucianism, ways of looking at underground religions, a whole series of areas where the common wisdom now is different from where I started. I was immensely gratified when Pope Francis, a couple years ago, acknowledged the legitimacy of the underground Christians. I can’t stay that that was a direct result of my scholarship, but Catholic scholarship on the underground Christians did not accept their legitimacy because they were a non-sacramental church. I’ve long argued that these pockets of believers followed their beliefs with astonishing fidelity in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Pope Francis, without emphasizing me or my scholarship (I have to clarify that), he resoundingly endorsed my perspective. That was very gratifying. And when my scholarship was translated into Japanese, the book I’m probably best known for, Remembering Paradise, it was a controversial book because it wrote about the taboo topics I studied as a doctoral student in Tokyo. When that book became translated to Japanese, it became an important book very quickly. I have to say that the book I’m working on now, this book might have an even greater impact.
In class we study about events that shape Asia. Have you witnessed any such event firsthand?
I witnessed the student demonstrations in 1969 at Tokyo University, I also participated in them. They were protesting the Vietnam War, the Japan-America security treaty, and the renewal of that treaty.
What change do you hope your work can make in the world?
If people ask me what I teach, I sometimes say that I teach reading and writing. I teach a certain way of close reading, looking at documents, looking at things that people have looked at in some cases for hundreds of years and showing how they can be seen differently. I think, if I have a gift, it’s probably that, the ability to look at things that many other people have looked at and go beyond the accepted narrative regarding those matters. I discovered a different way to look at these things, a different way that now many people find compelling and the correct way. That’s very gratifying. There’s so many things that I’m trying to do. With my students, we talk about thinking critically in university and that’s a kind of half-truth, I think if one looks carefully at the kinds of opinions that are expressed in the modern academy, they actually move in a very narrow-minded way. I try to teach my students to look at something that at the start of the day seems completely true and at the end of the day they start to question it, and the day after they realize there are alternative explanations that actually are superior. You teach a student to do that with one thing, now you’ve given the student the tool to do that with other things. This sounds self-congratulatory but I routinely get e-mails from students that I had ten, twenty, thirty years ago saying that they had just thought of something I had said and they were thinking about me. When a student I haven’t seen for decades says, you’ve changed my life a little bit, that’s gratifying.