Ben Whaley

Ph.D. Student, Graduated 2016
Modern Japanese literature

Ben Whaley, Ph.D. Student

Tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you became interested in Asian Studies?

People always ask me how I began studying Japanese and I always disappoint. The truth is I began studying Japanese language in middle school in Seattle because two years of foreign language study were mandatory for all students. My father wanted me to learn French, but I chose Japanese on a whim as it seemed completely different from English. I had my first opportunity to travel to Japan while still in middle school due to an exchange program we had with an institution in Kanazawa City. So, it was through these first few language classes and my short exchange trip as a teenager that I really fell in love with the language and culture.

Studying Japanese was always in the back of my mind when I entered college, but I actually planned to major in music. It was always my dream to compose theme songs and scores for video games. I auditioned and was accepted into a professor’s piano studio, but he deemed that I wasn’t practicing my Chopin Nocturne enough and promptly kicked me out after just one week of private lessons. I have been studying Japanese ever since!

Why did you choose the Asian Studies program at UBC? Was there an aspect of the program or location that was particularly attractive to you compared to other programs in Canada or internationally?

After graduating from college I moved to Japan and taught English at a medical school for a few years in the island of Shikoku. While it was stressful to suddenly be tasked with teaching medical students anatomical terms and doctor-patient dialogues in English (the extent of my medical knowledge came from watching E.R. and playing Operation), I still enjoyed the teaching aspect very much. When my contract expired, I returned to the U.S. with the goal of enrolling in a graduate program to get my doctorate and finally cap off the years of formal Japanese study. Being from Seattle, Vancouver was always the city my mother and I visited for vacations, and to feel like we were in an exotic foreign land. I was impressed by the depth of research and the number of active faculty members working on various aspects of Japan Studies here in the department. Since I found my academic interests drifting more toward Japanese pop culture (I began my studies analyzing modern Japanese literature), I was also excited to work with Professor Sharalyn Orbaugh. I have been very lucky throughout my M.A. and Ph.D. here to have a mentor who has always encouraged me and supported my research interests.

Could you explain to a non-expert what you are researching and why it is important?

I research Japanese video games (Bleep Bloop!) and write about the ways in which they engage with social issues and national trauma. For my purposes, this means analyzing console games that address issues of natural disasters, a declining birthrate and aging population, and traumatic war memory in Japan. I’m interested in how video games might make us better people by allowing for a working through of trauma and virtual exposure to other mindsets and cultures. To date, the lion’s share of work within Japan pop culture studies has focused on manga and anime texts. I firmly believe that the next wave of scholarship will have to address video games, not just as an entertainment medium that is on pace to surpass the global box-office revenue, but also as they reflect the country and culture of Japan. In fact, such research is already coming out in many exciting articles, book chapters, and student theses. This makes me very happy. When not writing about pixels and power-ups, I also research ethno-racial issues and Jewish identity in postwar manga (print comics), specifically in the works of Japan’s “God of Manga” Tezuka Osamu.

As a graduate student, what are your main activities?

Since I am nearing the end of my doctoral program the big activity these days is finishing the dissertation and readying it for defense. On a happier note, for the last year I have worked as a sessional lecturer in the department, teaching courses on modern Japanese literature, Japanese cinema, and manga and anime. This has been incredibly rewarding and also a great professional experience. There’s nothing quite like designing and teaching your own courses (and all the good and bad things that come along with it). Many universities prohibit non-faculty members from teaching courses, so this is a unique opportunity at UBC Asian Studies and one I’ve been very thankful for while applying to academic jobs. In earlier years, I worked as a graduate student representative and organized a variety of events with my friend and colleague Nicole Go, including our first ever UBC Asian Studies graduate student conference in 2012. I also spent one year working with the amazing Dr. Christina Laffin coordinating events at the Centre for Japanese Research (CJR). I learned so much from her and had a blast! A personal highlight from my time with CJR was the successful launch of our Press Start video game conference that brought together student gamers, scholars, and industry representatives from BC.

What has been the most memorable or impactful moment of your graduate experience?  

It’s hard to choose just one moment – Our inaugural graduate student conference, the Press Start video game event, my first talk at AAS (The Association for Asian Studies annual conference) where I tripped over the laptop power cord and fell over. All are wonderful memories! Teaching ASIA 326 – “Critical Approaches to Manga and Anime” as an instructor over the summer term was particularly memorable. This was the first class I taught solo as an instructor for the department and I designed my own syllabus, lectures, and assignments. The class always brings in hundreds of students and I got to work with three awesome graduate student TAs! I love lecturing to large groups and the energy and passion UBC students have for Japanese pop culture is second to none. Many of the students from that class went on to take my other literature and film courses so I felt like I really got to know them as people.

What are your goals (career or academic) once you’ve completed the program? And how is our program helping you achieve them?

Doctoral and Masters programs in Asian Studies tend to lead students down a career path in academia. For me, my goal has always been to become a professor of modern Japanese literature and pop culture at a major research university in the U.S. or Canada. To that end, I have felt more than prepared thanks to my time in the Asian Studies program. More than any other department I’ve been in, Asian Studies at UBC offers students a truly wide variety of opportunities for professionalization – from conference travel grants to the yearly grad student conference, from the ability to give mock talks and lunchtime lectures within the department, to teaching classes as a senior Ph.D. student. This is to say nothing of the support you feel just walking around the department and talking to all the friendly faces. There is so much expertise and so many viewpoints and approaches to scholarship under our triangular roof. I firmly believe that good scholarship can occur anywhere so long as you are among the right people and feel supported. More than anything, it is the faculty in this department, the friendly faces in the main office, and the fellow graduate students that make ours such a supporting environment.

Can you give any advice to new students in our program or for students considering applying to it?

For undergraduate students who are considering applying to grad school I would advise to think about why you want to do it and what research project you hope to pursue. Oftentimes undergraduates target graduate school when job prospects in the private sector become scarce. However, be prepared to put a lot of time and energy into your degree before you ever become that tenured full professor lounging on the beach. Graduate programs can also be highly stressful and competitive. They may not be the best places for encouraging positive mental health. This is just to say that if you do choose to start a graduate degree, and there are many wonderful reasons to do so, draw on your friends, family, and colleagues for support when you need it.

For those already in the program, or just starting, I would encourage you to jump right in. The tendency I’ve found is for students to hold back in an attempt to get the lay of the land. This is silly. Your two, four, or ten years in the program will fly by before you know it! There is definitely an adjustment period when entering grad school. However, resist the urge to say “I’ll try it next year.” If you are like me, you are never going to feel “comfortable,” “ready,” or “fully prepared” for anything you do while at UBC or in your academic career. So, strive to attend and present at a national conference as soon as you can, publish articles as soon as you have papers ready, and organize events as soon as there are willing participants. Some of the best “grad school” advice I ever received came oddly enough from my time teaching and performing improvisational theater at Stanford. My drama professor told me, “It’s never too early to pretend that you are a confident improviser.” The joke is that in improv we are always making stuff up on the fly so how can we possibly feel comfortable on stage not knowing what comes next? The same advice rings true for grad school. If you feel nervous or afraid or like an imposter, know that these feelings are normal. They are also useful. You wouldn’t have anxiety about something if you didn’t care about the results. So, in those times of insecurity, and there will be many during your graduate program and academic career, fake it. Look to those around you and mimic what they do. Eventually, if you pretend that you are a confident grad student long enough, you will actually become one. I truly believe this. Good luck. I wish you all the best for your studies!