Post by Oliver Jia, Asian Studies Center Intern
Dr. Raja Adal is an assistant professor of world history, Japanese history, and Middle Eastern history. He studied in Japan for several years and earned his PhD at Harvard. Dr. Adal has been at the University of Pittsburgh since September 2015 and we recently sat down with him to discuss his career and experiences with Japanese culture.
Tell us about your background. What eventually brought you to the University of Pittsburgh?
There are a lot of appealing things about the University of Pittsburgh. One thing is that the history department is wonderful. Especially global history has been cultivated at the University of Pittsburgh within the history department but also with the World History Center. At the same time there is not only an Asian Studies Center, but a Japan Council and there are not that many universities that have a Japan Council or its equivalent. Together, these two institutions were just incredibly attractive for me. It really feels like a major research university where you have a lot of speakers coming through. You have funds available for research. And finally one thing which I’d like to see developed at the University of Pittsburgh is more attention to what’s often called the “digital humanities.” I think we’re starting to put resources into that and it’s starting to build up.
Your field of study is history, but what specifically drew you to Japanese history in particular?
Pure chance. I was a senior in college, wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life, saw an ad for fellowships to do a masters in Japan, applied, and a few months later I was on my way to Japan for two years. But once I actually got to Japan, I could have just done my two years masters with a fellowship and then gone on, come back to the U.S. and have done something else. But in those two years, really in the first year, I was caught by the Japan bug if you will, so I really wanted to know more about Japan. I ended up getting a government scholarship, Monbusho, and stayed in Japan for seven years. I almost got my PhD in Japan but then decided that I would like to go through an American PhD program and move to Harvard.
Did it take you awhile to get a hang of the language?
I think speaking and understanding Japanese isn’t that hard, it took me about year to have conversations. Not academic conversations in Japanese, that took much longer, but writing and reading was the real challenge. I think it took me two years of part time, by part time I mean every morning, five days a week, one hour twenty minute classes. And then two years of full time of either in a Japanese university or environment and taking intensive classes to really be able to function in a Japanese graduate school with other Japanese students. What they were reading and the writing assignments they were writing.
What classes are you teaching and what is your approach in engaging with students?
This year I’ve taught a class on modern Japan and an introductory class, Japan in the West which is much more topical. This term I’m also teaching a graduate class, Global Approaches to the Concept of Modernity which includes Japan, but is not just about Japan. For me history about the future. It’s about how we draw on the past and the experience of humanity, of different people in the past. Of different interactions between humans and other animals and inanimate objects, like the environment. And about how we use this knowledge in order to chart a better future. For me when I engage in students, I really want to make history something that’s useful, that’s practical in their lives. Even if they never pick up another Japanese history book in their lives, the point is not to teach them Japanese history for the sake of Japanese history, it’s to teach them Japanese history in order to make them better people. Who are better citizens in society. For their own personal cultural development. And in their professional lives, in their work.
Beyond the standard class material, what knowledge do you wish for your students to take away from your lectures?
The critical skill is thinking. How you think about causality, how you think about contingency. Relations between man and nature. When you have for example what’s called a natural catastrophe, to what extent? Is it natural and out of the control of man, it just happens and we’re there gazing at it and to what extent is it manmade? Whether it’s larger global forces that are at work, not just people in one country, but people across the globe that are making it. Or to what extent does the way we shape and build environment actually affect our interactions with nature?
Japan has gotten the reputation for being a country that combines traditional aesthetics with modernism. As someone who has extensively studied this field, do you believe that Japan has succeeded in preserving its traditional culture in an increasingly globalized world?
A couple summers ago I did video interviews with some of the leading young artisans in Kyoto. I asked them exactly that question. What does tradition mean to you? How do you actually adapt tradition to the contemporary world? Because what they’re doing are the “traditional” crafts. Many of them said interesting things about tradition not being something that’s “dead,” it’s not out there in the past. It’s something that’s alive within them. And so it’s something that’s perpetually changing. So they’re drawing on the knowledge and the practices that people before them have done like when they work wood or when they work bamboo or when they work metal. They’re using that knowledge, but then they’re renewing within themselves and through their personal creative process. So tradition is really something that’s alive and I think that’s really keen.
One of the topics you have written on is that of the typewriter. These days, typing has transitioned from that to word processors and smartphones. In your opinion, has handwriting become less relevant in regards to Chinese and Japanese with the advent of those technologies?
I think that the technical word for it is that handwriting is being “remediated.” Which means that handwriting is taking on a very different role in a new world where print is the standard. When printed documents were quite rare and when typewritten documents were almost nonexistent, I mean the first Japanese typewriter wasn’t officially commissioned until 1915, is a very different beast from handwriting today where most documents are printed and where handwritten suddenly stands out. It’s very personal. Today handwriting is reserved for love letters, it’s reserved for New Year’s cards. It’s reserved for things where you really want to communicate a personal message. It’s acquiring a new role. It’s transforming itself. Even typing. In the future voice dictation may take on an even larger role. We may be scribbling things on tablets. Shorthand forms could make it faster. There are all sorts of different possibilities in the future. The interesting part of looking at technology like the typewriter which seems very quaint and kind of old and passe is that it can actually shed light onto our current predicament and writing in a very broad sense. Whether it’s typing or dictating or handwriting or any other way of inscribing meaning, how that is developing in the future.
Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who wishes to become a professor in topics such as yours or Asia-related studies?
Think twice (laughs). Academia is a very tough field. First off you have to commit to five, six, seven, perhaps more years in a PhD program and after that you are not at all assured getting a job, far from that. But that said, I think that the first thing that you should do is really go abroad, go away, jump in. Go into a complete different environment, a different world. Don’t use English for awhile. Learn languages, learn how people across the world see things differently. And that will serve you enormously when time comes to apply to PhD programs if you still want to become an academic after that. But it will serve you even if you decide to not go that route and if you decide to into business or anything else.