Studying “the Rural”

I am taking Kim Brandt’s seminar on consumerism in (mostly) prewar Japan this semester. In this seminar, students organize 4 sessions by ourselves. Another student and I decided to assign readings on ‘the rural’ since both of us work on rural Japan, and ‘the rural’ seems to be treated as a separate subfield while ‘the urban’ is usually the default space of investigation when discussing Japanese history. It is indeed worth asking when we study the rural, and when we don’t, I think. We assigned the whole or chapters from:

柳宗悦『地方性の文化的価値』1940‭ ‬
柳田国男『町風田舎風』「都市と農村」‭ ‬Ch.4‭, ‬1929‭ ‬
小林多喜二「不在地主」1929
Kim Brandt‭, ‬Kingdom of Beauty‭, ‬2007
Kerry Smith‭, ‬A Time of Crisis‭, ‬2001

Some of the large questions we asked are:

Combining the Smith reading and the Kobayashi Takiji novel with what we read on the department stores, café waitresses and exhibitions in the preceding weeks, we see that there was a huge gap between the urban consumer society and the devastated rural society in the late 20s and the 30s. Intellectuals like Yanagita and Yanagi, Agrarianism activists and the state at the time all adopted the dichotomy of the rural and the urban. But thinking about the great mobility of the population between the two and more information circulation, what exactly was this distinction about? — was it about materialistic differences, conceptual differences or differences in consciousness? Does Brandt’s book blur or solidify this dichotomy?

In the historiography of the history of Japan, too, the urban is the default space of analysis, and the rural is often defined as the Other in the same nation. So, for those urban intellectuals at the time, as well as for historians today, why and when does the rural Other become important, and where does the distinction between the urban and the rural exist? Finally, what is the use of the dichotomy for us, historians?

Although their approaches were somewhat different, both Yanagi and Yanagita found true national values in the rural villages. They were the authorities who determined what was valuable and what was not, and in many ways they treated the rural as the pure, simple, beautiful Other. It is very tempting for us to conclude that it was an example of Said’s Orientalism, taking place within the national framework. But maybe we should examine the idea of Orientalism a bit more carefully. For example, Yanagi thought that the rural was superior to the urban, and tried to project the national Self to the rural. Yanagita was critical of the pastoral romanticism in the literature, and he himself was caught in the dilemma of how scholars could escape urban-centered analytical mode. Is Orientalism a useful concept here, or not? Is it better just to see it as a part of modernity, rather than Orientalism? Finally, are we, as urban intellectuals, capable of escaping the urban-bias in general?

Category(s): History, Japan, My Grad School Life

2 Responses to Studying “the Rural”

  1. Great posting and great to give other grad students and professors ideas for possible units in their own classes. I would love to have seen how the discussion played out since I have not read any of those except the Kerry Smith work.

  2. Well. We spent most of the hours trying to figure out what the hell Yanagita Kunio was trying to say… (And it’s me who picked that particular piece. 汗). But I think this relatively unnoticed subject of rural-urban dichotomy is worth exploring.

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