On Being Poor in Grad School


Education is often described as an equalizing social force. Despite the fact that this is blatantly not true of undergraduate education, one might still think that more education is somehow more equalizing. Many people understand that financially stable graduate students are few and far between, but there are degrees of stability; and, unfortunately, students from the most disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds can suffer horribly in their pursuit of higher education.

Since the vast majority of universities are committed to lofty liberal ideals, you’d think that it would be easier to be poor as a graduate student, or that you’d be taken care of by higher-level university administrators, who possess a deep understanding of the tenets of social justice, at least on paper. To tell the truth, though, being poor in academia is actually pretty terrible.

It’s terrible to have to sit and listen to a fellow graduate student complain about a rare and elusive fellowship that allows her to do half the amount of teaching you do while receiving five times the salary. It’s terrible to receive student comments on your course evaluations like “she should not teach if she doesn’t have a smartphone.” It’s terrible to get sick constantly because you can’t afford to buy warm clothing or to heat your apartment and to then be told that “we don’t do this for the money” by the head of your department, who quite frankly doesn’t give a damn about whether you have enough money to support yourself or not.

Academia looks different in the eyes of winners than it does in the eyes of losers. Winners see a system that rewards merit and hard work, but losers are able to see hidden lines of power, cultural capital, and personal connections that are far more influential in the ultimate fate of a graduate student than individual merit. In academia, as in other societies, those with privilege are often blind to their privilege, and the ideologies of academia strongly discourage any discussion of this privilege and how it works.

Even after graduate school, personal merit plays very little role. You may get lucky and get a job during your final year of grad school; but, to be brutally honest, it’s not likely, no matter how accomplished you are. It’s therefore important to understand how poverty affects your life as a grad student and impedes your ability to succeed.

Before I go any farther, I want to clarify two points. First, I don’t want to tell anyone not to go to graduate school. If you want to go to class and do research and read books and write essays and teach at the college level and work with incredible and exceptional people, then by all means go to graduate school, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Second, I’m not complaining about my department or any of its students or professors or administrators. If you want to go into East Asian Studies, you should totally apply to the University of Pennsylvania, because we’ve got good people and excellent resources. What I’m writing is partially based on my experience, but it’s primarily a composite picture of the experiences of my friends and acquaintances from many different departments and universities across the United States.

What I hope to achieve through this essay is twofold: First, I want to give as accurate a picture as possible of the sort of severe difficulties that economically underprivileged students can suffer in graduate school; and second, I want to shame the universities that allow this sort of nonsense to happen.

Here are three things you need to keep in mind if you’re thinking about graduate school:


It’s difficult to give exact figures from what the annual stipend of a grad student in the humanities looks like, but a fair estimate is about $21,000. This average doesn’t mean much, however, since stipends range from less than $16,000 to more than $25,000, depending on the university, the department, the year, and the student. Some fellowships last five years, and some last four years or less, and some must be renewed from year to year. Competition for fellowship money is intense, departmental and university politics are always involved, and many graduate students receive no money at all.

Students not supported by fellowships have the option of teaching courses for money. In my experience, a per-class salary can be anywhere from $1,600 to $5,500 (before taxes), and competition for these courses is fierce, especially since graduate students are competing with new PhDs for work.

What this means is that, while it’s possible to earn a livable wage for a few years as a graduate student, it’s also entirely possible to spend several years very close to the poverty line, especially immediately before and after you earn your degree. As of 2012, the official poverty line in the United States is $11,170 for a single-person household and $15,130 for a dual-person household. With part-time adjunct salaries averaging $2,600 per course (before taxes), the paltry income you earn during and after graduate school might make the poverty line seem like an unattainable ideal.

Although there are guides to surviving in the world without much money, the truth is that being poor sucks. If you don’t believe me, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (or David Shipler’s The Working Poor, or Mark Rank’s One Nation, Underprivileged). There are no “tricks” to being poor, and there are often hidden costs. Furthermore, the debt you can accrue just for basics like groceries and health care can mess up your life for a long time, even if you do eventually manage to find a job.

One of the most trying aspects of not making any money as a graduate student is sitting in lectures and listening to tenured professors talk about Marxism and social justice. It’s almost as if they don’t realize that their jobs and salaries are built on the exploitation of poorly paid graduate students, adjunct lecturers, and other temporary employees (who make up an estimated 76% of the work force in American colleges and universities). The whole system of higher education, in which privilege is hidden by a tenaciously enforced illusion of meritocracy, is actually kind of terrible, and it’s even worse when the tenured professors in charge of graduate funding don’t seem to be aware of this.


Let’s say that, as a graduate student or a recent PhD, you are fortunate enough to make $20,000 a year. To an economically underprivileged undergraduate, whose costs of living are generally offset by financial aid, housing subsidies, and part-time jobs, this can seem like a lot of money. To an adult, a salary of less than $1,500 per month (after taxes) is severe, especially if part of that salary needs to be set aside for the expensive health insurance programs that universities require students and employees to carry (more on this later). Even more of this salary must be spent on job-related expenses, such as conference and research travel, for which graduate programs offer partial but nowhere near full subvention.

Since housing and food cost money, graduate students don’t have a great deal of disposable income, and expenses like clothing and books can become unaffordable luxuries. Home internet service and a smart phone data package might fall outside of your budget as well. If you’re a woman, you might not be able to afford birth control. It might be too expensive to take the bus or subway every day, and even the upfront cost of a bicycle can seem steep. Forget about having a car. When you’re a poor graduate student, social events held outside of school can become financial crises, and traveling to meet friends outside of your graduate school social circles becomes almost impossible.

If you’re 21 years old, being poor might seem cool and edgy, but penury looks completely different at 29, when all of your friends from high school and college have settled into careers. They have spacious apartments with furniture and windows and sunlight, or they might even own their own houses. They have pets and gym memberships. They take vacations abroad and post pictures of all the delicious food they eat on Facebook. They go to concerts and buy art, and they pursue interesting hobbies like bookbinding and horseback riding and collecting jazz records. They have flattering haircuts, and they wear nice clothing.

And you? You work well in excess forty hours a week, but you don’t even have your own office.


Another reason poverty seems more bearable when you’re a college student is that you’re still young and your body still works the way it’s supposed to. As you get older, however, not having any money begins to take a serious toll on your health. Not being able to afford heating your apartment during the winter has obvious consequences, as does not being able to afford shoes that you can wear when you exercise. When combined with chronic malnutrition, environmental factors such as exposure can also have distressing consequences. A weekly food and grocery allowance of less than $100 means that you will not often have the benefit of fresh fruit and vegetables, and you can quite literally starve while eating food that is terrible for you. If you’re jocularly thinking to yourself that graduate school might function as an effective diet, the truth is that, after several months of being unable to eat nutritious food, not only are you hungry all the time, but you also start gaining weight. Your immune system tanks, so you’re sick more often than not. You’re much more likely to catch a cold, your colds last longer, and they’re much more likely to develop into something serious. Anemia and diabetes can also become problems.

Compounding the health-related consequences of poverty are university student health insurance policies. Most universities require students to carry health insurance; and, at many universities, university bureaucracy renders it almost impossible for students to carry a cheaper plan than the student health insurance plan, which generally requires the university student health service to refer you to a limited list of outside providers before it will cover the cost of your treatment. If the student health service at your school won’t write you an official referral, you may have to pay for treatment on your own. This makes it difficult to seek a second opinion, especially if you’re attending school in a large expensive city far away from where you grew up and went to college.

I don’t want to make blanket statements about the quality of student health insurance, but getting a second opinion is important, especially when the student health service roulette wheel matches you with the wrong health care provider for your specific situation. Incorrect diagnoses happen all the time; and, if you can imagine the cost of something like surgery without the referral necessary for student health insurance coverage, you can start to get a picture of the health care burdens faced by graduate students. Also, as is the case with most insurance policies, you have to pay extra for vision and dental. This means that, if you destroy your eyes reading in your dark dusty carrel in a section of the library that has no windows, it’s a problem you have to pay for out of your own pocket.

For grad students suffering from mental health issues, student health services and insurance policies can be a nightmare, and the loss of both after graduation can be even worse. On an adjunct salary, mental health care is almost impossible to afford and can mean a change in medication, which I understand can be hell on earth for people with certain conditions.

Malnutrition is real, all sorts of terrible things can happen to your body, and mental health is important. These are all things to keep in mind when you consider the cost of graduate school.


Even if you get lucky and are fully funded at a livable wage during the entirety of grad school, and even if you are astronomically lucky enough to be hired into a tenure-track job after you get your PhD, you will see your peers and colleagues suffering. You will think to yourself that “he’s overweight because he’s lazy,” or “she wears ugly clothes because she’s too stupid to dress herself,” or “his kids are always sick because he’s a bad parent,” and you probably won’t think twice about what difference even a few thousand dollars can make when you’re all so close to poverty. When the shining star of your graduate department fails to be offered a tenure-track job, you will smugly think to yourself that “maybe she isn’t so good after all” without bothering to consider that, with fewer than two dozen tenure-track jobs on the market she’s entering (including the “open rank” jobs intended for senior scholars) and more than two hundred applicants for each job, luck plays an enormous part in who gets a job and who doesn’t.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, there’s still a pervasive idea that academia is a meritocracy. This notion functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, since people who are given more resources are generally able to be more productive. Winners continue to win, and losers continue to lose. Since resources in academia are so scare, the unfortunate truth is that any graduate student can become a loser at any given time for reasons that are completely arbitrary. People who win everything only to lose something for no good reason at a crucial moment (for many graduate students, this point generally comes when they are unable to secure a tenure-track job) and suddenly realize that the game is flawed tend to be understandably upset to have devoted years of their lives to supporting a system that, in the end, will not support them.

Responses to such outcries tend to betray a sense that, if someone didn’t achieve her goals, then she didn’t deserve to. To give an example, in response to a recent Slate article about the despair of investing one’s time and energy into a system that does not live up to its ideals, a certain academic blogger wrote that people who tell the truth about how academia works are “academia haters.” The author of the Slate article in particular “can’t manage [her] time well,” and is “egregiously ignorant,” a “lousy writer,” a “freakazoid,” a “despicable creature,” an “obnoxious loser before [she] even left high school,” and not “worthy to clean [my] toilet,” not to mention “a spoiled brat.” As charming as this blogger is, and as persuasive as the mindset she articulates can be, statistics concerning the academic job market truly are dire; and, in such situations, realism can be much more powerful than “positive thinking.”

I don’t want to say that only people who are independently wealthy should pursue a graduate degree, and I don’t want to say that you do not deserve a graduate degree if you cannot physically or mentally handle a year or two of poverty. The goals of higher education are well worth pursuing, and what you learn in graduate school will allow you to develop intellectual tools and practical skills that have the potential to be quite competitive on a broader job market. Furthermore, university resources can give even poor graduate students and adjunct professors fantastic opportunities for intellectual development and social change.

Still, before you decide to go to graduate school, it’s important to be realistic about financial matters and what the costs of grad school – and poverty – actually are. It’s important to understand that you are statistically unlikely to be able to support yourself completely during the entirety of grad school and its immediate aftermath, and it’s important that your family understand this as well. Careful planning and saving are necessary, as is a reliable exit (or hiatus) strategy. Although your professors and peers may discourage you from doing so, keep an eye on the world outside academia. Try to develop work experience before you go to grad school, and try to keep your work contacts fresh by networking and freelancing.

Academia is wonderful in many ways, but a system built on exploitation that allows such an enormous degree of poverty and income inequality is fundamentally broken. If you’re smart enough to go to graduate school, then you’re smart enough to arm yourself with knowledge of the realities of graduate school and to take the necessary precautions to ensure that the broken system does not break you.

Good luck!

How to Do Research on Japanese Literature

This is an introductory guide to doing research that I wrote for an undergraduate class on Japanese literature that I’m teaching this fall. Because I wish someone had given me this sort of information when I was a freshman in college, I’m posting this guide online with the hope that it will prove useful to a broader audience.

Before I begin, I have two pieces of advice that should prove helpful to the research process.

(1) The success of your search is largely dependent upon the strength of your search terms. Instead of searching for material on a broad topic, search instead for a key figure closely associated with that topic. For example, search for “Kirino Natsuo” instead of “Japanese mystery fiction,” or “Tsuruya Namboku IV” instead of “zankoku no bi.”

(2) Once you have successfully located a book or article, pay close attention to its footnotes and bibliography. These citations will help steer you toward work related to your topic that might not appear in more specialized searches, and they’re a very good place to start looking for material in Japanese.

This guide is divided into three sections: academic sources (that require a subscription through a university library), extra-academic sources (that do not require a subscription), and Japanese-language sources (which also do not require a subscription). Since most basic information, such as biographical details and publishing history, is readily available online, this guide focuses on databases that will help you find books and articles on a given topic.

Academic Sources

This database offers full-text academic articles for download as PDF files. It also contains citations of articles that can be downloaded directly from the websites of academic journals. Some of these journals, like Monumenta Nipponica, require a university subscription in order to be accessed, while others, like intersections, are freely available to anyone.

Project MUSE
This is another database offering full-text academic articles available for download, but it draws its search results from a slightly different selection of journals. For example, articles from the journal Mechademia are available on Project MUSE but not on JSTOR.

The Bibliography of Asian Studies
This is a specialty database that will display book-length monographs and translations in addition to academic articles. It will also occasionally display academic work written in French and German. This database contains only citations, however, and not full-text articles. Like JSTOR and Project MUSE, the Bibliography of Asian Studies must be accessed through a university connection or university proxy server.

Unlike the above three databases, this collection of databases is intended for a less “academic” user. Searches made on this aggregate will thus turn up sources such as general interest magazine articles and book reviews, although occasionally an academic article might show up as well. EBSCO is usually available in public libraries, but a subscription is still necessary to access the site.

Extra-Academic Sources

The primary goal of Amazon is to make money, and Amazon can’t make money if it can’t help you find what you’re looking for. Amazon’s advanced search engine makes it perhaps the single best place to find academic books either on or related to your topic. Not only does Amazon search titles, but it also searches tables of contents and whatever portions of the text it has available for free viewing, which usually includes the Library of Congress cataloging data. As a result, Amazon is one of the few places where less specific search terms can be used effectively. Amazon search results will include the newest books and books that aren’t even in print yet, which I believe makes the site a necessary supplement to library catalogs.

It’s always good to check the Wikipedia article(s) on your topic for their citations. Academics (especially grad students working on cutting-edge research) are not above editing Wikipedia articles and citing their own books and essays. Wikipedia is therefore a relatively painless way to find just-published studies, especially when you’re researching a topic related to contemporary Japan.

Google Scholar
Google Scholar displays citations that will link you either directly to Google Books or to an article on a database like JSTOR. Google Scholar is therefore useful to people who have access to InterLibrary Loan (through a public library) but not to a university library and its resources.

University Library Webpages
I have never encountered a university library webpage that requires you to enter login information in order to search its online database. Thus, even if you’re not a student at a particular university, you can still search that library’s collection. Moreover, the library websites of major universities usually contain pages devoted to a specific area of study (for example, here is Columbia University’s page on Japanese Studies), although you typically need to be connected through the university to access the databases that are listed on these pages. In any case, it has been my experience that American university libraries will generally let you physically enter the building even if you’re not affiliated with the university, although you won’t be able to check out books without special permission.

Japanese-Language Sources

National Diet Library OPAC
An institution similar to the American Library of Congress, the National Diet Library houses every book published in Japan. The library’s OPAC (online public access catalog) is your key to searching their collection. If you’re lazy like me and prefer to read articles instead of books, you can use the library’s specialized magazine and article search (雑誌記事索引の検索). You can search also run searches in English, but be aware that these searches will only turn up books and articles written in English and other foreign languages. If you happen to be in Japan, it is possible to visit both the Tokyo and Kyoto branches of the National Diet Library without any sort of credentials or special registration. The library staff will find and deliver any materials you request, and they will photocopy articles and book chapters for a small fee. If you can’t make it to Japan, the library website contains many other services and features besides the OPAC, some of which are explained by this essay.

WINE (Waseda University OPAC)
For more specialized academic searches, you can try using the OPAC of a major Japanese research university. I have found that the one hosted by Waseda University has been the most helpful. Running a search on a university library’s collection will often turn up a different (and more useful) set of books and journals than a search of the National Diet Library, and university library call numbers can be extremely useful when placing a request on InterLibrary Loan. Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily difficult to enter Japanese university libraries in person if one is not already affiliated with the university.

While a university library OPAC is good for academic books, CiNii is a great place to go for academic articles. A search on CiNii will get you far more relevant results than a search through the National Diet Library, and all entries are linked directly to WorldCAT, which makes it easy to request articles through InterLibrary Loan. It is possible to download PDF copies of certain articles from CiNii, but you must be a registered user, a privilege for which you have to pay. You must also pay for each download. I have never felt the need to pay these user fees, so I’m not sure how well the paid service works, but I have still found the site to be extraordinarily useful.

Amazon Japan
Because so many general interest books and journals are published on specialized topics in Japan, Amazon Japan is perhaps the single most convenient source for literary, cinematic, and cultural criticism written in Japanese. Although Amazon Japan doesn’t offer discounts like the American Amazon, the site is somehow able to keep books in stock that are almost impossible to find anywhere else. Furthermore, once you add a book to your cart, you are instantly given the titles of two dozen other books and journal issues on your topic. Just because you have put something in your cart doesn’t mean you have to buy it (especially since international shipping is expensive), and Amazon Japan contains all the publishing information you will need to request a book or journal through InterLibrary Loan. Never underestimate the power of Amazon.


As I mentioned earlier, this guide is meant to be both brief and introductory. More specialized research will obviously require more specialized databases, indexes, and dictionaries. Thankfully, a great deal of the information that used to be contained only in rare books is now freely accessible online. The best place to start looking for specialized resources is through the web pages of the libraries of major research institutions in America and Canada. It is also possible to get in touch with the librarians and bibliographers of the East Asian Studies collections of these libraries if you’re stuck. People put things online so that they can be accessed. This information exists so that you can make use of it. Whether you’re a professional student or just someone who’s curious about a particular topic, you will definitely be able to find out what you want to know and get your hands on all sorts of interesting things to read.

The image at the top of this guide illustrates the concept of studying by moonlight reflected off of snow in winter and by the luminescence of a bag of fireflies in summer. When it comes to research, where there is a will, there is a way. Good luck!

In Defense of Japanese Studies

Try telling the 30,000 people who attended Otakon in 2010 that Japan is irrelevant.

Before I begin, I should mention that I’m reacting, in part, to an essay titled Pulling the Plug (on higher education and the humanities). Everything the author says is absolutely true, and the tone of her writing is absolutely appropriate. The system of higher education in America is either breaking or already broken, and the way people think about higher education in America isn’t helping, as most people don’t care about what grad students and professors in the humanities are doing. It’s difficult, after all, to explain why a traditional academic project such as identifying the author of a medieval German poem is relevant to the twenty-first century. I believe very deeply that the humanities are relevant, however, and I’d like to make a case for Japanese Studies in particular.

I grew up in a small city in central Georgia called Jackson. Despite what I’m going to say in the following paragraph, I love Jackson, but the town is very, um, special. To call it “provincial” would create a false sense of quaintness, and to call it “rural” would do a disservice to the banality of the McDonald’s-style commercialism centered around the intersection of the two old logging routes that form its main traffic intersection. To call it “isolated” also seems laughable in comparison to the county’s other municipality, a decaying, kudzu-choked, Southern Gothic survival horror creepshow of a place called Flovilla. At about an hour south of Atlanta on Interstate 75 and twenty minutes east of Interstate 75 on either State Route 42 or State Route 36, though, Jackson was passed over by the economic and cultural development that came to the greater Atlanta metro area in the wake of the 1996 Olympics, and in many ways it seems stuck in a different decade. The city has a small public library, however, and that public library is fully stocked with a large selection of manga. Every single one of these manga is well worn with use, and two of the Jackson librarians recently told me that the manga are just about the most popular titles in the library, bringing in many children from a wide range of economic backgrounds.

The point I am trying to make is that, even in a backwater town like Jackson, kids read manga. They read the books from right to left, and they know that the stories come from Japan. I don’t think this situation is atypical. In a PR release for promotional material released to libraries by manga publisher Viz Media, manga critic Katherine Dacey states that “it’s no secret that many public and school libraries have turned reluctant readers into regular patrons by adding manga to their collections.” Furthermore, the attendance of anime conventions I have attended in places as diverse as Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, and Seattle is staggering. I like to make the joke to my colleagues that, if even ten percent of the kids at those conventions goes to college, and if even ten percent of that ten percent wants to take classes about Japan, then we are in business. Even if these teenagers never take a single course in Japanese Studies, however, it would be laughably misguided to tell them that Japan is irrelevant to the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, if my own secondary education can serve as an example, I don’t think many Americans learn a great deal about Japan in high school. Some private and charter schools offer a year or two of Japanese language, and some AP Literature students get to read Yoshimoto Banana and Murakami Haruki as part of their curriculum, but usually Japan is only approached in “World Culture” or “World Religion” classes, if not briefly in relation to World War II in American history classes (they bombed us and we nuked them, the end). I know this is a huge generalization, but I think college is the first place where most young Americans can really learn about Japan in a formal academic setting.

For better or for worse, the focus on Western culture, history, literature, and languages in American secondary education makes sense. Before a student starts learning a language like Japanese, it’s infinitely more useful for her to learn English, Spanish, and the languages that form the etymologies of English and Spanish. Also, the stories of Classical and Judeo-Christian mythology carry far more cultural resonance in America than the stories of the Kojiki and The Tale of Genji. If American secondary education is meant to build a foundation of factual knowledge and critical thinking, however, American higher education serves to deepen this factual knowledge to a more specialist level while sharpening critical thinking skills. In high school English classes, you study SAT words and learn how symbolism works; in college English classes, you learn how to craft cogent arguments using sophisticated rhetorical devices while challenging received notions of how concepts like gender, race, and nationality are formed and shape our lives.

Besides equipping students with a better set of tools to understand the world, American higher education also serves to expand the world these students live in. There are a lot of academic disciplines, for example, that secondary education just doesn’t cover, especially in the social sciences. Psychology is a big one. Area Studies is another. The various disciplines broadly categorized as “Area Studies,” such as Asian Studies, African Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies, encourage students to expand their worldview beyond the Eurocentrism that they were exposed to for twelve years of primary and secondary education. Learning about different cultures at the college level isn’t really about factual information; rather, it’s about forcing students to acknowledge and become acclimatized to the idea that there are other people in the world besides Americans and Europeans. If, for instance, an American college student learns that Japanese notions of “poetry” are completely different than from Western Romantic idea of “poetry,” and if she sees that her professor takes Japanese ideas concerning poetry for granted, and if she reads enough Japanese poetry to begin to take these ideas for granted herself, then she will gradually realize that not everything in the world is or has to be like it is in the West. I think this attitude of acceptance and tolerance, as well as the meta-cognitive skills that accompany it (in terms of dealing with cultural change and difference), are a very, very good thing.

What Japanese Studies does, then, is not only to teach students about an important and highly relevant part of the world but also to encourage their development as “international citizens” or “global citizens” or “citizens of the twenty-first century” – regardless of the current buzzword, the demand for a broader cultural literacy is the same. Japanese Studies classes effectively transform Japan from a fantasy land that only exists within the American cultural sphere to a real place populated by real people who exist independently of the American cultural imagination; and, if Japan really exists, then it only stands to reason that other countries, such as Egypt and Afghanistan, really exist as well. The shift in cultural perspective is enormous. Probably most of the people reading this take such a cultural perspective for granted, but we’ve all been through college and probably don’t remember what it’s like to be a junior in high school and surrounded by nothing but Western language, history, and literature. For me personally, Japan might as well have been Disneyland while I was in high school, and I believe there are still a great many Americans well past their teens who don’t think too differently.

What I tried to argue at the beginning of this essay is that the younger generation of Americans is interested in Japan. Japan is of course relevant to everyone, whether they’re aware of it or not, but the cultural and economic influence of the country is especially relevant to the millions of teenagers flocking to anime conventions all around the country. These kids want to learn about Japan, and college is the place where they can do that. Since taking classes in Area Studies has tangible benefits not only to them personally as global citizens but also to the future of America as a global leader in business and technology, I firmly believe that Japanese Studies is highly relevant to this country’s national interests. If our government wants to shoot itself in the foot by canceling the Fulbight-Hays Fellowship for international research projects or cutting Title IV funding for international scholarship, it’s their prerogative. As for me, however, I’m going to stay in academia and do my best to make sure that higher education does what it’s supposed to do in terms of creating young people who are prepared to engage in international economies of commerce, technology, culture, and ideas.

Before I close this essay, I suppose I should address the issue of students with liberal arts degrees not finding jobs. If you’re wondering what a student can do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies, there is actually an entire website devoted to the topic. The language skills and cultural literacy acquired in even one or two Japanese Studies classes are invaluable to employers even without a major in Japanese Studies, and I have seen numerous classmates, colleagues, and students find jobs at international firms like Sony, Sharp, Toyota, Panasonic, and Nintendo, as well as positions at international periodicals such as The New York Times and The Japan Times. Others have found work at embassies and NPOs in Washington, London, and Tokyo. Of course regular job hunting skills (ie, networking, seeking summer internships, applying for a joint B.A./M.B.A. degree, etc.) are still necessary, but many university-sponsored East Asia centers (such as the one at my home institution) and internationally funded study abroad programs (such as the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies) help Japan-focused students to develop and make use of these skills. In short, the discipline of Japanese Studies is not only relevant, but it is also concretely useful to America as a country and to students as intellectually curious and job-seeking individuals. The crisis facing Area Studies specifically and the humanities in general is very real, but for anyone (whether in Congress or in a dean’s office) to say that Japanese Studies deserves any lack of funding that it might suffer because it’s somehow irrelevant is, I feel, gravely inaccurate.

Graduate School in Japanese Studies

Over the past several years, I have received numerous emails from people asking for advice about applying to graduate school. I have been skeptical of offering any such advice, primarily because the job market has been terrible but also because there has been an air of general malaise surrounding grad school recently. (The blog 100 Reasons Not To Go To Grad School expresses this attitude succinctly.) The more I reflect on my own experiences in grad school, however, the more I realize how valuable they have been to me both on an intellectual level and on a personal level. What I have learned in grad school has lead me to think about the world in an entirely different way, one that encourages diversity, critical thinking, and humanistic compassion. I have therefore decided to stop discouraging people and to instead offer my best advice to anyone thinking of applying to grad school for Japanese Studies:

(1) Spend a significant length of time in Japan before entering grad school.

Deciding to spend the next five to eight years of your life devoted to Japan is a big decision, after all. Some people go to Japan for the first time and realize that they hate it, and others suffer severe culture shock during their first sustained visit to the country. You don’t want to risk becoming one of those people after you’ve already enrolled in a graduate program. Ideally, you’ll spend at least a year doing dissertation research in Japan. This is a commitment that will be difficult to get out of when you realize, for example, that Japan is not vegetarian-friendly and that you can’t eat any of the food there.

Another reason to live in Japan before going to grad school is that it’s helpful to have personal and professional contacts who can help with both study and downtime when you return to the country for dissertation research.

(2) Make sure you know Japanese before applying to grad school.

By “know Japanese,” I mean that you should be able to pick up a book in your area of specialty and read it. You should also be able to translate at a reasonable pace and with reasonable accuracy without the aid of a dictionary. As part of your application to the more competitive programs, you need to be able to prove your language proficiency, either by publishing a translation, passing the JLPT, passing an oral exam, or going through one of the higher levels of a study abroad program like KCJS or the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. Although doing your coursework in grad school will help improve your language, you won’t have time for rudimentary or refresher courses (for which you more than likely won’t receive credit anyway).

(3) You need to come to grad school with a clear idea of your dissertation topic.

The goal of graduate school is to get out as quickly as possible. You will most likely receive funding for an extremely limited period, and the funding you receive may not be able to cover the cost of living, especially if you don’t have a partner to help support you. Even if you don’t anticipate any financial difficulties, being in grad school traps you in the social role of a student, which seems fine when you’re 22 but becomes somewhat problematic by the time you’re 27.

You therefore need to make the most of the time you have by taking courses with the professors who will become your dissertation advisors and writing papers close to the topic of your dissertation. The best way to do this is to have a dissertation topic already in mind before you walk in the door. This topic will not be carved in stone, but you need to be specific. “The Tale of Genji” is not a dissertation topic. “Gender in The Tale of Genji” is not a dissertation topic. “Contemporary interpretations of homosocial relationships in The Tale of Genji as expressed in X, Y, and Z sources” is the beginning of a good dissertation topic.

(4) You need to be highly literate.

Even in the least competitive programs, grad school is a veritable orgy of reading and writing, and this reading and writing can occasionally be quite difficult. If you read less than forty or fifty books over the course of a year, you probably shouldn’t go to grad school. If you don’t know what a topic sentence is and can’t tell the difference between its and it’s, you definitely shouldn’t go to grad school. This isn’t elitism; it’s a matter of basic survival skills.

(5) You need to have thick skin and a hobby unrelated to your studies.

While you’re in grad school, you will be competing with some of the smartest people you’ve ever met. Each of these people will be better than you at something and know more than you in certain areas. Most of these people will be wonderful, but some of them will go out of their way to make you miserable. Likewise, your professors will hold you to a much higher standard than you dealt with as an undergraduate, and they will criticize your work accordingly. The majority of this criticism will be brilliant, insightful, and helpful, but some of it will be petty and downright vicious. On a broader level, you will sometimes be harshly rejected by fellowship committees, conferences, and academic journals.

As a student, you have no real power to combat any of this, so you need to have cultivated an attitude of friendly indifference and assertive self-confidence before you enter grad school. It is enormously helpful to have a hobby like biking, painting, or video games to clear your mind and help slough off any depression and anxiety that you may occasionally feel.


If I have made grad school seem like a daunting enterprise, that’s because it is a daunting enterprise and should not be entered into lightly. As I said at the beginning of this list, however, it’s also a wonderful experience that will change the way you think about the world and give you the potential to change the way other people think about the world. Grad school will equip you with a keen set of intellectual tools and serve as the gateway into a community of highly intelligent, interesting people. It is true that not everyone who enters graduate school graduates, and it is true that not everyone who graduates is able to become a professor. The statistics for employment and attrition rates may drive you away from graduate school, and with good reason. However, if you decide to go ahead and apply anyway, rest assured that the experiences you have and the friends you make will be well worth the trials and hardship you’ll encounter.

Kazuo Ishiguro and the Problem of “Japaneseness”

The Remains of the Day is a really, really good book. In fact, it’s an excellent book. This is not a review of The Remains of the Day, however. It is instead a meditation on the thorny problem of whether the work of Kazuo Ishiguro can be considered “Japanese” literature.

The essence of this problem is “Japaneseness.” What is it, who has it, and who doesn’t? Since I am an American, it’s useful for me to consider the related problem of “Americanness.” How does one become culturally American? Is such a feat accomplished by matriculating into high school, taking classes, going to football games on Friday nights, agonizing over whom to invite to the prom, and listening to My Chemical Romance while studying for the SAT? If so, what happens when experiences of high school are radically different? I am referring not merely to disparities in experience according to one’s rank in the imaginary jock/geek hierarchy, but rather to the diversity of the experiences of a student in a small rural school in the South, and a student in a rich private school in New York, and a student in a large suburban school in the Midwest, and a student in school with a large immigrant population in southern Arizona. There are many different types of Americanness, as any young hipster from Seattle or old Republican from Mississippi could tell you. For me personally, moving from Atlanta to Philadelphia was like moving to a different country.

Although Japan is smaller than America in terms of both population and land area, there is an enormous diversity of Japaneseness. Younger Japanese do not grow up in the same world as their parents, who in turn did not grow up in the same world as their parents. The rural/urban divide is fairly pronounced, as is the divide between geographical locations (such as between Tōhoku and Kantō, or between Tokyo and Osaka). There are also a number of ethnic minorities in Japan, such as the burakumin, the Okinawans, and any number of resident Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinos. The people living on the Japanese archipelago speak many markedly different dialects of Japanese, and different groups of people were taught and believe in different versions of Japanese history. We group all of these people together and call them “Japanese,” but the nation of Japan is an imagined community just like any other, and the degrees to which individuals opt into (or opt out of) this community can vary significantly.

Even though there is really no such thing as “Japaneseness,” I believe there should be a place in a college curriculum for courses like “Introduction to Japanese Civilization.” In order to teach such a class, a professor has to make up a story, and it is often useful for that story to be told teleologically (chronologically from “beginning” to “end”) instead of thematically. Even though the professor knows that he or she is simplifying and omitting and thereby telling a story that isn’t necessarily true, it’s still important to have a story to tell. An outline of Japan colored with rough brushstrokes is better than an outline of Japan left blank, after all. A constructed story is useful not only as a teaching device but also as a cultural bridge; it is in many ways worthwhile to tell students just beginning to learn about Japan the same story that many Japanese tell themselves.

Therefore, when we talk about “Japanese” literature, we need to decide what counts as “Japanese.” This is more difficult than it initially seems. For example, take T.S. Eliot, who was born and raised in America but spent his adult life in Britain and considered himself British. Is Eliot an American poet, or is he a British poet? My high school textbook couldn’t decide. Vladimir Nabokov is another good example. Although he grew up in Russia and in many ways consciously retained his Russian heritage (by translating his own works from and into Russian, for example), he lived in America (and Berlin, and Switzerland) and wrote in English. Is Nabokov American or Russian or something else altogether? The blurb on the back of the Vintage editions of his books skillfully evades the matter. An even trickier example is Tawada Yōko, who lives in Germany and writes poems and stories in both German and Japanese about being a Japanese person in Germany. Two major contemporary Japanese writers, Ōe Kenzaburō and Murakami Haruki, not only speak other languages besides Japanese but also frequently spend long stretches of time living outside Japan.

Assigning “Japaneseness” to any one person is therefore difficult; but, in the end, it is convenient to be able to draw a line somewhere, even if that line is in the faintest of pencil. In terms of literature, I think it’s reasonable to categorize anything written in the Japanese language(s) as Japanese literature. But what about texts not written in Japanese? Specifically, can we call the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, who grew up in England and writes in English about being English in England, Japanese literature?

I would like to argue that this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. First of all, assuming that someone is Japanese simply because of his name comes dangerously close to racism. If “racism” is too loaded a term, then perhaps “culturalism” might be better. Is there some ineffable quality about someone of Japanese descent that makes him irrevocably “Japanese”? If nothing else, to point to someone who has grown up in the same cultural background and call him different because of his name or the color of his skin or his parents’ country of origin is problematic, to say the least.

Second, including Ishiguro in a canon of modern Japanese authors feels somewhat ethnocentric to me. The Japanese themselves consider Ishiguro to be a foreign writer – his novels are translated into Japanese, and his name is written in katakana like the names of other foreign authors. Ishiguro’s relationship with Japan is complicated, but he himself has said in so many words that he doesn’t consider himself to be a Japanese writer. To ignore the claims of the author and the Japanese literary establishment and to insist that novels written by a British citizen in English about Britain are Japanese literature seems misguided at best and pigheaded at worst, as if the Japanese themselves cannot produce or canonize their own literary works. One might as well call Muriel Bradbury’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog a classic of Japanese literature simply because it features a Japanese character and a few amateurish haiku.

I started thinking about Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Japaneseness” when I was sent a list of 20 Essential Works of Japanese Literature from Bachelor’s Degree Online. I have many problems with this list (including, most obviously, the fact that The Woman in the Dunes was written by Abe Kōbō and not Teshigahara Hiroshi, who directed the film version), but the inclusion of a male writer who isn’t even “Japanese” at the expense of many fantastic female writers was like a kick in the gut, especially considering that the ratio of modern male authors to modern female authors is thirteen to one. Even if one wanted to make a case for a literature of diaspora, wouldn’t Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World be a better choice than The Remains of the Day?

In the end, though, who is to say what is Japanese and what isn’t? What I have stated is merely my opinion, and my opinion is that perhaps it makes more practical sense to keep Ishiguro on the list of The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945 instead of forcibly transplanting him onto a list that begins with the Kōkin Wakashū.