Year-Long Celebration for Japanese Studies
Japan’s leading writer awarded first Berkeley Japan Prize
By College of Letters and Science News
When Duncan Williams assumed the directorship of Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies last year, he had his work cut out for him. Williams, associate professor of Japanese Buddhism, is at the helm as the center turns 50. He’s applying his energy and commitment to planning a major18-month-long celebration of the semi-centennial.
The calendar is dazzling. This fall alone offers a feast of cultural and educational events on an array of subjects, from baseball to global diplomacy to pop culture.
“It’s a range of events to get at the ways Japan is part of global culture,” Williams explains, seated in the conference area the Center shares with other study centers in the Institute of East Asian Studies. “How is Japan entering the world stage in the 21st century? Japan is exerting ‘soft’ power through its culture, diplomacy and technology.”
Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies is one of a handful in the United States, joining Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, and Hawaii in taking a scholarly look at Japanese culture. But Berkeley’s program is situated in a region with a vibrant Japanese-American community, and it leads other programs both through its library collections, now housed in the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, and the breadth of its scholarly work.
The 50th anniversary presents Williams and his colleagues with an opportunity to celebrate and share those strengths.
“We have asked ourselves, ‘How can we highlight the ways Japan contributes to the world?’” Williams says. “With each event we have built in a student dimension and partnered with other departments and external sponsors.”
Novelist Haruki Murakami is one of the top attractions of the anniversary celebrations.
The weekend offered an exciting and rare public appearance by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, an award-winning writer whose international following has launched Japanese fiction into the spotlight. Murakami, whose novels include Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is often mentioned as a strong contender for the Nobel Prize for literature. He is elusive, rarely granting interviews, but agreed to come to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall for a conversation with author Roland Kelts.
“We’ve had hundreds of students apply to get into first year Japanese language courses every year for the past several years,” Williams says. “We asked them why they were interested in studying Japanese and the number one reason was to read Murakami in his original language.”
In the early 20th century Japan built its colonial empire. In the second half of that century, it became a major economic power. Today, Williams says, Japan’s influence in the world is through culture, technology, and diplomacy. Japan is the second largest economy in the world, giving foreign aid to its colossal neighbor, China.
In November Sadako Ogata, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (who received her doctorate in political science from Cal in 1963), will speak in Barrows Hall about global responsibility and development assistance, followed by a panel discussion with leading economic experts.
“Ogata is Japan’s highest ranking diplomat,” Williams notes, “and its highest ranking female politician.”
The following month celebrates another intriguing aspect of modern Japan: two Japan studies professors from Harvard and Yale who have recently written books on Japanese baseball will appear in a free event with Masanori Murakami, former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.
Beyond the fall, highlights include an April event with Japanese architect Toyo Ito, widely considered to be one of the world’s most innovative architects. Ito has been selected to design the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Lovers of Japanese food will get a treat next November, when students and members of the public can work together building the world’s longest California roll. Starting at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft, the roll will be laid out through Sproul Plaza and on through Sather Gate.
“Sushi is a great example of how Japan has adapted itself,” Williams notes. “Take a Japanese concept like rolled maki and put avocado in it. That’s the way Japanese culture interacts with the world — in a hybrid way.”