Washin Kai Goals and Case Statement


Classical Japanese literature has been taught at the University of Washington since 1910, when the University’s first professor of Asian Studies, the Reverend Herbert H. Gowen (1864-1960) offered a course on “the classical literature of Japan.”  The course catalog describes the content as “Sources, development, and ideals.  From the Kojiki and Nihongi to the present day.”  This course is still taught today as JAPAN 321:  Japanese Literature I and begins with the Kojiki (Chronicle of Ancient Matters) and concludes with the kabuki theater of the 19th century.

Professor Gowen was succeeded in this role by Richard McKinnon (1922-94), an expert in the traditional theatre of Japan, including noh and kyōgen.  The history of the Japanese language was taught by the distinguished linguist Roy Andrew Miller (1924-2014).  Documentary Japanese (Kambun) was taught by Hiraga Noburu (1922-84).

In recognition of their achievements, Professor Gowen was decorated by the Government of Japan with the Order of the Sacred Treasure and Professors McKinnon and Miller with the Order of the Rising Sun.

The program in Japanese language, literature, and culture was honored for its contributions to education, research, and service with the Foreign Minister’s Commendation, awarded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, in 2018.

What is classical Japanese language, literature, and culture?

Classical Japanese is the literary language of Japan from earliest times until the mid-nineteenth century, when the spoken and written languages began to be unified.  It is the language of waka and haiku poetry, of monogatari prose fiction, and of the major forms of traditional theater:  noh, kyōgen, bunraku, and kabuki.   These texts comprise the corpus of classical Japanese literature.  Classical Japanese culture includes literature and drama but also such traditional fields as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, landscape gardening, art (including calligraphy), and architecture.

Why is it important?

The study of classical Japanese language, literature, and culture illuminates Japan past and present. It gives insight into the ways Japanese people throughout the centuries have experienced and made sense of the world around them.  Of all the arts, literature comes closest to bringing us inside the hopes, fears, desires, and ideals of other people.  Classical Japanese language, literature, and culture are what makes Japan Japan.  At the same time, through genres like haiku and kabuki that are appreciated all around the globe, the Japanese classics and traditional Japanese culture constitute an important part of world civilization.

How is classical Japanese literature taught at UW?

Our current curriculum consists of three kinds of courses.  The first is a survey of classical Japanese literature in English translation for undergraduates (mentioned above, taught since 1910).  It presupposes no knowledge of Japan or the Japanese language and introduces undergraduates to the major genres, authors, and themes of classical Japanese literature, covering 1200 years of literary history in ten weeks.

The second type of course is a two-quarter language course for undergraduate and graduate students who have completed at least three years of coursework in modern Japanese language.  In the first quarter, the students learn how classical Japanese grammar works, with close attention to how verbs, adjectives, and auxiliary verbs conjugate and attach to one another.   All of the readings are in classical Japanese, but the classroom discussion is conducted in English.  Midway through the course, we begin reading passages from the 13th century essay Hōjōki (An Account of My Ten-Foot Square Hut) by Kamo no Chōmei.  In the second quarter, students continue reading excerpts from texts in the original, such as Hyakunin isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets), Taketori monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), Ise monogatari (The Tales of Ise), Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book), Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), and Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike).  Students emerge from the course not only with the ability to read classical Japanese, but a refined understanding of modern Japanese grammar and the ability to translate from Japanese to English with accuracy and precision.

The third type of course is a graduate seminar for students pursing master’s or doctoral degrees.  These students have studied Japanese for at least four years and most have previous experience studying or working in Japan.  Students read classical Japanese texts in the original, discuss the texts during the seminar, give oral presentations, and write research papers using primary and secondary sources in Japanese.  Recent topics have included bunraku puppet theater; noh drama; and Genji monogatari.  A course on kambun kundoku (reading texts written in classical Chinese as if they had been written in classical Japanese) is also offered on an occasional basis.  These courses prepare students to become scholars and teachers with expertise in classical Japanese literature. 

Placement of PhD graduates has been excellent.  To date, all of the students completing a PhD under the supervision of Professor Atkins took up tenure-track jobs upon graduation.  Former students now hold tenure-track or tenured positions at Kenyon College, University of Maryland (College Park), Dartmouth College, Middle Tennessee State University, and Portland State University.

What support is needed?

The University of Washington is not only a place where high school graduates come to continue their studies and acquire bachelor’s degrees.  As a leading research university, it also contains numerous graduate programs which college graduates enter for further training in their fields, leading to degrees including the Master of Arts (MA) and Doctor in Philosophy (PhD).  Classical Japanese is one of the fields in which students are trained. MA students may continue their studies at the PhD level or enter various professions or fields directly.  PhD graduates typically enter tenure-track positions as assistant professors of Japanese in the US or abroad.  They then go on to create new knowledge through their research and to teach the next generation of students and scholars.

It takes 2-3 years to earn an MA degree and another 6-7 to earn a PhD.  The lengthy time to degree for the PhD owes much to the requirement that the candidate produce a dissertation, a book-length work of original research.  Financial aid at the graduate level is limited.  Most of our students support their studies via teaching assistantships in Japanese language, which provide tuition, a modest stipend, and benefits.  However, these positions, which require up to 20 hours per week teaching, grading, preparing classes, and meeting with students, considerably slow time-to-degree.  The scarcity of fellowships, which are awarded without teaching obligations, means that many excellent students study elsewhere, even at lesser-ranked institutions, due to the lack of funding at UW.

Through “full-ride” graduate fellowships, we can continue to attract and retain excellent students to the thriving and distinguished program in classical Japanese at UW, speed their progress toward their degrees, and free up precious teaching assistantships for other, worthy students.  Each of the PhD graduates may go on to teach hundreds or thousands of students during their subsequent careers.  An investment in the education of a student entering the academic profession will bear fruit for many decades to come while preserving the rich legacy of classical Japanese language, literature, and culture for future generations.