Teaching with 3.11 in the Present

Echoes from Paris Diderot

What does it mean to survive and cope with having survived a major crisis? When does a crisis stop and an aftermath begin? How do you make survival meaningful?

In 2019, I had the great honor of teaching the contemporary Japan seminar at Paris Diderot. Eentitled Thinking with the Past in the Present the class was the first of its kind to be taught in English at LCAO. It was geared toward developing an understanding of contemporary Japanese society while at the same time fostering the usual critical thinking skills and engage with Japanese-language material. It centered around the study of social science and literary texts that examined various ways by which Japan engaged with its past to structure its contemporary self-understanding.

Besides making a choice to teach in English, I also decided to ensure that the class produced something that would outlive the teaching moment itself. In this context, I turned to the Teach 3.11 – a clearing house for information and resources on Fukushima. In particular, their Interview Collection was an especially pertinent because it could provide my students opportunity for engaging with not just the particularities of “3.11” but also with the questions of aftermath and meaningful recovery. What does it mean to survive and cope with having survived a major crisis? When does a crisis stop and an aftermath begin? How do you make survival meaningful?

We spent three 2-hour class sessions working together to study the Interview Collection. In the first meeting, we began with an introductory lecture grounded upon an STS and history of technology reading of what took place in Japan on March 11th, 2011. We then watched interview excerpts in class and analyzed the visual and language aspects of the interviews briefly.

In preparation for the second meeting, students had full access to the Teach 3.11 Interview Collection and each selected an interview they wanted to work with specifically. They arrived to class with a draft translation of a section or full interview in a language of their choice. The small 8-person seminar format allowed us to discuss their translations and use them as a springboard to raise larger questions about the meanings of Fukushima for contemporary Japan and more broadly for our world today.

The wide range of interviewee backgrounds featured in the Interview Collection nicely matched with the diverse intellectual interests represented in my seminar, and each student found something they could connect with. Their interest ran across disciplinary currents: Some, like Carla Adami, are on track to train as a literary translators; others, like undergrad physics major Jules Kollisch, came with interests in social scientific issues; several, like Lydie Ozourma and Florian Giraud, are pursuing governmental and activist interests, such as Japanese peacekeeping in the Middle East and Africa and the LGBT movement in Japan, respectively.

In the third meeting, students read aloud and commented upon their fine-tuned translations. This workshop-style session served to finalize the transcripts themselves, and it also served as a springboard for discussing questions such as the importance of art in the process of recovery, survivor guilt, and issues concerning the responsibility of remembering things you’d rather forget or wish had never happened.

The remarkably high level of ability among French MA students in Japanese Studies did set a certain pace for how the collective analysis and discussion of translation could work as an entry point for learning about the recent past. However, by taking time to work with the students and the materials regardless of their level of Japanese language ability, I felt that the exercise of studying the Interview Collection itself can be highly adaptable for different skill levels. If one wishes to pursue translation as method, the length of the interview to transcribe simply needs to be adjusted to students’ Japanese language proficiency. The interviews might also be used in language classes, or be analyzed as primary sources in research methodology classes.

The Teach311.org resources ultimately helped offer quality content that made teaching meaningful in ways I did not envision when I started the seminar. The richness of the interviews provided a lot of material to unpack that were insightful for the students. It also gave me a clear guiding path for delivering teachable content in an area outside of my direct research field (history of Meiji Japan). One particularly memorable teaching moment was when I observed the  slow dawning upon the students that what they are doing is not mere class work but the generation of knowledge and academic value. The scale was modest, yet, the point was significant. As my students were informed in advance at the beginning of the seminar of the potential to give back to the Teach311.org project, they seemed to feel the utility and power of their academic studies not for the sake exercising their admirable language skills alone, but for contributing to a broader community of mind and concern.

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Message for instructors: Please contact Teach3.11 to request a password to freely access the Interview Collection on behalf of your classrooms.  Ensuring continued access to these interviews for educational purposes requires ongoing efforts and commitment from our team of volunteers and teachers like you who make learning count.