The Marlboro Record

Freeman Grant Brings Marlboro to Japan

For several years, a grant from the Freeman Foundation has helped support the Asian studies program at Marlboro and funded research trips and fruitful exchanges with universities in Vietnam, China and Cambodia. This summer, a second round of the Freeman grant supported an exciting faculty-student research trip to Japan, including three new faculty members and further infusing Asian studies into the wider curriculum at Marlboro.

“The 12 students taking part in the trip developed a deep appreciation for the particularities of Japanese culture and for the value of field research,” said Seth Harter, professor of Asian studies. “The faculty, meanwhile, had an opportunity to extend their expertise—or at least familiarity—in their disciplines to a part of the world that isn’t their primary preoccupation.”

The five participating faculty members shared an interest in Japanese aesthetics, lending conceptual and practical coherence to the group and their research. In spring 2010, Seth led a course on the subject, bringing in several visiting experts who imparted their knowledge of theater, painting, poetry and other aspects of Japanese culture. Then each faculty member taught a small group tutorial on their specific area of interest, from Japanese theater traditions to Zen Buddhist use of space and architecture.

“Once in country, they visited temples, mountains, graveyards, Noh training schools, street performances, tea houses and more, to gain first-hand exposure to Japanese aesthetics and to begin to answer the questions they’d posed in their tutorials,” said Seth.

The group spent 20 days on the journey, starting with two days in Kyoto to get oriented and visit local temples, shrines and other sites. They then took the bullet train to Hiroshima, where they visited the peace memorial, laid a wreath on the tomb of atomic bomb victims and met with a survivor of the 1945 attack. They also met with Hiroshima mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba, recognized globally for his work on peace and economic development and once the M.I.T. roommate of Joe Mazur, former Marlboro math professor.

After spending the next day at Miyajima, literally the “shrine island,” the group returned to Kyoto where the research groups then split up. The Zen poetry and Zen philosophy groups accompanied literature professor T. Wilson and philosophy professor William Edelglass to Mount Koya, the center of Shingon, the tantric tradition of Buddhism in Japan. There they stayed in monasteries, experienced tantric fire ceremonies in the mornings, soaked in the public baths in the evenings, and explored the huge graveyard with cypress trees that have not been cut since the founder of Mount Koya was laid to rest in 835 A.D.

“At night, walking beside the enormous trees, with the ancient monuments, lantern light and the occasional flying squirrel swooping by, I felt as if I had entered into a magical world where everything was somehow richer in meaning and more alive,” William said.

Photography professor John Willis and three students visited art museums and galleries and spoke with leading photographers, as well as taking day trips to Osaka to meet and share work with other photography students at a university there.

“It was incredible to read about Eiko Hosei, see his work, and then meet him at his own free gallery,” said student Alek Jaunzemis. “I began to look at my surroundings in the context of my knowledge of Japanese aesthetics. Everything in Japan seems very deliberate and thought out.”

Kristin Horrigan, dance professor, and Brenda Foley, theater professor and director of the World Studies Program, accompanied students to Tokyo, where they took in performances from traditional kabuki to modern contact improvisation. A highlight was visiting the Yokohama dance studio of Kazuo Ohno, 103-year-old cofounder of the contemporary dance form called butoh. Coincidently, they arrived three hours after the old master had passed away, and several of them had the honor of paying their respects to Kazuo himself, who was laying in repose in the family house.

In addition to the inspirational experiences that both students and faculty brought back, enriching Marlboro curricula and courses of study, there were important contacts established in Japan. On behalf of the World Studies Program, Brenda Foley met with representatives from both Sophia University, in Tokyo, and Kyoto University of Art and Design in the interest of possible future academic collaborations. Brenda reports that these were productive meetings and that all parties were excited to continue exploring the possibilities.

Two of the students on the trip were awarded additional funds from the Freeman grant to support individual research projects after the conclusion of the group trip. Sara Verbil ’11 examined connections between language and body imagery in Japan, while Alexandra Sporher ’11 studied the production and meaning of costumes in Japanese theater, each supporting their Plans of Concentration with invaluable onsite research. 

Why I Went to Japan

By Alek Jaunzemis '13
"The photo kids had traveled to Osaka for the day to visit a district called 'The American Village.' While standing outside a vintage American clothing store, I saw these guys exit the nondescript building next door. They were dressed wildly, and behaved to match. They were unlike any Japanese I had seen yet. A woman who looked to be one of their friends was taking their photos in the middle of the street while they posed in ridiculous ways. I told them I was an American photographer, and asked if I could take their photo. They agreed and began to pose for me. The guy with long hair then pointed to a poster on the outside of the nondescript building, and told me he too was a photographer who was taking part in a group show of amateur artists happening right then in the nondescript building. Ryan, Mara and I got in, and this man who called himself 'Dirty Jesus', introduced us to some Japanese artists and his friends. That is I why I went to Japan."