Faculty Experience: Connections Beyond Borders: from London (UK), to Tokyo, Nagoya, and, finally, Kyoto
Connections Beyond Borders articles aim to introduce English-based undergraduate degree courses at Ritsumeikan University from the personal, everyday-lived perspective of the students and faculty themselves.
This Edition Features:
Thomas French from the UK – Associate Professor teaching in the Joint Degree Program (JDP) and Global Studies Major (GS) based at the Kinugasa Campus in Kyoto
A large part of my work over the last 3 years has been dedicated to helping create the JDP Program. Although it may seem a little removed from my main fields of study, the Allied Occupation of Japan and western-Japanese interaction, in actual fact there are a number of overlapping areas connected by my own related personal experience.
Arriving to study in Japan as a student myself, together with my own experience as a member of faculty already present in Japan, observing how the country is viewed by other international people coming in, played a role in my contribution to setting up the program; as they similarly play a role in informing my research too.
My research mostly concerns the period from the end of the war until about 1952. The first and second books I published, indeed most of my publications to date, are focused on the Occupation period of Japanese history when the country was occupied by the Allied powers (in name at least - in reality the US was dominant).
Within that I have looked principally at the creation and history of the Self-Defense Forces, concentrating further within that upon the development of the National Police Reserve. In a narrow sense, I cover western and Japanese interaction over military training, but my interests broaden out greatly to encompass western-Japanese interaction in such areas as knowledge exchange, knowledge transfer, economic, and politics.
My recent successful research funding proposal will take me into the area of the history of peace-time Anglo-Japanese military links from the Meiji period (1868-1912) through to the present. Funding is kindly provided by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science through their Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research Program (Kakenhi).
My interest in Japan really began when I was a child back in the UK. My father was interested in Japanese culture – Japanese films (especially Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai) and martial arts. He happened to share this interest with a work colleague and friend who began writing popular histories of Japan – a friend who in fact has since gone on to become a highly respected scholar of Japan, Dr. Stephen Turnbull (Honorary Lecturer at Leeds University (UK), Research Associate at SOAS (UK), and Visiting Professor of Japanese Studies at Akita International University (Japan)).
The professor was kind enough to provide my dad with a selection of books he had written as a present. Eventually they found their way to me, and my interest in Japanese history really grew from there.
From another slightly different academic perspective, I was also interested at the same time in history in general. However, I found myself wanting to focus on something a little away from the mainstream in the UK, and Japan fitted the bill perfectly: a highly developed, non-western country, with a rich and varied history. This eventually led to me studying History with Japanese Studies at Royal Holloway University, London.
My interest grew even further during my masters at Durham University in the UK in the International Relations of East Asia. This, in turn, piqued my interest in more specialized Japanese history: modern Japanese history, the subject of my PhD.
US-Japan relations is the core of what I do. The course explores the legacy of the Occupation of Japan through consideration of the influence of various factors, including military bases and other areas. It also looks in to the influence of the US on many aspects of Japan's politics, diplomacy, security and culture.
I also teach Japanese Politics, which focuses mainly on post-war Japan, but as a whole looks at the period from the end of the bakumatsu, or roughly the mid-1860s, through to the present.
Modern Japanese History, linked directly to my specialism, is a new course which I have just begun to teach. I am hoping that it will be interesting and attractive for students to study the topic in Japan, but taught by a non-Japanese professor. I would like to think that it offers a slightly different, more international perspective in this respect.
In addition to these three main courses, I also contribute to a variety of other courses, some introductory, some more specialized, and conduct an undergraduate advanced seminar class on Modern World History.
This encompasses a wide selection of topics including: the occupation of Japan; the relationship between the ‘Big Three’ at the wartime conferences of 1941-45; and the emergence of fascist Italy, which we looked at in depth over the course of a semester.
The students also have the opportunity at various points to select the focus of study themselves by casting votes of preference from a list of pre-set topics. Many of the topics recently have been based around the 1920s to the 1950s, covering the transition from World War II into the Cold War.
Over the course of a semester students engage with a range of material related to the topic in question, discussing and analyzing the content in great depth. Material includes at least one book, primary source matter, and a selection of key articles.
● US Japan Relations (graduate)
● Japanese Politics
● Modern Japanese History
● Japanese Politics and Foreign Relations
● United States Politics and Foreign Policy
● Politics for Global Studies
● Advanced Seminar
● Graduation Thesis
We are in Japan physically, but the medium of instruction is English, and within both the GS and JDP programs, the backgrounds of both the students and the faculty are very, very diverse indeed. This is a huge benefit and a very attractive feature of our programs.
The vast majority of faculty have studied abroad, many have PhDs from the UK, America, Australia, and there is a wealth of other international academic experience here, and it would not be an understatement to say spans the globe. I would even go so far as to say that the level and scope of experience and knowledge amongst the students and faculty is far broader than you would encounter than, in many cases, studying International Relations in the US, the UK, or indeed other areas.
Focusing just on our student body for example, it would not be unusual here to have students of 15 different nationalities in the same classroom, all with different perspectives and different experiences.
In that I feel it is important to engage students, generally, at the start of each lecture-style class, I pose students a question that links to the main theme of the session. Sometimes I choose topical or contested questions to challenge class members to engage with difficult ideas and perspectives and to encourage debate.
The students then, informed by their set reading for that week, and based upon their own experiences and knowledge, take part in a brainstorming exercise in a small group for about 10-15 minutes, before feeding back and contributing their most pertinent points to the class as part of a whole group discussion.
I then take the students' points from the discussion to lead into, and weave through, my own lecture or thoughts on the idea / topic.
I find this approach to be very effective. Quite often in the UK, for example, teaching is divided into a separate lecture and seminar, where the former is 'one way' and the latter more interactive. At Ritsumeikan University, and in Japan in general in fact, classes are given in 90 minute sessions, so this approach really combines both lecture and seminar in one session.
The ratio between the two, however, depends on the class. Eighty to ninety percent of the content of my seminar classes are made up of student presentations, contributions and student-led discussion.
For me personally, these approaches provide an effective structure to develop confidence, eventually enabling all students to contribute to whole group discussions. Students can speak directly to, and hear directly from, students from other backgrounds, other countries. It helps them bond and interact with each other on a personal level, as well as improving and enhancing the skills and abilities all types of students have and on the whole, leading to better inputs, better discussions, better outputs, and continuously improving quality and results.
On the whole, I only expect what students should expect from me. I want students to have an interest, or at least an openness to learn and discover something from the subject. Therefore I expect an open-mindedness and a willingness to absorb and develop knowledge and ideas through study.
Of course, they have got to be able to do the 'mechanical' things too - take notes, properly prepare by reading the material, be able to discuss the material in class, and so on. The ability to ask good, well-thought-out, challenging questions is also very much a plus.
In short, I expect students to work hard, demonstrate their abilities, and effectively do themselves justice by doing their best.
I expect myself to be on time and well prepared. I put effort in to sessions because I want students to get as much as possible out of them. Of course, I try to make classes fun through the use of different mediums, different material, role playing exercises, and so on, but I do take the contents seriously and I expect the same of students too.
I want to make the student experience as fulfilling as possible and to that end I am constantly working on ways to improve it, whilst at the same time trying to make the experience as enjoyable and interactive as I can.
In the past I used to fence for my university, play rugby (I played for the City of Carlisle as a youth player for 7 years), and practice kendo (to 1st Dan level). I am also a big sumo fan and go and watch at least one tournament a year, which includes the Kyoto Basho near campus (although that is more of an exhibition event than a tournament and is not part of the official sumo tournament calendar).
Eating out and trying out new food and restaurants in the city is also a great pleasure. There are so many things to see and do in Kyoto - it really is a city that keeps on giving! I have lived here for 8 or 9 years now, but I still haven’t managed to visit all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, there are two or three that I have yet to see.
Find out more about the Joint Degree Program and the Global Studies Major from the perspective of the students themselves:
More information on a growing list of English-based courses at Ritsumeikan University:
Professor Thomas French
JSPS Funded Research Project:
Old Friends, New Partners: a History of Anglo Japanese Military Relations: 1864-Present
Using Geospatial Data to Study the Origins of Japan’s Post-Occupation Maritime Boundaries