Thoughts on Theses: Noah Gordon
Issue   |   Wed, 11/20/2013 - 01:22

Major: Asian Languages and Civilizations

Advisor: Trent Maxey

Q: What is your thesis about?
A: The basic premise is the way in which the Japanese people perceive race, especially blackness, given that historically there hasn’t been much contact between people of African descent and the Japanese. More specifically, my thesis focuses on the United States Occupation of Japan, when there were large numbers of African-American servicemen stationed there. This particular historical interaction, between black GIs and the defeated Japanese populace, is the subject of my research.

Q: Why did you choose to write on this topic?
A: I sort of randomly stumbled upon it along the course of my studies. I was taking a class called “Reinventing Tokyo” and we were talking about the occupation and looking at photographs [from that time period] taken by Japanese photographers. There was one photo that stuck out to me, which depicted a black soldier in a military camp. The photographer had manipulated the camera in such a way that the soldier’s face filled the frame in a sort of menacing snarl. The content of this photo alone said a lot about the ways the photographer saw this soldier. I wondered about its implications — was the photographer depicting him in this way because he was a U.S. solider or because he was black? And if the latter, where did that hostility come from?

Q: What do you find to be compelling about your topic?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the flow of culture and the ways in which members of different cultures react to one another at different points in history. Here we have an extreme example: two peoples with very different collective histories and little past exposure to one another, suddenly mixing in massive numbers.
Prior to this period, Japanese people had only really learned about black people from Westerners, typically white traders and diplomats. The occupation [of Japan by the US] is the only period of Japanese history in which there was a substantial number of black people living on Japanese soil. The fact that very few scholars had explored this subject before was also a big draw for me.

Q: How do you think the Japanese perceive people of African descent today? What implications does the historical interaction have on the modern world?
A: There are a lot of people who say that Japan is a racist society. And there are examples to back that claim up: one prominent example is dakko-chan, a children’s toy whose design clearly draws on racist stereotypes. Another is that in 1986, the Prime Minister of Japan remarked that Japanese levels of education were higher than those in the U.S. because of the large Hispanic and African-American minority presence. We don’t know where this racism comes from or if it can even be called racism. I believe [this mindset] was inherited proximately and over time through Western, and especially American, cultural influence on Japan.
So, can we call the Japanese “racist?” What I’ve found so far that it isn’t so simple. African-Americans who served in Japan found [Japanese] society to be much more accepting of them than American society. In many ways, serving in Japan liberated them from the shackles of Jim Crow back home. And Japanese newspapers of the time largely reflected a genuine interest in black achievement. Of course, this doesn’t fully answer the question, and I don’t think that my project alone can.

Q: Have you faced any challenges in writing your thesis?
A: Many of the archives I’m using are Japanese newspaper databases. And when newspaper databases are not digitized, it becomes very difficult to search them. Last Friday I spent five hours on the 22nd floor of the UMass library. I was navigating several bound volumes of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Each volume contained one year or half a year of newspapers and was about the size of one of those fancy dictionaries you find in the reference section. Luckily, there was an index for each month, but it was hard to find relevant articles because the indices are huge — they include every article printed! And everything is in Japanese, of course.
To summarize, in five hours of searching through these bound volumes, I found three that were somewhat relevant to my topic. Whether they’ll actually be useful remains to be seen.

Q: Do you have any advice for students considering writing a thesis?
A: A lot of people think that you need to start with an answer, to start by knowing what you want to prove. But it’s a process of constantly revising and collecting your thoughts. One of my professors recently said to me that if there is an answer to your thesis that is simple enough for me to answer in a sentence or two, my thesis is probably not very interesting. An interesting thesis attempts to resolve questions with no straightforward answer and often makes the picture more complicated than we initially suspect.

Q: What have been some of the high points in the process so far?
A: There are two really rewarding moments in conducting history research. The first is stumbling upon a piece of original source material — something that you just know no one has considered before. When that happens, you feel like you can honestly contribute something new to the scholarly conversation surrounding your topic.
The other moment is when your brain randomly produces a thought which connects so many disparate points in your thesis and really wraps a section up nicely. This can happen anywhere — during your morning shower or as you’re falling asleep at night. You struggle to hold onto the thought and write it down as soon as possible. And once it’s down, you just keep writing.

Q: How much work have you done on your thesis so far?
A: Hah! Definitely not enough. At the moment I have about ten draft pages written. I hope to have a very rough draft of at least one chapter by the end of Thanksgiving break. My department is very lenient with deadlines, so technically Chapter 1 isn’t due until the end of the semester. But I want to get writing as soon as possible so that I can pump out the majority of what remains during Interterm. All in all, I want to have five or six chapters of about 15 to 20 pages each. One hundred pages is the arbitrary maximum I’ve set for myself.

Q: Have any parts of the thesis-writing process been surprising to you?
A: Writing my first page was way more difficult than I thought it would be. I couldn’t figure out where or how to start. I didn’t write a single page until a few weeks ago, but after that first page I think it became much easier. The next nine pages came relatively naturally. But I think I’m about to hit another slump as I begin to draft the next chapter — I’m having another “where to begin” moment. Hopefully I can resolve soon so I can put the thesis aside and celebrate Thanksgivukkah properly!

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