Established in 1974, the Journal of Japanese Studies features original, analytically rigorous articles from across the humanities and social sciences, including comparative and transnational scholarship in which Japan plays a major part

Hanley Interview

Susan B. Hanley is one of the founders of the Journal of Japanese Studies and was an editor for the Journal for 29 years. In this interview, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Journal’s founding, Hanley offers singular insight into how the Journal began, how it changed over time, and her own experiences as a scholar. She was interviewed for JJS by Erin Trumble, a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The Journal of Japanese Studies is the flagship journal of the field. What was the process of building the Journal from scratch and what conversations did you and the other cofounders have when you first discussed starting the Journal?

I find what happened very funny. I read what Ken Pyle wrote on the 40th anniversary [“The Journal of Japanese Studies at Forty,” JJS, Vol. 41, No. 1] and he made it all sound like there was a long deliberative process, but that’s not what I saw happen.

My husband, Kozo Yamamura, and I had invited the [University of Washington] Japan faculty for dinner. I was the most junior of all of them, the only one without a regular position at the time, and I was a woman, so I was cooking. At one point I went into the kitchen for about 15 minutes, and when I came out, the group said, “We’ve decided to start a journal.”

From my perspective, it was totally spontaneous. There could have been previous discussions, and the time was right, as Ken reported. We knew we were getting a million dollars from the Japan Foundation and the question was: “What could we do with it to really make a splash instead of just giving people summer salaries or research grants?” I was never told who suggested it or any previous deliberations.

After I rejoined the group, it was immediately decided who was going to do what. Ken Pyle was to be the editor and Roy Miller the book review editor.  Don Hellmann, Dan Henderson, and Kozo would become associate editors. And then because I was only teaching 50 per cent at the time and very junior—the others were all full professors—I was to become the managing editor and the only one who’d be paid.

This decision really changed my life in two ways. For three decades I worked on the Journal in some editorial capacity, first as managing editor, then editor, then coeditor. I never had a break. Even when I was on sabbatical or traveling, I was doing Journal work. And the second way it changed my life was that I determined I was never going to be out of the room again when a major issue might be discussed. This was in the early 1970s and social life was changing. From that time on, Kozo and I entertained in restaurants so that I was never away in the kitchen.

Because I was working halftime on building the Journal and was the only one getting paid, I ended up working on the design, the format, building a subscription list, figuring out our legal status—everything that had to be done to start a publication. Naturally I consulted the other editors plus a lawyer, printers, etc. but it was really fun to be doing the groundwork in starting a publication. I will always be grateful to Ken for his confidence in me to make all the arrangements without micromanaging the logistics of our project.

So that’s how the JJS started. The background is as Ken reported at the 40th anniversary and why I think the Journal became so successful. Still, I am totally amazed and pleased at 50 years on that it’s considered the flagship journal in Japan studies. In the beginning we were working very hard that it not become a sango zasshi, a publication that lasted only three issues.

How did you and the other founders build an international community of editors, contributors, and subscribers to JJS?

Well, we had to do two things. We had to fill issues with substantive articles, and therefore we had to get senior people in the field involved. And we had to get people to subscribe.

To fill the first issue, the board members went to senior scholars they knew and asked if they had a draft of a paper in a desk drawer that they would be willing to have us publish. To my amazement, we had no difficult filling the first issue. Kozo, Ken, and Dan contributed articles, and Syd Crawcour, Jack Hall, and Gil Rozman rounded out the list for Vol. 1, No. 1. With the exception of Roy Miller, we were all social scientists, and the social sciences was the focus of the early years. We did publish articles in the humanities but there were other outlets for people in literature. Obviously, the first issue wasn’t formally peer evaluated, but we quickly established the protocol of two referees, and if they disagreed, I got a third.

I think we printed 200 copies of the first issue, and we basically gave them away. We sent them to senior people in the field and anyone we thought would be interested. Gradually we built up a subscribership and printed ever more copies of succeeding issues.

We did have trouble at first getting enough quality submissions, and also we wanted to focus on topics we considered important. We published a number of symposia and eventually special issues on various topics. We would get people together and have a mini conference and then publish the papers from that. Kozo was very important in getting people involved in the Journal and I don’t think he ever got the recognition he deserved in making JJS such a success.

The other thing we did was target scholars who were doing interesting research to present papers at our UW Japan seminars. The Japan Foundation grant gave us the money to pay for airfares, hotels, and honoraria. This meant we didn’t have to wait for random visitors passing through Seattle. We could see their work and ask them to submit it.

Even from the very beginning, I controlled the review process as managing editor. I would go to the editor or advisor in the same field as a submitter and ask for advice on whom to ask to be a referee. This is how the Advisory Board was important. But I was aware from my own work, which was considered controversial by many, that we could miss important new research if we asked people to referee something that contradicted their own conclusions and turned down new ideas without really considering them. I know of that happening to a very good scholar. So, I sometimes went to more than two referees. And I think we published some very interesting articles and essays. The Japan field was really growing at the time, and people were able to focus on big issues.

How did the state of the field of Japan studies at the time of the Journal’s founding inform your goals for the Journal? Did those goals change over time, especially as the field changed?

When I was in grad school in the 1960s, we could be assigned virtually everything scholarly published on Japan in English, some of which would never pass muster today. But by the 1970s, there was a growing amount of good research on Japan, more than could be published in a journal covering all of Asia. We capitalized on this.

Then, one of our goals was to get more of the work of Japanese scholars in print. This is why we organized symposia to which we invited Japanese scholars whose work had to be translated. You’ll find other journals don’t have as many articles by Japanese. A funny sideline was we discovered that you can’t pay translators by the word in English. This leads to long-winded translations which will increase the pay to the translator. We had to pay by the length of the Japanese draft. We ended up exposing the work of a number of top Japanese scholars to readers of English.

Over time, we started to get submissions in the humanities. Often, I didn’t feel comfortable in figuring out who should referee them. I was relying increasingly on colleagues in literature, and eventually I did something that I can’t imagine anyone else doing as a solo editor: I asked to have a coeditor in the humanities. Because I’d been leaning on John Treat, I asked it be John. He was appointed, and even after he moved to Yale, he continued as coeditor, and then after I retired he stayed on for a few years as coeditor to give continuity.

So, a major change was that instead of remaining a journal publishing primarily in the social sciences, it became a journal of the whole field.

What are some ways that the creation of the Journal transformed the field of Japanese studies? Were there any transformations in the field that surprised you?

I guess the real surprise for me was people in humanities wanting to publish in the Journal. I think this made Japan studies more united, giving people a broader perspective. And up to this point, Japan scholars who were speakers of English were communicating mainly with other English speakers and not with Japanese scholars. JJS brought the work of Japanese scholars to the English-reading world, and it made work done in Japan available to more scholars around the world. I think more English speakers who, even if they didn’t collaborate, were meeting more scholars in Japan, exchanging ideas, going to different conferences and groups in Japan.

I know I was invited to a number of conferences as an outgrowth of Japanese and U.S. scholars getting to know one another. I really think that we became the flagship journal because not only did we set high standards, but our reach was so broad. We weren’t just a university journal, and in fact, the Journal is not legally a University of Washington publication; it just has its home here.

The Japan field has changed since I left it two decades ago. For example, the scholar holding the position in modern Japanese history here identifies first by his discipline and secondarily as a specialist on Japan. At the same time, the field started to become narrower during my last years as an editor—meaning research was becoming more narrowly focused, refining work on larger issues put forth earlier. This tends to happen with any field. It’s why I abandoned American history for my senior thesis as a college student; there was nothing significant I could find as a topic of interest. I feel very lucky to have entered Japan studies when it was blossoming as a field of academic inquiry.

You wrote several introductions to symposia for the Journal, including the Symposium on Japanese Society, Gender, and Women, and the Symposium on Continuity and Change in Heisei Japan. And in each of these introductions, you discussed how the field was changing. How has the Journal facilitated such innovations and other changes in the field?

To be very blunt, we were trying to fill issues with interesting topics. So we would look at who’s doing what, and what might get people together, who was doing similar kinds of work in various fields. We ended up introducing premodern Japanese historians’ work to the English-reading world, we published essays by Japanese sociologists, a symposium on Japanese origins, aspects of contemporary issues—at least 17 symposia by our 23rd issue.

How did I end up writing introductions to symposia not in my discipline? I’m a closet anthropologist at heart. I stuck to history in college because I didn’t want to study skulls, but my interest was really in social history and what anthropologists and sociologists study. When we found a number of people studying gender, we said “Well, let’s have a symposium.” Sometimes we didn’t even get the group together; we just had people contribute papers. Other times—I think most of the time— we got together. We also invited people to the university for a month, or sometimes even to teach. I once coordinated a course in Japanese society with Japanese and Americans providing lectures for two weeks each. That was very exciting. When I was coordinating a symposium, I attended it, and ended up writing the introduction if it was appropriate. Somebody had to write and say why we put these articles together.

Publishing articles by Japanese that Americans wouldn’t have read in the original not only broadened knowledge about Japan for people working in the same discipline but enabled those of us studying and teaching on Japan to have a much deeper knowledge of the country and to be exposed to different interpretations and points of view as well.

What JJS really affected for me was my teaching. Because I had to read everything that went into the Journal, I was aware of what was going on in all disciplines. No one else at UW wanted to teach the survey course on Japanese history. I taught it from my first year in 1970 until my last year teaching in 2002–3. I loved it because I could discuss anything I wanted to. I could change it every year, and my work on the Journal facilitated my knowledge of new ideas, new discoveries, and new approaches.

I want to shift to your career as a scholar. You’ve mentioned a little bit how the Journal shaped your teaching. How else did being an editor of the Journal of Japanese Studies shape your approach to your own work? What were some of the major challenges you faced?

My challenges as a scholar came early in my career. I wanted to study things historians normally didn’t study, such as how people lived, how population changes came about from the perspective of families and villages. My mentor, Professor John Hall, backed me up but I had to carefully craft my dissertation prospectus for Yale’s History Department. Yet when I was interviewed for an SSRC grant, people on the committee wanted to know why I didn’t plan to use a computer. (I did eventually.) The biggest challenge during the decades I edited the Journal was finding time for my own research. I never did finish a few projects and regret never doing so. But I never regretted my work as an editor. I don’t know how I would have managed to both work fulltime as a professor and edit two issues a year had I not had Martha Walsh working with me, going from helping a few hours a week in her senior year in high school to taking over as managing editor with an MA in Japan studies from UW.

Reading everything that came through the office, from submissions to reviews and then proof reading what was published as well, meant that I was aware of what was going on in Japan studies. Much of the work in politics I quickly forgot as one prime minister followed another, but I relished reading the work of people like Kumon Shumpei and Takie Lebra and being able to talk to them as well as read their work. I think everything I was exposed to resulted in the kind of book I wrote, first published in Japanese as Edo jidai no isan and later as Everyday Things in Premodern Japan. These books touch on everything from architecture to sewage, demographic patterns, food, natural resources, and more. I was exposed to more research than I would have seen had I not been an editor, but also was able to meet and talk to more scholars than I could otherwise have done.

What are some of the main factors that drew you into academia? And how did you become a scholar of Japan studies?

I’ve always been drawn to history and I loved school. It was always assumed that I would go to college, but to study Japan? My mother tried to get me to read a book about little Japanese twins when I was 10 or 12, but I said, “They have nothing to do with me,” and I refused to read the book. I always wanted to travel but my focus was on Europe. In college I started out in Russian studies. This was 1957, the year of Sputnik and “we’ve got to know more about Russia.”  I studied two years’ worth of Russian (and the only thing I’ve found useful since is the Cyrillic alphabet).

At Macalester I was dormmates with Edwin Reischauer’s daughter, Ann, and we became good friends. I went home with her the summer after my freshman year to stay with her family and work in the bowels of the Harvard College Library where my aunt was a department head. The Reischauers introduced me to Japanese food and more. I transferred to Radcliffe my junior year but switched from Russian studies to a general history major, both because I found Russian history dreary and because I would have had to stay a fifth year and I didn’t have the money. But when it came to writing a senior thesis, I found nothing to research in America’s short history. It was suggested I use archived missionary letters to help understand Meiji Japan. However, I still wasn’t committed to Japan studies. I hadn’t studied the language and had taken only a survey course on East Asia.

I decided I wanted to continue on in school but first spend a year in Asia, made possible by a generous gift from my aunt. I applied to five universities in Asia that would take someone who didn’t know the language of the country. The only one that replied to my letter was the International Christian University in Tokyo. And that’s how I ended up in Japan and Japan studies. But had I never met Ann, I can’t think I would have ever ended up studying that country. When I think back on my life, it was all extremely serendipitous.

You were one of very few women in your generation of scholars. What were some of the pressures and challenges that you faced as someone who is often the only woman in the room?

It wasn’t always easy. For years, when I went to faculty meetings at the Jackson School, I was the only woman in the room. In the early years, it was not difficult because I was so junior. I was made managing editor and was paid to do all the bureaucratic chores, but I enjoyed them. I taught courses others didn’t want to teach, but I enjoyed them as well. I taught history courses, but the History Department wanted nothing to do with me and eventually Ken Pyle moved these courses to the Jackson School so it would get my teaching credit.

The real difficulties came— both within American culture and within Japanese culture—when I became more senior. I could tell my senior male colleagues didn’t like the transition. It was not just here. I was invited to a binational conference in Japan as a full faculty participant, but I was the only female. They needed people to take notes. The male organizer invited a male intern and me to lunch at which time we were told we were the formal notetakers for the conference. Because I was a participant, I took lousy, incomplete notes and in the end just handed in my written scrawls. I was in mid-career but didn’t know how to gracefully refuse.

It became easier being a woman in American academia as time went by. Male professors now had wives who worked and didn’t mind having a female colleague. But the more senior I became, the harder it was for me in Japan. Once a junior, always a junior. I knew a Japanese professor who in late middle age was still expected to copy edit and proofread his retired mentor’s work.

The changes have been amazing. I am totally astounded that in the 1970s there were only two women in the History Department and only me in the Jackson School, but now more than 50 per cent of the faculty in both departments are women, and both departments have had women as chairs. It’s been great for women but what about the men who a few decades ago would have become professors and now can’t? My hypothesis is that a lot of the social problems we face are because of all the men who have been frozen out of positions they would have had in earlier times.

You’ve written multiple things with Kozo Yamamura. In addition to your first book, you also coauthored an article with him that appeared in the Journal, and both the book and the article dealt with the ties between economics and demographics in the Tokugawa period and the postwar period, respectively. What does looking at economic and demographic trends simultaneously reveal to us about these periods that looking at one or the other does not?

I don’t think you can separate the economy and population. Demographic trends affect what’s going on in the economy, and the economy affects whether people have children, migrate, or make other decisions that affect the economy. My doctoral dissertation was basically on population, and it was my husband, an economist, who decided we should collaborate. I think we produced a much better book because we did. We did have difficulties writing it at the time. We would argue with each other. When we were at the East-West Center in Hawaii on a research grant, people could hear us arguing, and they were wondering what was going on. Then we would go to lunch and were perfectly civil with each other. Our arguments were academic, not personal!

But I almost got in trouble over collaborating because when tenure came up, I was asked, “Well, you coauthored a book, what did you contribute to it?” I had to show what parts I’d written. I could, and by that time I had refereed articles as well.

I would like to ask you about your second book because in your first book you talk about a concept, the standard of living, that’s a large part of the analysis you and Yamamura offered. In your second book, you make an important distinction between standard of living and quality of life and privilege this idea of quality of life in your study. What are some major factors that shifted your thinking around the different utilities of these concepts?

“Standard of living,” of course, is an economic concept that you can measure. So economists like using it. From the limited data we have, it’s clear that Japan had a lower standard of living compared to the United States in the nineteenth century. It hadn’t started to industrialize and so was considered “backward.” But then how could Japan end up industrializing so quickly?

I began to think there was something else involved. When I was studying population, I discovered, for example, that the life expectancy in the United States and in Japan in the nineteenth century was very similar. But Japan had a lower standard of living. What was going on? Why were people living the same length of time if Japan was really so backward?

That’s when I started looking into health, family customs, sewers, water, and other aspects of life. As background, I looked at my own experience in Japan in the 1960s when the standard of living was much lower than in the United States. I stayed in a doctor’s house that didn’t have flush toilets, central heating, or even a telephone. People communicated by telegram or on foot, and yet everyone seemed very healthy and lived very comfortably. This influenced me because I saw that you could live very well without having all the goods that Americans had. I began to think that we had to have another way of measuring how well people lived besides the economic measure of standard of living. Gradually I came up with the concept of physical well-being.

I made a lot of what to me were discoveries. We think of Japan as so communal and of course in many ways it is. But in the household, everyone has their own rice bowl, teacup, and chopsticks, so it didn’t matter so much that dishes were washed in cold water. It meant less spread of “germs.” There’s more individualism in Japan, or individual sorts of actions in Japan, than we recognize when we’re looking at it through Western eyes.

I think that’s such a great point and you make a similar point in the prologue to your second book where you talk about how you were taught that Japan was a very poor nation in the nineteenth century and that it was behind the West. But you also say that by the 1960s scholars of Japan started to push back against these sorts of views. What are some of the main ways that your scholarship, whether on demographics or daily life in Tokugawa Japan, has complicated our understandings of this time period? And did you set out to complicate our understandings?

I didn’t set out to complicate our understanding! I tried to figure out what was really going on.

You know, some of it is very frustrating because I had to deal with statistics, and a lot of people don’t understand them or how to use them. They aren’t just facts, but they require understanding how they are calculated, the sample sizes, and they need to be put into context.

For example, one researcher wrote an article based on a small Tokugawa village in which all women happened to get married. So she concluded that all women got married in premodern Japan. Well, that’s just not true! You’ve got a country with millions of people, and this was one small sample. I ended up with village population data for four different areas. One of them in a 15-year period, calculating the way demographers calculate, had a life expectancy of 72. All this showed was not that the records were wrong but that it was possible for Japanese to live to old age. It didn’t show anything about the population of Japan as a whole. From my samples, I could show that there was a wide variety of life expectancies.

I was amused by the conclusions two of us Japanese historians made after analyzing Tokugawa records. Both of us had advice from the same professional demographer. We both found average life expectancy in the late 40s in the mid-nineteenth century. I said this was quite amazing because it was similar to American life expectancy at the same time. But the other researcher compared this to modern life expectancy and concluded it was a terribly low life expectancy. Is the glass half full or is the glass half empty? It’s how you look at it.

Susan Hanley is a professor emerita of Japanese studies at the University of Washington. She was one of the cofounders of the Journal of Japanese Studies as well as an editor for the Journal for more than a quarter of a century. In 1977 she coauthored Economic and Demographic Change in Pre-Industrial Japan (1600–1868) with Kozo Yamamura. She has also written Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture, for which she won the 1999 John Whitney Hall Book Prize.

Erin Trumble, a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studies gender in early modern Japan, paying particular attention to the construction of femininities. Her past work focused on fighting women, how they were portrayed in woodblock prints and literature, and how they participated in the Boshin War of 1868–69. Her current project involves looking at how intersections between age and gender affected identity making for retired women in the Edo period.

This interview was made possible by financial support from the Japan Foundation, New York.