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USC College Kambun Workshop Draws Grad Students Nationwide

Japanese historians Masao Kawashima of Ritsumeikan University and Ikuyo Matsumoto of Yokohama City University taught the workshop, which focused on passages of the Gyokuyō involving religious themes.

Professor Ikuyo Matsumoto from Yokohama City University presents at the workshop. Photo credit Lori Meeks.
Professor Ikuyo Matsumoto from Yokohama City University presents at the workshop. Photo credit Lori Meeks.

The USC Summer Kambun Workshop sponsored by USC College welcomed graduate students from many of the nation’s top universities to study Sino-Japanese texts with prominent Japanese scholars.

The August event is an annual intensive language training program in reading and translating premodern texts written in Sino-Japanese (Kambun).

Attendees included master’s and doctoral students from USC, Princeton, Berkeley, UCLA, Yale, Cornell and Cambridge, along with a scholar from the University of Chicago. Japanese historians Masao Kawashima (Ritsumeikan University) and Ikuyo Matsumoto (Yokohama City University) taught the workshop, and Lori Meeks, associate professor of religion and East Asian languages and cultures in the College, organized the event, also sponsored by the College’s Project for Premodern Japan Studies and USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture Interdisciplinary Research Group.

The theme of the workshop, held at University Park campus and conducted in Japanese, was “Buddhist Thought and Practice in a Time of War.” Participants studied Gyokuyō, the journal of Kujō Kanezane (1149-1207). Kanezane, a high-ranking courtier who served as prime minister and regent, recorded his daily activities and concerns from 1164 to 1200, an era during which he witnessed the violence of the Gempei War (1180-1185).

Kambun, which ­­means classical Chinese writing, refers to written forms of Chinese developed in Japan. It is a genre of techniques for making Chinese texts read like Japanese, or for writing in a way imitative of Chinese. The two-week workshop focused on passages of the Gyokuyō involving religious themes. In recent summers, the workshop has focused on courtier journals largely because they are an abundant but underutilized source. This year, they were used to understand how religious ideas were incorporated into the rituals and protocols of the Japanese court.

“Courtier journals are useful for scholars of Japanese religion because they offer perspectives on religious life that more traditional, doctrine or scripture-focused studies tend to miss,” Meeks said. “In these journals, which courtiers wrote largely as a way of recording protocol for the benefit of later generations, we learn how and when the court utilized religious professionals, how and when it staged religious rituals, and how its officials drew upon religious ideas and language to explain birth, death, war and natural disasters.“


From left, Martin Triche from USC, Ikuyo Matsumoto from Yokohama City University, and Masao Kawashima from Ritsumeikan University. Photo credit Lori Meeks.

During the workshop, students and faculty read passages from the Gyokuyō under the instruction of professors Kawashima and Matsumoto, who also provided short lectures on a wide range of issues, including bibliographic methods, religious rites of the court and Heian-period visual culture. In the week before the main workshop began, Kristina Buhrman, a Ph.D. candidate in history, also taught a pre-workshop for students who needed to brush-up on their Sino-Japanese reading skills.

“Our students are learning to read courtier journals with commendable accuracy, and they are learning, at the same time, how 12th-century Japanese courtiers thought about religious rites and the spiritual world,” Meeks said. “Moreover, they have numerous opportunities to network with peers from other institutions and with our teachers. We’ve also been posting our readings on a wiki created for the workshop. The wiki will serve as a long-term resource for our participants as they move forward in their research.”

The workshop was established by Professor Joan Piggott in 1997 when she taught at Cornell University. After her arrival at USC in 2004, she moved the workshop to USC College. Piggott is Gordon L. MacDonald Chair in History and professor of history.

More information about this year’s workshop, along with past events, can be found here.