A ‘Conversation’ on Comparisons between Japanese Studies, Contemporary History and Medieval Art History
While studying political science at Heidelberg University’s South Asia Institute, I was always told to refrain from making comparisons if and when I would become a researcher. Comparative research, it was said, is an extremely complex research methodology, difficult to realize and terribly time-consuming, expensive, and labor intensive. In Japanese Studies, comparisons are further complicated by language and cultural contexts. Thus I have never done any kind of a ‘classic’ comparison (and, indeed, I also have warned my students of these difficulties and not to be tempted to attempt comparative research). I have, however, come across comparative research in my field of interest – family sociology – that has made me reconsider my reluctance to use comparative methods, notably a comparison of single women in Tokyo, Hongkong and Shanghai by anthropologist Lynne Nakano (Nakano 2016). Despite being convinced (and fascinated) by this comparison, I found the idea of doing comparisons still rather intimidating – especially when considering my own abilities and resources. However, in the process of co-editing a handbook on methods in social science research on Japan (Studying Japan. Handbook of Research Designs, Fieldwork and Methods, with Prof. Dr. Cornelia Reiher, Freie Universität Berlin, forthcoming in late 2020) and reviewing the nearly seventy contributions, I began to think about comparison(s) from a slightly different perspective.
The contributions clearly show that ‘Studying Japan’ itself is inherently comparative (either implicitly or explicitly): in order to make our research rigorous and relatable for researchers of other disciplines and to make any broader arguments and contributions, we have to compare in the widest sense of the term. Simultaneously, doing research on and teaching ‘Japan’ can be “transformed into the incentive for critically apprehending larger ideological discourses”, as Ioannis Gaitanidis argues. He elaborates how ‘Japanese examples [can be] used […] to consider the contingency of frequently used, fundamental terms”, an approach he calls “Critical Japanese Studies” (based on Eva Illouz’ understanding of an ‘impure’ critique) (2017: 4). Furthermore, with intensified focus on transnational entanglements and global flows of communications, commodities, finance, people and pathogens, traditional national and disciplinary boundaries are challenged (not only) in Japan-related research. This, however, reinforces the need (and the opportunity) to contextualize and rethink ‘Japan’ in various realms – historic, geographical, and disciplinary – to put it in context and to ‘compare’.
For further elaborating on the topic of comparisons and for literally addressing the issue of ‘Comparing Comparisons’ I asked two friends and colleagues about their perspective on and experiences with comparisons. Both work in completely different disciplines – Contemporary History and Medieval Art History respectively – and focus on the European context. Dr. Agnes Laba (Contemporary History, Bergische Universität Wuppertal), whose current research project is based on a comparison of gender-specific everyday life practices under German occupation during the Second World War in France and Poland states: ‘Nowadays, historical comparisons form an established part of the field of transnational history.’ Jun.-Prof. Dr. Julia Trinkert (Medieval Art History, University of Düsseldorf) takes a similar stance and argues that ‘comparisons are indispensable in the medieval art history of Europe.’ However, their understanding of what comparisons are, why and how to apply them (and what to actually compare) differs in an interesting way.
Agnes Laba elaborates on ‘historical comparisons [that] are usually understood as the systematic juxtaposition of two or more historical units in order to explore similarities and differences.’ ‘Yet’, she argues;
‘historical comparisons aim at going beyond a mere description of the involved entities. Instead, they aim at contributing to a deeper understanding of them and at developing typologies. In so doing, comparisons can offer new perspectives on a research field. One example is the analysis of gender-specific everyday life practices under German occupation during the Second World War in different countries; a topic that has long been researched from a mere national perspective. The comparative analysis in the select countries shows that despite diverging [Nazi] occupation policies in both countries, the occupational situation had similar effects on the gender-specific male everyday practices and male identities. Consequently, this comparison leads to a deeper understanding of the so-called “crisis of masculinity”, which is often associated with the Second World War but seldom analyzed in detail.’ (email correspondence)
Julia Trinkert, in contrast, focuses on ‘comparisons based on perception’. She explains:
‘Since most art works from the medieval era are neither signed nor assignable to a specific author through written sources, one can usually not speak of “artists”. In this context, stylistic comparisons between art works often serve as the basis for understanding their genesis. Yet, the method of style criticism, which has a long tradition dating back to the 19th century, often leads to very subjective and constantly criticized assessments. Therefore, when applying this type of comparison based on perception, I argue that it is imperative to bear in mind the subsequent steps (1) connoisseurship and (2) interpretation, which all build upon each other. Far too often, artistic, technical and stylistic features of individual objects are exaggerated to fit the artwork into a pleasing interpretation scheme. To conclude: comparisons based on perception are a great method of art history, but they have to be carried out in awareness of the shallows of the following steps ‘connoisseurship’ and ‘interpretation’.’ (email correspondence)
The above ‘conversation’ highlights three points. Firstly, it shows that ‘Comparing Comparisons’ enhances our understanding of comparisons and helps us to ‘study comparisons’: different perspectives on comparisons, divergent understandings of ‘comparing’ and a variety of dimensions along which to compare become apparent. Secondly, it highlights the general relevance of ‘comparisons’ in such a wide understanding: When done well and when choosing a suitable research design, comparing (whether implicitly or explicitly) can lead to new perspectives and findings on an empirical, a methodological, a hermeneutic and/or a theoretical level. Finally, (and perhaps most importantly) comparing can lead to and stimulate inter- and/or multidisciplinary discussions and collaborations – both being key criteria for dynamic and relatable research!
 Inspired by Farrer, James/Liu-Farrer, Gracia (2020, forthcoming): ‘How to present findings: Presenting and publishing’. In: Kottmann, Nora/Reiher, Cornelia (eds.): Studying Japan. Handbook of Research Designs, fieldwork and Methods. Nomos: Baden-Baden.
Nora Kottmann is a Senior Research Fellow at the German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ) Tokyo. Her main research interests include personal relationships, intimacy, space, mobility, gender, and methods in social science research on Japan.
Gaitanidis, Ioannis. 2017. ‘Critique of/in Japanese Studies: An Introduction to the Special Issue.’ In New Ideas in East Asian Studies (Special Edition), 1–7.
Nakano, Lynne. 2016. ‘Single Women and the Transition to Marriage in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo.’ In Asian Journal of Social Science, 44, 363–390.
Kottmann, Nora/Reiher, Cornelia (eds.). 2020 (forthcoming). Studying Japan. Handbook of Research Designs, Fieldwork and Methods. Baden-Baden: Nomos.
Citation: Nora Kottmann, “A ‘Conversation’ on Comparisons Between Japanese Studies, Contemporary History and Medieval Art History” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.07.62020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24501.