Trying for a Transnational, Transdisciplinary, Transhierarchical Scholarly Environment: What I Did Last Summer

by Samantha Close
3 July 2014

NametagsIn the middle of July this past summer, I (and thirty-nine other foreign students) braved the sweltering heat to attend the first Kadokawa Media Mix Summer Program at the University of Tokyo.  I never thought I’d be able to add a Suzumiya Haruhi academic nametag to my conference collection! The program’s goal was to bring scholars and practitioners from multiple countries, disciplines, and levels together to mutually discuss transmedia/the media mix/media convergence, using Japanese popular media as a shared context.  Ambitious, but important.  As transnational flows (and barriers) become more and more a taken for granted context of media and culture, serious attention to making our scholarship itself more transnational is long overdue.  My own research centers on contemporary transformations of work in creative industries, and I did come away with a great deal of new insights and threads to follow for my own project.  But, as will probably not surprise any involved in similar efforts, my overriding impression from the Media Mix program was a healthy respect for how difficult it will be to make our scholarly methodologies and environments as intersectional as our material.

MangaWorkshopFirst, some background.  The program comes out of a grant to the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies from the Kadokawa Culture Promotion Foundation.  We were in Tokyo for two weeks, from July 14 to July 26, for an intense schedule of lectures, interviews with media practitioners and industry executives, seminar-style discussions, manga workshops, and a final archive-based research project.  Word to the busy grad student: if you go on a two-week program and note that Saturday and Sunday aren’t holidays, prepare to win a hardcore fight with jetlag.  Because of the program’s relationship with Kadokawa media publishing, we had Kadokawa executives as guests along with creators from the program’s two “case studies,” trans-media phenomena Record of Lodoss War and Suzumiya Haruhi.  Headline professors were Marc Steinberg and Ian Condry, from the Western side, and Eiji Otsuka and Shunya Yoshimi, from the Japanese side.  The forty of us foreign students came from a truly dizzying array of backgrounds: first-year undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates to non-student arts practitioners to an assistant professor, American to Korean to French to Canadian to British to Australian, East Asian Studies to Comparative Literature to Political Science to Communication… and I’m probably leaving someone out. (Apologies!)  We also had a smattering of University of Tokyo students, with concentrations from the business of anime to literature to computer science and robotics.

Unfortunately, many of the University of Tokyo students had classes and even exams during the program duration.  And herein lies the start of the difficulties.  International academic calendars don’t necessarily align so everyone has a break at the same time.  The Japanese school year typically runs April through March, with a shorter summer break early on in the year at the end of July–right after our program ended.  When I did my Master’s degree in Glasgow, we had a full-year school-year that ran from September to September.  So if you want to bring academics together, timing becomes quite tricky for anyone either taking or teaching courses (i.e. basically everyone).  And when some groups’ schedules are structurally ignored, they are justifiably wary of how “collaboration” will play out.  In an opposite but similar way, we foreign students found our expectations clashing with Japanese academic structures.  When guests visited the program for interviews and questions, they were asked to give long presentations.  Then the opportunity to ask questions went, explicitly, to senior professors in attendance.  When they had asked all of their questions, if time remained, we students (i.e. the program participants) could ask questions.  A not-unfamiliar hierarchy, but I’ve never seen it institutionalized quite so rigidly in an American academic setting.

MousepadsWorking out–and working together on–these structural and practical considerations is the next necessary step towards transnational scholarship now that the ball is rolling.  Flipping traditional hierarchies can elucidate some things, but (as the dual and dueling objectifying mousepads suggest) it’s not a panacea.  Language, as one might guess, was another constant point of tension.  The program’s official language was English, with some lectures and interviews conducted in both Japanese and English via translation.  Eiji Otsuka’s first workshop on manga was the exception.  He delivered a blisteringly fast lecture in Japanese on the historical development of manga form, diverging almost immediately from the English talk outline, and ended with an exhortation that we consider whether it is right or not that people studying Japanese media might not know Japanese.  He’s got a certain point.  However, this reads one way when you imagine the audience of program participants as Westerners, especially as Americans.  It reads another when you imagine them as non-Japanese Asians, especially as Koreans.  We were all of these.

Although I’ve been focusing on next steps here, there were some really beautiful and productive things about the symposium.  Our conversations ranged from Baudrillard to genres of Korean manga to working conditions in the idol industry to Stuart Hall to a Japanese executive’s take on Steve Jobs’ corporate philosophy and back again.  This is a conversation you can only have when specialists of diverse fields come together and, I suspect, come equipped with computers.  No one could be familiar with all the objects and theories discussed, so quick look-ups on Wikipedia or chat messages to other participants were essential to keep everyone in the loop and able to participate.  At the same time, being physically together in Tokyo and even staying in the university’s dorms led to brilliant informal conversations and group trips to Ikebukuro’s Otome Lane, the Mori Art Museum’s exhibit on Pokémon, and the fantastical material culture archive that is Nakano Broadway.

Pokemon_Over_TokyoOut of the archival research came presentations on language phrases as spreadable media, transmedia acoustics, deployment of the feminine in The Record of Lodoss War, and a considerable number more.  Kadokawa and the University of Tokyo’s clout got us into the Kadokawa, Kodansha, and University of Tokyo archives–a feat no one scholar could accomplish on their own.  Unfortunately, no students were allowed to take photos within the archives, even for our presentations or our own research.  I winced while photocopying forty and fifty year old manga magazines instead.  We were later notified that we were definitely not allowed to post online those archive photos that we were not allowed to take.  An incredible start, but still a long way to go.  Reaching across boundaries is not the same as erasing them.  If we acknowledge that fact openly as our starting point for collaboration, the limits themselves can be productive forces.  Pursuing transnational, transdisciplinary, transhierarchical scholarship requires a multi-sided conversation that begins from the complexity of the postcolonial world as a whole.


Samantha Close is a Ph.D. student in Communications at the University of Southern California Annenberg School. Her research interests include fan studies, critical theory, theory-practice, new media, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on amateur media production and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism. Her writing has recently appeared in the Sampling Media anthology published by Oxford University Press.

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