Norma M. Field

Norma M. Field, Ph.D.

Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor in Japanese Studies in East Asian Languages and Civilizations.
Teaching and Research Interests: 

When hosts introducing me before a public lecture list my books, I find myself wanting to offer a rationale for a trajectory that begins with a translation of a novel by Natsume Soseki (And Then), a study of the Tale of Genji (The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji) an account of Japan at the time of Emperor Hirohito's death (In the Realm of a Dying Emperor), and an interweaving of my own grandmother's slow decline with the society and politics of post-bubble Japan (From My Grandmother's Bedside). Now, I am working on the proletarian literature produced in the 1920s and 30s, with a focus on Kobayashi Takiji (1904-1933). Sometimes I say that I became aware of the emperor "system" through study of the Genji, and that that background oriented my focus on the modern-day system. (As my mentor in Genji studies, Professor Mitani Kuniaki of Yokohama Municipal University is fond of saying, the very title tells us that this is a story about a man who cannot become emperor.) I might add that Genji and Kobayashi Takiji became internationally known at the same time, the former through Arthur Waley's translations, the latter through multiple-language translations produced in the context of worldwide revolutionary movements of the 20s and 30s. What I should accent, probably, is that I studied Genji with those who came of age in the student activism of the 1960s, who made me indispensably conscious, first in the present, and then historically, of how profoundly the context of study shapes the understanding of a text, even or perhaps especially a canonical text like Genji.

My abiding love for what the modern world calls literature—the supple means with which it raises the questions of existence in ways that may overlap but cannot be identical with the methods of sociology or political science or anthropology or even history —continues to inform my work and my teaching. I am fascinated by the fact that the revolutionaries I'm currently studying found literature necessary. Brutal and thoroughgoing state repression ensured that the period when literature identified as proletarian was written would be short-lived, but those years of ferment posed questions that are germane, and even urgent, for us today. Should, or could, a literature for the people be distinct from entertainment literature? Is the question of form as important as the question of content for a purportedly revolutionary literature? (Alternatively, what forms are desirable?) Can any art worthy of the name be produced for the sake of goals identified as political? Can art be useful? These questions were debated with passion, often divisively. At the same time, the writers, painters and sculptors, composers, and filmmakers who posed them used their media to create works that probed and exposed the unacceptable world they inhabited with the aim of transforming it. They were men and women, many intellectual, some not. Their appetite for what was happening elsewhere in the world made them translators as well as creators and critics. They also sought to inform themselves about the empire and made serious efforts in constricted conditions to make common cause with Japan's colonized subjects. Their works were made possible by the technological and sociopolitical conditions of modernity and impelled by the felt need to challenge its dispensations.

I want to learn about and understand this body of works produced in relation to those commonly called modernist, as well as the legacy of such an unhappy modern as Natsume Soseki. In the other direction, I am interested in the postwar afterlife of the proletarian movement and the long and contentious process--in which the role of women in the prewar party was a key issue--by which it came to be forgotten. This is a part of my general interest in grasping the cunning of capitalism and the array of its resources in shaping society and consciousness.

I was fortunate to spend 2004-05 in the port city of Otaru, once the center of advanced periphery Hokkaido, where Kobayashi Takiji came of age. My worldview was (yes, belatedly) transformed by this experience of living so far from Tokyo. Meeting people who had grown up in "Karafuto" ( Sakhalin), for example, gave me a sense of first-hand linkage with the history of Japanese colonialism. I became acquainted with networks of citizen activist-intellectuals who have preserved the legacy of Kobayashi Takiji. This encounter, more than anything, has begun to unsettle my understanding of postwar history. I expect this to have long-term consequences for my continued interest in issues of wartime and postwar responsibility (including the former military "comfort women").

Selected Publications: 

Along with the book on Takiji, I am working with co-editor Heather Bowen-Struyk on an anthology of proletarian fiction and criticism called Literature for Revolution for the University of Chicago Press.

My most recent published writings are in Japanese:

  1. "Senjika no daigaku kyoshitsu de Hiroshima, Nagasaki o oshieru" ([Teaching Hiroshima, Nagasaki in the wartime college classroom], Quarterly Zen'ya [Autumn, inaugural issue, 2004])
  2. "Minshushugi o aishita toki: 2004nen Amerika daitôryô senkyo" ([When I loved democracy: The 2004 US presidential election]) in Misuzu (March, 2005)
  3. "'1928nen 3gatsu 15nichi': Gômon kakumei nichijôsei" ([" March 15, 1928": Torture, revolution, and everydayness] in Gendai Shisô bukku gaido Kojiki kara Maruyama Masao made tokubetsu rinji zôkan gô [Revue de la pensée d'aujourd'hui; special issue, book guide from the Kojiki to Maruyama Masao]; June, 2005)
  4. "Iki no ii jikan: Ishigaki Rin 'Mazushii machi' ni yosete" ([Time that's so fresh: On Ishigaki Rin's "The Poor part of town"] in Quarterly Zen'ya [Summer], 2005)

Links to other accounts of recent activities:

  • Feminist Struggles in Japan (Winter & Spring 2006)
  • Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Beyond (Spring 2006)
  • Introduction to Civilizations of East Asia: Japan


I've been lucky to have colleagues and students at Chicago who've taught me in uncountable ways. As you can guess from the examples of dissertation projects in various stages listed below, I can in no way claim to direct research and writing on such a range of work (nor am I the director in every case). Students learn from various faculty and especially, I think, from each other, and I am the beneficiary of this interaction. I offer the following as indications of the kind of student work that has and can take place here

Thinking about the role of youth crime in the social imaginary, Brian Bergstrom (EALC) is working on a project he tentatively titles "Young Boys Doing Terrible Things: Youth, Crime, and Culture in Heisei Japan."

Heekyoung Cho is researching a dissertation titled "Constructing and Legitimizing Modern Korean Literature: Korean Writers’ Reception of Russian Literature in the 1920s."

Annika Culver (History) is writing on Surrealist art in Japan and the colonies during the years 1924-1945, with special focus on Manchuria.

Joanne Cullinane (Anthropology) defended her dissertation titled "Domesticating AIDS: Illness, Identity, and Stigma in Contemporary Japan" in 2004.

Mika Endo (EALC) is working on seikatsu tsuzurikata undô, a movement emerging from prewar northern Japan in which poor rural children were encouraged to write realistically about their everyday lives.

Joseph Hankins (Anthropology) is researching the connections between two forms of internationalization, one of the leather and meat industries, historically stigmatized trades, and the other of the "political discourse centered on universalizable and individual human rights."

Justin Jesty (EALC) is writing on "Art and Activism in Postwar Japan."

Eric Johnson (EALC) is finishing up a dissertation titled "“Modern Japan and the Cultural History of Inkyo."

Patti Kameya (History) is finishing up a dissertation titled "Paupers, Poets, and Paragons: The Meaning of Eccentricity in Kinsei kijinden (Eccentrics of our times, 1790)."

Chika Kinoshita (EALC and Committee on Media and Cinema Studies) is finishing up her dissertation titled "Mise-en-scène of Desire: The Films of Mizoguchi Kenji."

Aiko Kojima (Sociology) is working on "Food, Foodways, and National Identity."

Miho Matsugu (EALC) completed her dissertation in 2005. It is titled "The War in Kawabata Yasunari's Snow Country: Aesthetics of Empire, Politics of Literature, Struggle of Women."

Sam Perry (EALC) is writing his dissertation on " An Aesthetics for Justice: Proletarian Literature in Japan and Colonial Korea."

George Sipos (EALC), interested in the role of intellectuals in shaping consciousness in modern society, is working on "Japanese Writers in 1920s Soviet Russia."

Mamiko Suzuki (EALC) is researching "Kishida Toshiko's Diaries: Women's Rights and Writing in the Late 19th Century."

And here are some books that have come out recently or are forthcoming from dissertations:

Katherine Rupp (Anthropology): Gift-giving in Japan : Cash, Connections, Cosmologies (Stanford UP, 2003)

Amanda Seaman (EALC): Bodies of Evidence: Women, Society, and Detective Fiction in 1990s Japan ( Hawai'i, 2004)

Melissa Wender (EALC): Lamentation as History: Narratives by Koreans in Japan, 1965-2000 (Stanford UP, 2005)

Sarah Frederick (EALC): Turning Pages: Reading and Writing Women's Magazines in Interwar Japan (Stanford UP, 2006)

Let me add that I feel admiring envy for the up and coming generation of scholars who can use two and more East Asian languages for intraregional research and relish working with the "Arts and Politics in East Asia" workshop. I've also enjoyed coteaching with young scholars. In winter and spring, Tomomi Yamaguchi (PhD in Anthropology, Michigan) and I will teach a course on feminist activism in Japan.