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Trip to Japan highlights new Asian studies minor

Barry McNamara
One of the beautiful, serene places the Monmouth College group visited was the Sanjusangendo Gardens.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Asia is home to 60 percent of the world’s population, and faculty member Michelle Damian is “thrilled” that Monmouth College now has an academic minor to study the region.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to do this,” said Damian, an assistant professor of history who is coordinating the minor with communication studies professor Robert Hinck. “It’s a region of the world that can’t be ignored. ... There are so many international conferences held in Asia. Everybody can benefit from at least a brief introduction to the topic.”

Damian and English professor David Wright recently returned from leading 11 Monmouth students on a nine-day trip to Japan. Damian, who lived in Japan for nine years, stayed an extra week to meet with colleagues and friends and conduct research for a book she’s writing about medieval Japanese maritime activities.

To prepare for the trip to Japan, students last spring took a class from Damian (“Art, Architecture and Authority in Classical Japan”) or one from Wright (“Travel Writing”).

“This was an academic trip, designed to immerse students deeply in a single significant region of Japan,” said Wright. “For the students in the travel-writing course, it was designed to allow us to discover ourselves as travelers and writers as we discovered a place new to all of us. The students wrote a braided essay that reflected on this experience of discovery. Students also wrote an ekphrastic poem, a meditation on a work of art they experienced on the trip.”

By visiting temples, shrines, palaces and castles, Damian’s students learned how the clergy, courtiers and warriors displayed their power through the “built environment” – the man-made space in which people live, work and recreate in their daily lives.

The Monmouth group spent most of its time exploring the ancient capital city of Kyoto. They also had a day in Nara and an excursion to Mount Hiei to visit Enryaku-ji, site of the temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, founded by Saichō in 788.

Nara was Japan’s capital until 794, when Kyoto became the capital. Kyoto’s time as the capital city lasted “technically, until 1868,” said Damian, “but the time we were most interested in was from 794 to 1185.”

Wright and Damian said two of the temple visits were highlights of the trip.

“I won’t forget our visit to Sanjūsangen-do temple in Kyoto, an ancient temple that is home to the thousand-armed Kannon, a Buddhist sculpture guarded by 1001 statues and 28 amazing guardians,” said Wright. “Being there was both calming and overwhelming at once.”

“While we were at Enryaku-ji, we did a tracing of a Buddhist sutra (canonical scripture),” said Damian. “It’s a meditative experience, and the students really seemed to get something out of it.”

One of those students was Quinton Kaihara ’20 of Chicago.

“I learned that an open mind is essential for every college student, no matter their major,” said Kaihara. “Exploring another country for the first time allowed me to experience a world culture that was unlike our own American culture.”

Damian said one of those differences comes down to the simple matter of time.

“Coming at it from an American perspective, I can’t tell you how many times we saw something there and said, ‘This is three times older than our country.’ Several of the statues we saw in Nara were from the eighth century. The United States is just so young compared to what we can see there.”

The trip was a type of homecoming for both Kaihara and Damian.

“I’m half-Japanese, so this trip was not only for course credit, but it has been a dream since I was a child,” said Kaihara. “I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, and now that I have, I cannot wait to go back.”

Damian understands how Kaihara feels.

“Japan is an integral part of me,” she said. “One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about Japan as far back as my home stay there when I was in high school is the ability to honor nature, even within a city environment. You can be in a massive city, and all of a sudden you turn a corner, and there’s a peaceful little shrine. You’re never far from nature.”

Wright believes he will keep coming back to a moment at the Sanjūsangen-do temple.

“Professor Damian explained how she had been told that if you looked at the faces of the statues you would eventually find your own face in the crowd of images,” said Wright. “I was really touched in particular by a very spare statue of one of the guardians, Mawara-nyo. As I was standing and looking at her, I heard a tour guide from another group walk by and say, ‘And when you pray deeply, not thinking of anything, this is the expression you make.’ I have been thinking about that ever since, and probably will for many years.”