Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

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The Literary Critic as Archaeologist

At this time of year in the Japanese city of Nara, cherry blossoms bloom in the parks and along the streets, where tame deer – regarded as “living national treasures” – wander. Joshua Frydman (EALL) is spending the year in and around that ancient city, a former capital of Japan located just over 500 miles south of Tokyo. Eight of the prefecture's 9,000 temples, shrines, and historic ruins have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Great Buddha Hall of the Todaiji Temple, built in the 740s, is the largest wooden building in the world.

Josh is there to study poetry written in the period of Nara's heyday, roughly bounded by the years 650 and 800, when Japan evolved, "seemingly out of nowhere," Josh observes, from a Bronze Age tribal society into an Iron Age culture. Josh explains, "The materials I work on help explore how that society was able to cover nearly one thousand years of development in one-fifth the time. The big question is, what happened in Japan to drive this transition?”

Paper was not yet in common use in Japan at that time, so his research involves physical objects instead of books or scrolls. “Most writing was done on wooden surfaces — including cedar tablets known as mokkan, which is the largest component of what I study — as well as stone, pottery, and roof tiles. Writing, like most technologies, was brought from China during the 500s to 700s, and while paper existed in that mix, there was no widespread domestic paper-making technology until the ninth century, so the Japanese used paper only sparingly,” he says.

The mokkan he studies predate the oldest previously known written materials in Japan. “Until these started coming out of the ground, most people thought that writing in Japan began in the 700s, with poetry remaining completely oral until around 750 or so. These discoveries push back our understanding of how writing entered Japan by at least 100 to 150 years.” The mokkan were found at Buddhist temples and in the ruins of palaces and government offices undergoing archaeological excavation.

Before Josh can decipher, translate, and analyze the poetry, he has to examine the material on which it is written, using methods more commonly associated with archaeology than with literary criticism. The tablets and tiles are kept in special storage at research laboratories, and access to them has been challenging because these artifacts that cannot be handled or exposed to sunlight.

He also needs to immerse himself in historical sources such as official government chronicles in order to understand the context of the poetry. Out of a total of 380,000 tablets, only 40 contain poems. The vast majority are government memos and tax records. Josh notes that “the poems are worth studying precisely because they are so anomalous.” They have not yet been extensively studied in English.

“My work is focused on looking at how and where poetry inscriptions appear and what this can tell us about who was writing them, why they were written, and what role poetry played in society — presumably at the elite level, but also possibly deeper.”

For Josh, “the goals of exploring the poetry and its place in society are firmly those of a literary history dissertation, although I dislike forcing field boundaries onto my work. I am most excited about the possibilities of work that crosses all of these different disciplines and how I can weave them together to provide answers for complex questions.”

Josh is affiliated with Nara Women's University, where he is a “visiting foreign researcher" paired with a Japanese adviser. The school has one of the best archaeology and ancient Japanese history programs in Japan. “I am, however, the only male who is not a professor in the entire humanities division, and there have been moments when students, especially undergrads, have been shocked enough at my mere presence in a room to scream and run away. They are the minority though, and the vast majority of people have been extremely welcoming. It's a fantastic environment and a rarity for Japan, where gender equality still has a long way to go. Over 50 percent of the professors are women, and all at the top of their fields. It's inspiring.”

When he takes breaks from research, he loves to travel to out-of-the-way towns and see surprising things, like ancient temples and festivals at which an entire mountain is set on fire. He says that “eating Japanese food day in and day out is also fantastic.” After this year, Josh will write up his field research into a dissertation advised by Professor Edward Kamens. Following graduation, hopes to begin an academic career in the US.

Josh completed his undergraduate work at Yale, where he majored in East Asian Studies. His interest in the literature of Japan surfaced freshman year, when a survey class on premodern Japanese literature in translation brought his “twin loves of Japan and literature together.”

Joshua Frydman