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Exploring Japan's Past

Jessa Dahl '10

By Adriana Colindres

Jessa Dahl '10Jessa Dahl's attraction to Japan began in childhood, when a friend urged her to watch a Japanese-made cartoon called Sailor Moon. Before long, her interest in animé had expanded into a fascination with anything related to Japan.

"As I keep getting new and different exposures to Japan and Japanese culture and Japanese history, it stays very, very interesting," said Dahl, a history and Asian studies major from Luverne, Minnesota. She spent much of her senior year completing an Honors project that scrutinizes the journals of five men who lived in Japan between 1853 and 1868. Those years, known as the Bakumatsu Period, marked a tumultuous and transitional time in the history of Japan as it started developing relationships with other parts of the world. "You've got assassinations and political coups and different factions," said Dahl. "You've got modern technology coming in. It's just a very exciting time period."

She became intrigued with that era when she took a modern Japanese history class for Japan Term, the Knox College interdisciplinary program that integrates coursework with a two-week trip to Japan. As part of a class project, Dahl headed to Seymour Library and found that its collection includes several journals written by men who spent time in Japan during those years. She later would use the journals for her Honors project.

"I was lucky that our library, especially for the size of Knox, just has a very good representation of Japanese history sources," she said.

Japan Term students and faculty traveled to Japan in December 2008, and Dahl made sure to visit Yokohama, originally a small fishing village that grew in importance as a meeting place of Japanese and Westerners during the Bakumatsu Period. She completed another study of that historical period through the Ford Foundation Research Fellowship Program, which targets students who are interested in teaching and research careers and enables them to collaborate with faculty mentors.

The idea for Dahl's Honors project came together in fall term 2009, when she took a British history class with Professor George Steckley. "We were examining journals and memoirs in that class, to look at the biases of the writer," Dahl said. Steckley suggested analyzing the Bakumatsu-era journals.

Dahl's Honors closely examined the journals to evaluate how each writer viewed Japan in the context of "Orientalism," a term describing the way Americans and Europeans looked at other parts of the world in the mid-19th Century.

"Orientalism is basically the distinction of East and West, that there is a West and there is an East, and the West is technologically and culturally superior to the East, and that the East needs the West to become equal to it," she said. "I'm studying the way in which these men interacted with the world view of Orientalism. Some of them just accepted it, and some of them argued with it, and some of them completely rejected it."

Knox History Professor Michael Schneider, a specialist in Japanese and Asian studies and chair of her Honors committee, said even though the journals that Dahl used are well-known among historians, he never has seen them get scrutinized "in this kind of interconnected, interlocked way."

Dahl was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship in spring 2010, which will allow her to return to Japan and study the lives of women who lived in the port cities of Nagasaki, Yokohama, and Hakodate during the Bakumatsu Period. Her long-term plans include pursuing a doctorate in Japanese history and launching a career in teaching, preferably at a liberal arts college like Knox.

Tackling an Honors project helped Dahl hone her research and writing skills, bolstering her confidence in her ability to complete a large-scale research project. "I'm not necessarily afraid of the Fulbright in the same way that I would have been," she said. "I know I can accomplish it, and I have strategies for accomplishing it."

"I learned how to write better. I learned how to research better," she added. "A lot of the skills that I'm going to need for this Fulbright, I had been introduced to in Knox classes. But this Honors project made me completely develop them, so I know I have them."