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Alisa Freedman

Associate Professor, Japanese Literature & Film, University of Oregon, USA
B.A., Wesleyan University
M.A. and Ph.D., University of Chicago

Research and Teaching Interests:
  • Modern Japanese literature
  • Popular culture
  • Youth culture
  • Visual media
  • Digital culture
  • Urban studies
  • Gender

Alisa Freedman is an Associate Professor of Japanese Literature and Film at the University of Oregon. Much of her interdisciplinary work investigates the ways the modern urban experience has shaped human subjectivity, cultural production, and gender roles. She strives to show how literature and visual media can provide a deeper understanding of society, politics, and economics. Alisa has published widely on Japanese modernism, urban studies, contemporary youth culture, media discourses about gender norms, humor as social critique, and the intersection of literature and digital media. Her work in progress include a book about changing images of working women on Japanese television and a series of articles on popular culture representation of Japan's lost generation. She is co-editing a volume on Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan, an international workshop for which was held at the University of Oregon in 2010. Additionally, Alisa is engaged in a research and teaching project on the future of the book using Japanese literature as an example and is involved in several literary translation projects.


Q1. How do you conduct your class? For example: approach, methods and structure.

It depends on the class. I will discuss this topic further in my conference talk.

For example in my Freshman and Second-Year Seminars at the University of Oregon (UO), we ask such questions as what makes Japanese pop culture so fascinating? How are cute characters like Hello Kitty transforming global politics and the ways people construct their own identities? Are there any negative effects of regarding Japan as the “capital of cool,” especially after March 11, 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown? Though innovative study of a wide range of sources, we explore how popular culture reveals the values of societies that produce and consume it and how Japan influences our lives in Oregon. We look at how women and men of different age groups around the world have used Japanese popular culture to form new communities, make statements about gender and identity, and to overturn cultural stereotypes. We discuss how artists and corporations have spearheaded major trends, often with the support of the Japanese government. We question the future of popular culture in the digital age.

To cover several topics in a short academic term, we will adopt a case study approach and introduce key issues through use of examples. Class meetings are comprised of short lectures, followed by discussion of important texts, issues, and debates. To gain more firsthand knowledge, become better researchers, and apply course themes to our own lives, we meet with experts from different fields who use Japanese popular culture in their work and tour UO archives related to Japan. I encourage students to bring in materials related to course themes and to share their own experiences. Prior knowledge of Japanese culture and language is helpful but not required. All readings and discussions are in English. The syllabus can adapt to fit the interests of the class.

The general skills I would like students to cultivate in my undergraduate classes on Japanese popular culture include:

  1. gain a general overview of important Japanese trends
  2. consider ways popular culture shapes our worldviews and images of Japan
  3. better understand the social, political, economic, historical, and aesthetic significance of popular culture
  4. practice analyzing different media
  5. become more familiar with UO (and Tokyo) resources related to the study of Japan
  6. learn to better express ideas orally and in writing, 6) think critically about culture
  7. work collaboratively
  8. use digital technologies in innovative ways

Accordingly, the assignments evaluate students in terms of these goals and stress continual active engagement with course texts and themes.

Assignments include:

  1. posting reader responses on our class social networking site
  2. participation exercises designed to start discussion outside the classroom
  3. short papers for which students are given both analytical and creative questions
  4. final specialized projects

Students have found final projects to be among the most rewarding parts of the class. Final projects are specialized to let students build the skills they have or would like to cultivate (creativity, analytical abilities, text-based research, and the like). I do not want them to produce a term paper that will be deleted and forgotten. I require students to post creative projects online to be responsible for their ideas. At first, the idea of doing a “specialized” final project was scary for some students. Past final projects have included blogs, original songs, screenplays, cell-phone novels, advertising campaigns, documentary films, and research papers. Students have given guest lectures on the final projects in my other classes. This helps the students to see how significant their work is and to learn from each other.

I supplement the class with optional activities. For example, this past spring we had a Japanese Fashion workshop, a DDR event, and film screenings. We also attended a Japanese film festival as a group. Most students attend at least one of these events, which are just for their enjoyment and do not count toward their grades.


Q2. What was the students’ initial perception of Japanese Popular Culture? Were there any changes at the end of the course?

For most students in Oregon and Tokyo, Japanese popular culture is part of daily life. Many of my Oregon students collected Pokemon cards when they were younger. At that time, they did not realize that Pikachu was from Japan. American students tend to assume much of Japanese popular culture is part of global children’s culture. They are very nostalgic for these trends.

In their course evaluations, students have commented that they learned more about the breadth and extent of Japanese popular culture. They discovered that that they things they enjoyed “just for fun” have larger economic, social, and political significances. The classes have diversified their views of Japan. I have been impressed by the critical thinking skills the students have developed.


Q3. Did you face any difficulties in teaching Japanese Popular Culture?

A challenge is teaching students to think critically about the trends they love. I encourage them to become “aca-fans,” or “academic fans.” My classes also tend to be exuberant, and students become are excited to share their knowledge. Sometimes it is hard to focus discussions and make sure all voices are heard. In Tokyo, I have faced the challenge of teaching large classes of students from several different countries, who have different notions of university education and the workload involved. I have found ways to incorporate students’ various experience with Japanese popular culture and learned a lot from them.

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