Interview with Professor Sabine Frühstück, a Shinhan Distinguished Faculty Member

November 14, 2019 by Dongwoo (Sam) Kang


Since 2006, the Shinhan Distinguished Faculty Program has provided UIC students the opportunity to interact with leading scholars and experts from all over the world. As part of the program, UIC annually hosts a number of distinguished visiting faculty to give lectures and intensive seminars. The UIC Scribe had a chance to speak with this year’s visiting Professor Sabine Frühstück, Koichi Takashima Chair in Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and renowned expert on issues of gender and sexuality, military and war, and the history of childhood and emotion. 

Q. Could you please briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Sabine Frühstück and I am a professor of Modern Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies. I am also affiliated with the departments of Global Studies, Feminist Studies, History, and Anthropology due to my work being very interdisciplinary. I draw from the methodologies of ethnography, cultural history, and the critical study of knowledge and visual culture. My primary focus is on Japan from the late 19th century to today. 

Q. You have been invited to be a Shinhan Distinguished Faculty member here at Yonsei University. Please share with us what you are planning to do during your time here.

As Shinhan Distinguished Faculty, I believe I have two roles. My main role is to engage with students in a course on How Children Make War in the format of an intensive seminar—working with students from Monday through Thursday, for two weeks. This course was prepared jointly with colleagues from Underwood International College here at Yonsei University: Professors Helen J.S. Lee, Howard Kahm, and Seto Tomoko. 

I am also privileged to give a number of talks during my time here. I will be speaking to audiences from UIC and the Department of English Language and Literature here at Yonsei, but also at Seoul National University.

**Q. You mentioned working alongside other professors teaching this course. How did you become familiar with them? **

I have known Professor Lee for a very long time. I remember first coming across her work through reviewing her manuscript, Reading Colonial Japan: Text, Context, and Critique for Stanford University Press. Her co-edited volume is a brilliant collection of English translations of original Japanese texts, commentaries by Japanese scholars and other experts, and overall commentaries by the two editors. It provided a completely fresh and deep look onto the Japanese colonial regime and is suitable for both scholars and students alike. 

Q. How did you first become interested in Japanese Studies?

I grew up in Austria with parents who often traveled to faraway places primarily to climb high mountains. With and without them, I went to many different places but somehow never to Asia. Even when I traveled on my own with or with friends, most of my travels were in Europe. So, I wanted to study a place I did not know much about, a place that sounded appealing, exotic, but also modern. I believe that is what drew me to Japan. 

Q. Your areas of expertise include gender and sexuality, military and war, and the history of childhood and emotion. Could you please briefly introduce your disciplines and what you have particularly focused on?

I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Vienna in Austria. At this school, there is great emphasis on modern Japanese history and sociology. In graduate school, I became interested in the social and historical study of science, which led to my dissertation and later my first monograph, Colonizing Sex: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2003), in which I looked at the history of sexology. While writing my book, I realized that the military was the one institution that allowed the Japanese state direct access to a very large number of male bodies via their mandatory physical exams. The military had great interest in ensuring that young males joining the military were healthy and did not suffer from diseases, especially sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This was at the end of the 19th century: At the time, STDs like syphilis were greatly debilitating, both physically and mentally, and were spreading to offspring. Subsequently, I became interested in the military not as a war-making institution but as a source of important data for nation building, for maintaining and improving the health of the population at large, even for assessing education levels.

While I found my archival work rewarding, it was a rather lonely task. Partly because of my desire to speak to living beings, my next project focused on the current-day military in Japan and was based not primarily on archival research although that was part of it but participant observations and interviews with a broad range of members of the Self-Defense Forces from first year cadets at the National Defense Academy to base commanders and veterans. This ethnography was published entitled Uneasy Warriors: Gender, Popular Culture and Memory in the Japanese Army (University of California Press, 2007). The book’s core question is how (primarily) young men who join the military voluntarily make sense of being members of a force that cannot participate in war as they are legally restricted by Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. I addressed this question through life-course interviews, asking participants things such as personal achievements, family reactions, or personal goals, and many, many hours of participants observation in basic training, expert interviews, and attendance of military events. The book was translated into Japanese and became quite successful—nobody had done such ethnographic work before. 

Q. You have also focused on children through your publications and presentations. Is there a reason for this particular focus?

While conducting research for Uneasy Warriors, I noticed that a significant portion of the public relations efforts of the military were primarily targeting children below their teen years. Looking deeper into this phenomenon, I realized that the military has great interest in conveying its role as a useful organization to children before they become active political individuals. This led me to my interest in the larger topic of the interconnections between children, war, and militarism. For my recent work, Playing War: Children and the Paradoxes of Modern Militarism in Japan (University of California Press, 2017) I looked back into the 19th century for historical discussions on children’s war games, including mock wars children play among themselves. Children would reenact the Russo-Japanese war to the point of even fatally injuring themselves, leading to adults becoming heavily concerned about children’s safety and invested in discouraging such playtime activities. But by the late 1920s, public opinion had changed alongside preparations for real-life war: these children’s war games were played at a massive scale, even between schools, all condoned by the state. Another aspect of the book looked at children’s interactions with soldiers. Pictures of soldiers were published in children’s books to convey the message that soldiers are “good men doing good deeds.” Such use of visuals persisted even into the 1940s. Finally, when I looked at how the present Japanese military conveys its “good image,” I saw many continuities to past wartime messages. 

Q. Is this your first time in Korea? Are there certain goals you wish to accomplish here?

I have actually been in Korea once before, around 15 years ago as the UCSB representative to an Association of Pacific Rim Universities Program that brought us all to Seoul. During the one-week program, I visited sites in Seoul, the DMZ, and Seoul National University. Funnily, some of my colleagues had suggested that getting around in Korea would be easy due to my Japanese skills, but I found Chinese characters only on monuments. Still, I have been interested in learning more about Korea ever since my first visit here and so I try to visit at least one museum or some other historical site every day.

I am happy to be here as the Shinhan Distinguished Faculty and I wish to develop deeper connections with my colleagues and help build closer inter-institutional relationships of faculty and students with the help of the excellent professors here at Yonsei University.

Q. Throughout your career, you sought to deeply understand and interact with a foreign culture. As students of an international college, many here at UIC are also interested in becoming a part of the greater international community, such as through being members of international organizations or working at multinational corporations. Could you provide some insights or tips on how you immersed yourself to a culture you were initially unfamiliar with?

I feel that there are fewer hurdles today: It is easier and less costly for people to travel to different parts of the world. I think it is important to enjoy a sense of adventure, to be interested in discovering something you don’t already know. To do this, you need to be perceptive and have humility. We all grow up learning our respective cultures as the norm, but you have to be open to other people’s norms to gain a richer cultural experience. Humans all have similar needs, but cultures have addressed these needs differently. By thinking about what kinds of things other societies do differently, we can learn to adapt and apply them to improve others’ lives. 

Another mindset you need is a strong work ethic, a crucial part of which is the will to learn foreign languages. The acquisition of a foreign language enables you to be a responsible person in that culture. To function in everyday life in that language is important to create mutual understanding. As a resident of the United States for the past 20 years, I recognize English as a language with which you can survive in most places around the world today. But imposing a language and its inherent values on people of a different culture is deeply problematic. Even from my classes, I have observed students learning a lot just from the necessity to take a step back from the language they are comfortable in and try to communicate in a different language that necessitates alternative thinking. Thus, I recommend you take the time to learn the local language.

Q. For those that want to pursue academia like you, could you share some personal experiences of what steps you took? What about the challenges you faced and how you overcame them?

The most important thing is to do something you really enjoy. All other concerns are secondary to asking yourself whether you are doing something you enjoy doing.

I will share two personal challenges that I addressed in pursuing my career. I grew up in a family with a good work ethic. Self-pity was much abhorred in my family. There was no sympathy for whining. My father would always tell me, “When you fail at something, the most important thing is to pick yourself up again, realize what can be learned from the failure, and then move on.” Things don’t often go the way you want—I had my own self-doubts when working on my dissertation—but it is important to deal with your inadequacies and shortcomings and not dwell on your disappointments and mistakes. When you are the driving force behind your work, you will naturally get joy out of what you are accomplishing and be emotionally and intellectually more independent.

As a woman one faces additional challenges. Particularly at the time I was a student, Austria was a very sexist society. The university was an absolutely male-dominated culture. I realized that I had to do better work and work harder. But I also learned that I had to make sure that the people around me were recognizing my accomplishments. It is important for your achievements to be recognized as the result of you working hard and doing well and to women that doesn’t happen on its own. 

One tip I have that will sound very Korean is to build connections and relationships. Your own skill set will take you only so far. At various moments you will need a social environment in which people understand what you are interested in, will think of you when a suitable opportunity arises, and will be ready to help when you need help. Don’t wait for such people to discover you. You need to communicate to people what you are doing and what you need help with. I have never been afraid to ask for directions and guidance and I have never regretted to do so. Don’t assume that you are expected to know everything already. Rather, take advantage of the fact that you are young, just starting out, and being surrounded by people with greater knowledge and experience who will happily share some of that with you.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.