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In the Spotlight: Chuo University

The spotlight falls on Chuo University, as Fumi Karahashi and her student Naoki Aiba tell us about Assyriology in Japan.

“The Tama campus (home to the Faculty of Letters, the Law School, etc.) is situated to the west of downtown Tokyo, in a place where one can see mountain ranges, including Mt. Fuji, on clear days. I like the environment very much: the air is fresh and the trees green!” – Fumi Karahashi

“I became especially interested in Assyria because I wondered why Assyria, which had existed more than 2,000 years, collapsed soon after unifying the ancient Near East.” – Naoki Aiba

The students and their BA-projects are, from left to right, in the first row: Mr. Yamagishi (“Cheese in Human History”); Ms. Oketa (“Snakes’ Two Aspects in Ancient Greece”); Ms. Ishigooka (“The Fate of Neaira”). In the second row: Mr. Saso (“Teachers in the Ancient Rome”); Mr. Noritake (“Illness and Death in Ancient Egypt”); Mr. Aiba (“Kingship and Animals in the Ancient Near East”); Mr. Nakaoka (“Rituals for the Dead in the Ancient Mesopotamia”).

Dr. Fumi Karahashi, professor of Assyriology

Please tell us something about yourself!

I am a professor in the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University in Tokyo, Japan. I am from the northern part of the main island and lived in Jerusalem, Barcelona, Chicago, Ann Arbor (Michigan), and Philadelphia before getting my current job.

What makes Sumerology your passion?

It is pure fun, like doing a jigsaw puzzle or a sudoku.

What is something you would like to work on if you had all the time and funding in the world?

I would like to translate some Sumerian literary texts into Japanese.

What would you regard as your ‘masterpiece’ until now?

I wish I could answer this question positively…When I am writing articles, I usually do like them, but afterward when I reread them (as proofs or published), I often find that they could be better and cannot help feeling disappointed. That makes me reluctant to distribute offprints of my papers.

Can you tell the readers something about Chuo University?

The Tama campus (home to the Faculty of Letters, the Law School, etc.) is situated to the west of downtown Tokyo, in a place where one can see mountain ranges, including Mt. Fuji, on clear days. I like the environment very much: the air is fresh and the trees green!

What would you say are the strong suits of Chuo University?

Its unassuming character, I believe.

How are Sumerology and Assyriology generally perceived in Japan?

As something very remote and quite exotic. It seems there are quite a few people who are keenly interested in them: they go to museums and attend related lectures offered at universities or adult education courses.

When it comes to our field, every country has its own traditions in teaching and research. What do you feel is typical for Sumerology in Japan?

Since I didn’t learn Sumerian in Japan, I don’t know how Sumerian has been taught in Japan. As for research, we have the late professor Yoshikawa, who contributed tremendously to the understanding of Sumerian grammar, and several active scholars who have been publishing outstanding studies in the socioeconomic field.

What does a regular day in your work at Chuo University look like?

I usually spend part of the weekend and the whole day Monday preparing my classes for the week. Tuesday and Wednesday are my busiest days, when my classes and office hours are scheduled. Thursday I have a meeting or meetings to attend (which I like to skip if I can). Friday I try to do my own research, though not with much success.

Could you tell us a bit about the students at Chuo University? How do they generally come to study Sumerology?

In the photo you see the students who are participating in my ancient history seminar. The juniors are writing a seminar paper and the seniors are writing a B.A. thesis with a theme that is related to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, or Rome. Many of my students will get a job after graduation but from time to time some pursue further study. Mr. Aiba, for example, will become an M.A. student this coming April when our new academic year starts and will begin studying Akkadian and Sumerian.

Japan is a country with an incredibly rich cultural heritage. Do you think that affects the way you or your students approach Sumerian culture?

In writing Japanese, we use kanji (= Chinese characters) as logograms and kana, developed from kanji (= simplified kanji), as phonograms. This kanji-kana mixed writing system is quite analogous to the Sumerian one, and it might be this proximity that makes us feel that Sumerian is familiar.

Last year the field of Humanities faced massive closures in Japan. What are the latest news about these cutbacks? Can colleagues around the world help in any way?

Colleges and universities (especially public ones) have been undergoing serious budget cuts. Public funding is given to projects that, in the short term, promise economic growth and gains in industrial competitiveness. With the emphasis on quick and practical results, the conduct of applied research naturally takes priority, which pushes the Humanities and basic scientific research into a corner. The Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine in 2016, Yoshinori Ohsumi, has stated that if the Japanese government continues its current cultural and scientific policy, there will be no more Nobel Prize winners for new research in the future. I am afraid that a deteriorating research environment may be found all over the world. I don’t know what we can do to counteract this situation.  

The campus of Chuo University
The Tama campus of Chuo University

Naoki Aiba, BA-student in Assyriology

Please tell us something about yourself!

My name is Naoki Aiba, I’m 21 years old and a B.A. student at Chuo University. I am from Tochigi, a prefecture adjacent to Tokyo. Right now I am writing a B.A. thesis about kingship in Neo-Assyrian times and its iconographic representation involving animals.

Why did you choose to study the Ancient Near East?

I was originally interested in ancient history and I was hoping to learn about the history of German music when I entered Chuo University. But I had a chance to take a lecture course in ancient history, and the more I learned about the history of ancient civilizations, the more I became inclined to focus on ancient history. I became especially interested in Assyria because I wondered why Assyria, which had existed more than 2,000 years, collapsed soon after unifying the ancient Near East.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I want to proceed to the master’s program starting next year and learn Akkadian and Sumerian. My hope is to become a high school teacher or a researcher. I want to get a job where I can apply what I learn.

How does one apply to study at Chuo University? Is it difficult to get in?

It is not that difficult to get into Chuo University if you study to some extent. After you are admitted, I think it is very important to have a strong will to learn.

How are Near Eastern courses taught at Chuo University? What department is it part of?

There is no separate Near Eastern studies program at Chuo University. The Western history major is divided into five tracks according to the historical periods. Ancient History is one of them. In the Ancient History track, we can study Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and so on. There are not many students compared with other tracks but we enjoy it.

What does the general ‘university track’ look like in Japan?

The general university curriculum is for four years in Japan. In many schools Humanity students are supposed to acquire a basic knowledge during the first two years and then learn more professionally what they want to learn. After four years, they can proceed to the master’s program if they want to and if they pass the exam.

How is student housing organized?

Many students live alone near the University campus. Others live with their parents and commute by train. I live with my grandmother in Saitama and I spend three hours commuting every day!

What does a regular day in your studies at Chuo University look like?

I usually study in the seminar room or library and assist my professor, twice a week, by making a database of Lagash personal names. I also play the cello and am a member of the Chuo University orchestra.

What does the typical Japanese student do when it comes to social activities?

I think that having a part-time job is the most common social activity for Japanese students. There are a variety of part-time jobs, such as food store or convenience store clerk, cram school teacher, and so on. Students work to make money and for social interaction. Some students do volunteer work after natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons.

Are there perhaps any fun facts you can tell us about you department, or about Chuo University?

There is a kakigōri machine in the seminar room. Kakigōri means “shaved ice” and is a typical summer treat in Japan. On hot afternoons, we enjoy eating it with a variety of syrup.

What would you like to know from other students in other countries?

What subjects are you interested in about the ancient Near East? What is your research topic? What kind of job do you want to get after studying Assyriology?

Pictures courtesy of Fumi Karahashi.