Object-Based Assignment: What Is This Thing and Why Does It Matter to Japanese Civilization?

As noted in the syllabus, this is an Objects-Based Learning course, featuring an assignment that is worth 5% of your grade. The assignment involves close observation of an object and a written paper that incorporates your observation and reflection on the significance of the object in the context of a narrative of Japanese civilization. There are three questions you should consider in writing about the object.

You need to choose any one of the objects we view on Friday, February 4 in sections at the Penn Museum

(We will set aside a few minutes during the session for you to take notes about the physical characteristics of the item, and we will provide a list afterward so that you can read what the Museum “knows” about the object. Remember that these are often guesses, not facts.)

CLICK THE LINK TO LOOK AT THE OBJECTS: Collections List ID =8863 – Penn Museum

The questions:

1) What are the physical characteristics of the object?

Size, color, texture, etc. What techniques were used to produce the item? Has the object been repaired or restored? What conclusions can you draw about the use of the object based on its material properties?

2) What was the reception of objects similar to this in postwar Japan?

What assumptions were typically made about their production or significance? How did the material reality of such objects generally play into debates about Japanese identity?

3) How does this particular object exist in the world now?

How did it come to be in a museum, or to be produced as a replica? What information is associated with it (provenance, age, interpretation, etc.)?

You do not have to tell us everything you know about the item in your paper. The paper should discuss the details you find relevant to a presentation of how an object like this would have had meaning for someone trying to build a narrative about some aspect of “Japanese civilization.”

Double-spaced, 750 word minimum. If possible, use Word or other software that allows us to enter comments, not pdf format.

Please give your paper a title that hints at your thesis or findings about the object.

Citation: If you quote a text or get information from any source (other than class lectures, which are our common knowledge and should never be cited), you should provide a citation. Probably the cleanest way is to use a footnote (especially good for references to books or articles) or an in-text citation (i.e. the URL in parentheses after the statement). Since the assignment does not mandate research, and URLs make awkward entries in any case, you don’t need a “Works Cited” at the end of the paper.

Examples of what needs citation:

You quote one of our readings word-for-word or in paraphrase. Then you need the bibliographic information (see the Guide for the reading) and page number.

You quote the Penn Museum entry on the object word-for-word, or use information from the entry, such as “gift of So-and-So.” Then you need the URL

Further Notes about the Object-based assignment:

1) Why it is important to observe the items yourself:

In the storage room, someone asked an intriguing question: Why are there figure eights on the knife sheath? Did the Ainu know the meaning of eight? I believe this question came up because the museum’s label described the decoration as including figure eights. But this is just what the designs look like. It was a convenient comparison, not an explanation of the meaning of the design. My own personal observation suggested that the designs resemble classic figure eights. But that does not mean they indicate the number eight, or the idea of infinity. Because the figure eight is found in nature, their presence does not prove cultural contact either.

The upshot of this story: it is vital that you take your own observation seriously. Do not assume that the museum’s labels are sacred. Many are preliminary notes to get the object catalogued.

This suggests another thing to think about: this knife and sheath were given to the museum in 1896. They were not new when William Pepper (who had his M.D. from Penn and became professor and provost) gifted them, but as you heard in lecture, the Ainu culture of bear and salmon developed no sooner than about 1200, and typical Ainu designs are not attested before the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries (for example, in paintings such as we saw in lecture, or at an archaeological site near the airport for Sapporo on Hokkaido). The link between Jōmon culture and the Ainu is fairly well established, but the chronologies of what we know as modern Ainu are far apart from Jōmon. Recall that in the nineteenth century western archaeologists thought Ainu people were Caucasoid. So one of the narratives about this object is how Philadelphians would have viewed it in the late nineteenth century.

2) What if I guess something wrong?

Don’t worry. The exercise is about two things: your powers of observation, and of argument (or we might even say imagination). The point is not what you propose about the object, but how you use your evidence to support your theory. What did you see, and what does that tell you, given the basic information you have about the Jōmon, Yayoi, and Tomb periods, or the Ainu culture? What drew you to your object, and how did you go from that to some kind of understanding of what the object is and how it exists in the world today?

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