Melville Society of Japan hosts International Conference

Entry begun at Celestine Hotel, Monday, June 29, 8:10 am

How best to summarize an intense, four-day conference itself in the context of this blog? I think the best was to begin is with one photo of six faces.

Clockwise from top left: Takayuki Tatsumi, Sam Otter, Wyn Kelley, John Bryant, Mika Samuma.  Photo by Nao Takeo

Clockwise from top left: Takayuki Tatsumi, Sam Otter, Wyn Kelley, John Bryant, Mika Sakuma, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards. Photo by Nao Takeo

cover of Tokyo conference programI have a moment in which to being this entry before we head out on our post-conference day trip to the Kamakura Buddha and to Yokosuka (formerly Uraga), where Commodore Perry landed in 1853.  No one will be able to think about this conference without marveling at the generosity and skill of the Japanese colleagues who hosted us.  Every detail was thought out in advance, every contingency was handled with ease, every participant was made to feel welcome and appreciated.  We had one hundred and thirty scholars from four continents presenting papers at Keio University for four days, and we were all made to feel like one extended family from the beginning.  The sessions and papers ran on time, and there was a good rhythm among the paper-reading sessions, the plenary sessions, and various special events, with each day full of fresh insights and new friendships.  The fresh insights began with the conference program booklet, which included Yukiko Oshima’sver substantial “Introduction to the Critical History of Melville Studies in Japan.”

Melville’s writings had brought us together from “all the isles of the sea.”  Our Japanese hosts made us “federated along one keel” (Moby-Dick, “Knights and Squires”).

Scholars from around the world, gathering for opening ceremony

Scholars from around the world, gathering for opening ceremony

Entry continued at Kinoe Riokan, Kyoto, Thursday, July 2, 5:40 am

keio entrance

Entrance to East Research Building Hall, Keio University, Tokyo

Melville in his 1850 essay “Hawthorne and his Mosses” celebrates the power of literature to send a “shock of recognition .  . . the whole [world] round.”  We felt a a variety of such shocks in the East Research Building at Keio University.  One of the first for us Americans came during the welcoming remarks by Professor Ken Sekine, Dean of the Faculty of Letters.  He explained that literary studies and the humanities in Japan are under severe threat from a government that wants to sharply reduce their funding to invest in more industrialized economic priorities.  His diagnosis was confirmed the next morning in The Japan Times under the headline “Abe puts squeeze on Humanities courses.”   Dean Sekine’s remarks made us feel we were all in one boat.

The other welcoming remarks were by three exceptional scholars.   Takayuki Tatsumi, professor of English at Keio Universtiy, and Arimichi Makino, president of the newly formed Melville Society of Japan, were the co-chairs of the Organizing Committee of the conference.  Professor Makino is the founder of modern Melville studies in Japan and has edited the journal Sky-Hawk for twenty-six years.  Professor Tatsumi is the author of a brilliant book on Moby-Dick and American popular culture.  In graduate school at Cornell University, he had been a classmate of Sam Otter, the primary representative of Melville Society of America in planning this conference.  Sam’s opening remarks here were as welcome as his closing remarks had been at the NKU Symposium in April.  In addition to being the author of Melville’s Anatomies and other books of criticism, Sam has recently succeeded John Bryant is editor of Leviathan, the American journal of Melville studies.

 Professors TakayuchiTatsumi and Arimichi Makino; Dean Ken Sekine; and Professor Sam Otter

Professors Takayuchi Tatsumi and Arimichi Makino; Dean Ken Sekine; Professor Sam Otter

In addition to the thirty paper-reading sessions, this conference had four plenary sessions, three of which I will mention here.  Those of us who had been at the NKU symposium on April 27 were delighted to hear Beth Schultz’s expanded version of the lecture she had presented to us on “The New Art of Moby-Dick.”  Beth began the Tokyo version with a brief analysis of the logo for the conference itself by the artist YOUCHAN (Yuko Ito), juxtaposing Moby Dick with a Godzilla-like creature.  This worldwide audience was as impressed as we had been in Kentucky with the amazing range of Moby-Dick art that has been created since Beth published Unpainted to the Last in 1995.

Beth Schultz discussing conference logo in her plenary address

Beth Schultz discussing conference logo in her plenary address

Another exceptional presentation was by Yoji Sakate, a filmmaker and dramatist who presented a dramatic reading from his Bartlebies.  Sakate has made a special study of hikikomori in Japan, a category of “withdrawn” people who, like Melville’s Bartleby, cannot deal with everyday society.  As his plenary presentation, Sakate read a new text entitled “The Account of the Director of the T Hospital.”  As read the text in Japanese, an English translation appeared on screen, so we could follow the story while also savoring the cadence of his voice.  The hospital in this story is just outside the twenty-mile contamination zone from a nuclear accident.  Even before the accident, it is a already a refuge for those who, like Bartleby, are unable to live in civilization.  The director wants to keep it open even though the trauma of its inmates will now be even more severe.  As a parable, it alludes overtly to Melville’s 1853 “Bartleby” story and Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster while also being applicable to other intervening events, among which are the nuclear bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Yoji Sakate reading from his chilling new parable

Yoji Sakate reading from his chilling new parable

From reading the program in advance I had been intrigued by the title of Karen Tei Yamashita’s plenary presentation, “Call Me Ishimaru.”  Ishimaru, it turns out, is the protagonist of Through the Arc of the Rainforest, her first work of fiction.  After a query from Professor Tatsumi, Yamashita has only just now realized the degree to which her protagonist had been influenced by Melville’s Ishmael.  The bulk of her presentation focused on her most recent project, entitled Scintillation: Letters to Memory.  In this forthcoming book she traces the arc of her Japanese American family from the emigration of her maternal grandparents from Japan to California in the early 20th century, where they established successful businesses  before their entire family was banished to a internment camp in Topaz, Utah, for the duration of the World War II.  Those who survived the camp had three choices after being released: emigrating to Japan for fresh start; assimilating as fully as possible into mainstream American ways; or finding a way keep all options open in some kind of creative tension, as Yamashita is trying to do through her own work.

Karen Tei Yamashita presenting “Call Me Ishimaru”

Karen Tei Yamashita presenting “Call Me Ishimaru”

Schultz, Sakate, and Yamashita each presented unforgettable embodiments of the overriding theme of the conference, “Melville in a Global Context.”  So did many of the scholars who presented papers.  The location and theme of the conference inspired new insights about many works we had thought we had known well.  This conference had a surprising number of papers on The Encantadas, Melville’s 1854 series of ten sketches about the Galapagos Islands, and Pierre, his 1852 coming-of-age novel about a young writer whose ancestry resembles Melville’s own.  These two works probably received more sustained attention in Tokyo than at any previous international conference.  Clarel, Melville’s epic poem about the Holy Land, continued to ride the wave of interest that had arisen at the conference in Jerusalem in 2009.    Such well-known works as Moby-Dick, Typee, Billy Budd, and Benito Cereno got considerable attention as well, but this conference, perhaps more than any previous one, was remarkable for the breadth as well as diversity of the texts and subjects covered.  It was also remarkable for the consistently high attendance at the paper-reading sessions.  Often the attendance tails off toward the end of a four-day conference as attendees peel off to enjoy attractions of the host city.  Attendance at the earliest morning session on the final day can be notoriously light, but not here.  In the first session on the last morning at 9:15, Room A was nearly full.

Audience for “The Global Turn in Melville’s Later Poetry” at 9:15 am on Sunday, June 28

Audience for “The Global Turn in Melville’s Later Poetry” at 9:15 am on Sunday, June 28

Room A with Martin's Ahab

Novelist Natsuki Ikezawa (seated, center) with Peter Martin’s Ahab’s Dream behind him

Among the presenters, we had of course a higher percentage of Japanese scholars than at previous conferences, although their numbers have always been high.  Ten or so Japanese veterans of previous conferences were integral to the planning of this one, including Professors Arimichi Makino, Takayuki Tatsumi, Yukiko Oshima, Maki Sadihiro, Ikuno Saiki, Mikayo Sakuma, and Tomoyuki Zettsu, here augmented by a very impressive cohort of younger Japanese scholars.  Our contingent from the US was also greatly enhanced by young scholars attending for the first time, several of them first-year graduate students who read excellent papers and were a delight to spend time with.  The fact that such a range of people from so many countries came so far, at great expense, to present at the first international Melville conference in Asia bodes well for the future of Melville studies in spite of the threats to the humanities and literary studies in many parts of the world.  It sometimes seems that whatever deep stresses or threats the world is facing, Melville is there a century and a half earlier to address them.

Don Dingledine enjoying the banquet after presenting his paper.  Photo by Nao Takeo

Don Dingledine enjoying the banquet after presenting his paper. Photo by Nao Takeo

The central days of the conference were non-stop with plenary or paper-reading sessions from 9 am until 7 or 8 pm.  The session I chaired on “Adaptations of Melville” on the Friday morning was typical in the diversity of presentations.  Stacey Margolis presented a paper on Pola X, the French film of Pierre.  Daniel Clinton discussed Orson Welles’ play Moby-Dick—Rehearsed.  Dorsey Kleist read a paper on Gorija and Moby Dick as “globalized monsters” for Wendy Flory, who was unable to attend.  And Don Dingledine, who had presented at the NKU Symposium in April, initiated us into the “gender-bending” rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  

opera booik in exhibition

My opera book among the books on sale

My presentation on “Moby-Dick Art in Kitakyushu, New Bedford, and Northern Kentucky” came in the panel on “Melville and Visuality” on the Saturday morning.  I was glad to share the session with Ryan McWilliams’ paper on revolutionary landscapes in Pierre, The Encantadas, and Benito Cereno, and Elisa Tamarkin’s paper on Elihu Vedder’s Rubáiyát and Melville’s Timoleon.  I had been thinking primarily of my Japanese audience when I began my presentation with highlights from my visits to Japan in 1991 and again in 1994 to study works in Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick series, but these proved interesting to my American friends, too, most of whom did not know I had made those earlier trips to Japan.  Many in the audience were interested in the Moby-Dick artwork by my students in the recent exhibition in Covington, and I was very happy that the three copies of the catalogs I had packed in my suitcase found new homes, one of them with our Japanese hosts.  I was also very happily surprised to see my book on Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera among the books being displayed by the Japanese bookseller at the conference, another example of how small our world is becoming, at least in veins of common interest.

Detail of Asakusa Gate

Detail of Asakusa Gate

The final session of the Conference on the Sunday afternoon concluded with John Bryant reading from his projected two-volume biography of Melville.  This promises to be an exceptional work—from John’s archival research, psychological and editorial insight, and narrative fluency.  On this occasion he read from the chapter in which young Melville crosses the Atlantic for the first time as a sailor on a merchant ship—a perfect transition to our 2017 conference, which will be held in London and Liverpool.  After the end of the session, the excellent graduate students of Keio University led us on a choice of three different excursions out and around the city.  Many of us from Melville Society Cultural Project team in New Bedford chose the river ferry excursion from Asakusa to Odaiba, and it is hard to say which was more enjoyable, the rich mixture of merchandise and spirituality near the Asakusa Temple or the fluid expanse of the Sumida River as it enters the bay.

Sumida River entering the Tokyo Bay

Sumida River entering Tokyo Bay



2 thoughts on “Melville Society of Japan hosts International Conference

  1. Dear colleagues, not having attended the conference, this report gives me a sense of vicarious participation that I appreciate. I wonder if plans are afoot to publish a selection of the contributions.
    I especially wish to be remembered to the Japanese colleagues whom I met in Rome.
    Thank you,
    Gordon M. Poole


    • Hello Gordon. We missed you. Those Japanese colleagues you remember from Rome were incredible hosts, as you can imagine. Still remember the train trip up the mountain in Volos. Yes, I believe there will be a selections of the contributors published in Leviathan.


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