Teaching Japanese Media Online in Japan: Challenges and Benefits
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When I found out that all or most of my spring semester classes at Meiji University would be taught online, my first question was, “how do I screen films and share video clips via Zoom?” In retrospect, this feels insignificant in the context of all of the other challenges that a sudden shift to online learning forced on both professors and students (lack of internet access, hastily-created online infrastructure, lack of experience with online teaching). But my question reveals at least one thing: for me, teaching film and media has always been about a sense of immediacy, of sharing media with others and then quickly (or over time) asking students for their responses or comments on said media. If that immediacy was gone, what would my classes look like?
It also reveals a common initial response among many of my colleagues: the desire to replicate the classroom experience online, meaning that Zoom time would be spent in the same way as time spent in a classroom, just without physical presence. It quickly becomes clear to anyone, though, that this is a recipe for disaster. Beyond the problem of “Zoom fatigue,” online learning requires a very different way of thinking about class structure, class activities, and learning outcomes. Instead of trying to replicate a classroom experience, it’s better to ask yourself how you can use this new structure to produce a meaningful learning experience for students, even if the ways of achieving that goal may look very different than what you are used to.
For me, success in teaching media-focused classes online came down to three factors: 1) letting go of a desire to completely replicate a face-to-face experience online, 2) focusing more on student well-being than on “policing” students or imposing strict rules, and 3) being flexible about the kinds of media presented and the way that media was accessed. Ultimately, while my first semester of online teaching was challenging and I was not able to accomplish all of the goals that I had set for each class, I discovered that there were also unexpected benefits to teaching media-focused classes online. In this essay, I will outline some of the strategies used and insights gained from teaching two twelve-week classes: a class on Japanese horror taught in English and designed for international students, and the first semester of a two-year senior seminar in contemporary Japanese cinema (taught in English and Japanese).
University Response to COVID-19
I teach in the Department of Political Science and Economics at Meiji University, a large, private university in Tokyo (approximately 33,000 students on four campuses). As with many Japanese universities, political science and economics majors at Meiji take essentially all of their classes, including English classes (some required, some elective) within the department. I teach content-based English classes, meaning that my classes have titles like “Gender in English-Language Media” or “Robots, Cyborgs, and Virtual Worlds,” but the goal of these classes is generally to improve students’ English proficiency. Almost all of my students are Japanese, with varying levels of fluency in English (mostly beginner to intermediate). Classes meet once a week for 100 minutes, and half of my classes (for freshmen and sophomores) meet on one campus, with the other half (for juniors and seniors) meeting on a different campus.
Japanese university classes are typically in session from April through July (spring semester) and September through January (autumn semester). In response to COVID-19, most Japanese universities delayed the start of the 2020 spring semester by a month or more, and most conducted spring semester classes entirely online. The Meiji spring semester began about a month later than scheduled (in early May), and was also shortened from the usual fourteen weeks to twelve.
For the classes under discussion here, both of which were electives and both of which focused on media, there were many challenges. I quickly realized that online group film screenings would be impossible (and definitely illegal in Japan, even if the technology wasn’t an issue). I also realized that one class included several exchange students who did not speak Japanese. In a classroom setting I would simply screen U.S. region Japanese films and videos with English subtitles (using a region-free DVD player provided by the university), but I no longer had that option, and since many of the films to be screened were only available for purchase, not rental, it seemed an unfair burden to place on students to force them to spend close to $100 each on film purchases.
In addressing these challenges and designing these online courses, I relied a great deal on friends and colleagues who had experience teaching online, as well as on social media groups like Emergency Online Teaching and JALTCALL, a group specifically for non-Japanese teachers teaching English-language courses in Japan. I also read numerous articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, as well as education-focused blogs. The general message that I got from these articles was a) don’t stress too much about creating a ‘perfect’ online course, and b) be compassionate, which, as someone who tends toward perfectionism and micro-management in course design, was a relief to hear.
In thinking about how to deal with a situation where the media I wanted to showcase and discuss wasn’t accessible, I recalled Aaron Gerow’s Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895–1925. This study of early Japanese cinema relied almost entirely on discussions of said cinema in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals, simply because copies of the films themselves no longer existed. Gerow’s book instead focused on the concept of cinema as it developed in Japan, using early writings on cinema to track the changing perception of different forms of visual entertainment in Japan. With this in mind, I hoped that a lack of access to certain materials could be an opportunity to structure class assignments and discussions in different ways. My thinking was also informed by a virtual roundtable organized by Paula Curtis on the “rebirth” of Japanese studies, and in particular a post from Ioannis Gaitanidis on the role of “Japanese studies” in Japan. In line with Gaitanidis, I wondered how, in a class of both local and international students taught by a non-Japanese professor, I could use “Japan” to “teach about the world, using ‘Japan’ as a case-study,” and avoid the frequently Orientalizing essentialism that often appears in such classes.
Class Problems and Solutions
The first class under discussion, “Haunted Japan,” was designed for international students and explored different types of horror-focused media with a connection to Japan, including Japanese horror films, representations of Aokigahara (the “suicide forest”), Japanese zombie films, and readings on Orientalism, Japanese horror films, and found footage horror. For the online course, which included nine students, I combined offline readings and worksheets, live Zoom sessions (which included student presentations and discussions), pre-recorded lectures, and offline film/media viewing. Students were graded on presentations, a quiz, a final project of their choosing, weekly worksheets, and overall participation.
I had originally planned to screen a variety of films and videos related to Japanese horror (films, TV episodes, YouTube clips) and assign longer-than-usual English-language readings on Japanese film and Japanese horror media. However, I quickly had to redesign my entire syllabus when I learned that a) most of Meiji’s exchange programs had been cancelled, meaning that the class was now dominated by students who were not native speakers of English, b) the three exchange students in the class did not speak Japanese, and c) online class screenings of films that were hard to access would not be possible, and because the school libraries and viewing facilities were closed, I also could not ask the students to view the films outside of class. Further, one student was still in China, unable to enter Japan because of the entry ban, though when I asked him whether he’d be able to access some of the films we’d be watching he quickly said “I’m in China, we always figure it out.”
Ultimately, I gave up on showing films that were only accessible through my own personal DVD or Blu-Ray collection. Instead, I chose films and media that were the most accessible to my students—films that were available for rent but that were also available on YouTube with English subtitles. When an English-subbed version of a film was not available, I wrote a detailed, scene-by-scene breakdown for the benefit of my students who were not fluent in Japanese. I also made a point of focusing on English-language YouTube content specifically, given that part of the focus of the class was how “Japan” is presented in English-language media.
In our class discussions, I tried to incorporate discussions not only of the media we were engaging with, but of how we were engaging with it. I asked students to think about how they were accessing the films and videos I was asking them to watch, and how the method of consumption might affect their viewing experience (this was especially relevant, I thought, with some of the found footage horror films that we watched). In conversations about Japanese media specifically, I tried to remind students that Orientalism can be a two-way street (Japan frequently exoticizes itself in the same way that non-Japanese people have exoticized it for hundreds of years). In line with Professor Gaitanidis’ writings, I also tried to avoid positioning the Japanese students as “experts” and the non-Japanese students as “novices.” Instead, I tried to focus on the different perspectives of the students, not only based on their cultural background but on their interests and levels of knowledge about the topics in question.
In the end, while the class was, like so many first-time online classes created during the pandemic, a bit chaotic at times, I think I succeeded in introducing students to some less familiar Japanese media, challenging their perceptions of “Japanese-ness” in film and media, and encouraging thoughtful discussions about the media and readings we focused on in the class.
For my seminar in contemporary Japanese cinema, the challenges were similar. In Meiji’s Department of Political Science and Economics, students have the option of enrolling in a zemi (seminar) for their final two years of university. Certain zemi taught by famous professors are extremely competitive, with hundreds of students vying for fifteen or twenty slots (the professors who supervise these zemi are often well-connected, and joining their zemi is seen as a good way to get a head start on the job hunting process). During the zemi “recruitment” period students meet with the professor and TA’s in groups and individually, sometimes taking an exam and sitting an interview to compete for a slot. For the first year, zemi meet for two periods per week back to back (for a total of two hundred minutes with a lunch break in between). For the second year, the focus is on writing the sotsuron (senior thesis).
Because my zemi is a) taught primarily in English, b) not taught by a famous professor, and c) not focused on a subject related to political science or economics, my student numbers have mostly been small (between four and seven students). The first year of the class focuses on gaining a basic knowledge of Japanese and general film vocabulary, concepts, and history, while the second year consists of mostly one-on-one workshops in which I help students develop and polish their senior theses. For the first year of the class, class time is usually a mixture of film screenings, lectures, discussions, and writing practice. Students are graded on a presentation, a quiz, weekly worksheets, overall participation, and a final project.
This year I had only four students, all Japanese, in the first semester of my zemi. The challenge this time was dealing with a significant block of time (200 back-to-back minutes each week) and an inability to screen films or show video clips online during Zoom meetings. For film viewing, I simply opted to have the students rent videos on their own outside of class (again making a point to choose films that they could access in several different ways, via streaming platforms, video stores, or online rentals). This required each student to spend about 1500 yen ($12) on rentals, which seemed like a reasonable request.
I addressed the problem of not being able to share video clips over Zoom in two ways. During Zoom meetings, I would sometimes tell the students to turn off their cameras for a few minutes and pull up a clip on YouTube, watch it, and then come back to the Zoom meeting so that we could discuss it, which was a good way to replicate what I might have done in the classroom (watching clips embedded in PowerPoint presentations or online). During pre-recorded lectures, I included a link to a YouTube playlist and would tell students to pause the lecture, watch the video clip, and then come back to the lecture.
Interestingly, I found that the Zoom format presented all kinds of opportunities for teaching students about the basic language of film. In examining the concept of the frame, for example, and the fact that every film image is a collection of choices, I moved my own camera around and showed the students the choices I’d made in how to frame myself for our Zoom meeting (fixing the lighting in my office, positioning bookshelves rather than my sofa in the background, using the “touch up my appearance” feature). I then had the students move their cameras around to present different perspectives of themselves and their spaces, and then asked the other students to comment on the differences. In pre-recorded lectures on basic concepts like zooming in/out, I was also able to use my own camera and body movement to illustrate these concepts better. As with my “Haunted Japan” class, by letting go of my desire to perfectly replicate a classroom environment and being more flexible in my media choices/modes of delivery, I think I was able to create a meaningful learning experience for my zemi students.
In teaching media-focused classes during a pandemic, I think the most important question we should be asking ourselves is not “how can I successfully replicate the classroom experience?” but “how can I offer my students a meaningful learning experience that acknowledges the challenges we are all facing?” I’m reminded of Feng-Mei Heberer’s piece on the challenges of teaching media at NYU during the early stages of the pandemic. Heberer called on professors to think of online teaching not only as crisis management, but as a way to “put a pause on the drive for constant productivity (and hyper-connectivity), make space to rest, play, and tap out ... and in so doing (open) up other ways of relating.” In teaching media-focused classes online with limited time to prepare, I let go of most of my usual standards for attendance, participation, and productivity. I gave up on the idea of trying to “police” students and instead assumed that the students, like me, wanted to do the best that they could in a very difficult situation. Ironically, in all of my classes I had higher levels of attendance and student engagement this semester than I have ever had with in-person classes at Meiji. Being forced to engage with students entirely via email or video chat has also made me realize that many students are much more comfortable with this kind of communication than with face-to-face communication, something I will definitely keep in mind after I return to face-to-face teaching (whenever that might be).
When teaching media online or face-to-face, it’s easy to get bogged down in certain details: how and when to screen, how to make your media accessible (if students are watching it outside of class), how to ensure that students are being evaluated fairly. But during COVID-19, I have repeatedly returned to more fundamental questions about 1) my students’ well-being (and my own), 2) using media and the conversations surrounding it as a way to connect with each other and with the larger world, and 3) how to be more responsive to students’ different learning styles. Even if the structure and presentation of my spring semester’s media-focused classes were at times a bit chaotic, I’m grateful that I was able to use my media-focused classes as a way to bring students together during a time when they felt isolated and uncertain.
Lindsay Nelson is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Economics at Meiji University in Tokyo. Her work has appeared in Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, and Studies in the Humanities. Her research interests include Japanese horror films and contemporary Japanese popular culture. Her first book, Circulating Fear: Japanese Horror, Fractured Realities, and New Media, is forthcoming from Lexington Books in 2021.
Aaron Gerow, Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895–1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). ↑
Feng-Mei Heberer, “Scaling Down Workload, Upping Co-Presence,” Open Media Studies Blog, accessed August 30, 2020, https://www.zfmedienwissenschaft.de/online/open-media-studies-blog/blog/teaching-in-the-time-of-corona?fbclid=IwAR2SsgcPgkHUsFhJUIk8YJhbNkdTt2ZtDtImSBD50C6X-2eGFmtqwuFDTpQ. ↑