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US-Japan Relations Chair Studies Impact of Digital Media

US-Japan Relations Chair Studies Impact of Digital Media

Stefan Tanaka, a professor of history at UC San Diego, joins UCLA this year as the seventh Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations.

Many have prognosticated a revolution similar to the printing press; I am not as convinced


Stefan Tanaka, author of New Times in Modern Japan and Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts Into History, has joined the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies and UCLA’s history department for the fall and winter quarters of 2010–11, as the seventh Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations.

The rotating chair brings to campus experts in the field of Japanese studies and U.S.-Japan relations, including, in recent years, Tokyo University Professor of Law Daniel Foote, Kanagawa University historian of science Shigeru Nakayama, and University of Pittsburgh literary, theater and arts scholar Thomas Rimer.

This fall, Tanaka is teaching a graduate seminar on “The Idea of Japan” (History 201M). He will teach again in winter quarter alongside UCLA professor Jan Reiff, whom he has known since his graduate school days. Their course will examine modern communication technologies' effects on ways of knowing.

“Many have prognosticated a revolution similar to the printing press; I am not as convinced, but this is part of our inquiry,” writes Tanaka in an email.

The subject of digital media and history is still a relatively new focus for scholarship. Tanaka works in this area both as a historian asking how various media can change views of the past, and as kind of historical curator of digital materials. His recent publications include “Digital Media in History: Remediating Data and Narratives” and an on-going research project titled “1884.” This digital project presents histories, stories, and other audio recordings to paint a collective picture of a single year in Japan.

“On one level we can integrate text, visual and sensory data; we also no longer have to ‘write’ history as text,” Tanaka says.

Tanaka is also preoccupied with the challenges of storing data digitally. Currently available means of accessing data might, in themselves, be the very archival material that future historians will need to tell the history of our generation. So, how are not only today's historical archives but also today's media being preserved?

“I am worried about the ways that proprietary ways of doing things on computers will affect the knowing and writing of history in the coming decades,” Tanaka writes.

Furthermore, as sources of data become increasingly privatized, whether historians can access this information is also a question: “This might reduce access to data and published research only to the individuals, places, and institutions that can pay.”