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Teaching American History in Japan

Endo YasuoYasuo Endo is an International Contributing Editor for the Journal of American History. He started to study American History at the University of Tokyo and continued it at Yale as a Fulbrighter. Upon returning to Japan, he expanded his scholarship into Comparative Area Studies and has been conducting a comparison of American, Asian, Oceanian, and Caribbean history, and reflecting his research in his teaching. He directs the Center for Pacific and American Studies at the University of Tokyo.

What led you to become interested in American history? What is your field of expertise?

When I was a freshman at the University of Tokyo, I took a research seminar on eighteenth-century studies. In it, I read Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, which piqued my interest in American history.

What challenges do you face studying American history abroad?

The most difficult challenge is accessing primary sources. Also international American history scholars often do not have good opportunities to discuss our research subjects with specialists who share similar interests. Usually a Japanese university has only one U.S. historian at most. Fortunately, the University of Tokyo is exceptional and has several of them.

Does living outside of the U.S. lend you a perspective on American history that is different from historians who live and work in the U.S.? If so, how?

Probably, but any perspective on American history depends more on the nature of the individual than on geographical distance from the United States. Overall, comparative scholarship that links American history with global history is more prevalent here than scholarship that focuses only on American history. Multilingual research on American history is especially well-respected in Japan.

What courses do you regularly teach to undergraduates? Do you teach graduate students? If so, does your approach change?

I teach both undergraduate and graduate classes. For undergraduates, I teach “Introducing American History up to 1898” and “American Social Thought.” Graduate seminars are more or less improvisational, depending on the interests of students, and we discuss many themes, including race, gender, poverty, and diplomacy. Many of the graduate students purse doctoral degrees in the U.S. after completing their M.A. theses here. Some of my advisees are currently at Harvard, Columbia, Ohio State, Cornell, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, and the State University of New York. 

How do students in Japan react to American history? What kinds of core assumptions do you encounter among your students?

It depends again on individuals. Some of the students are born in the United States, but overall a majority of all students have very critical views of the unilateral direction of U.S. diplomacy. Interestingly, Obama is quite exceptional in escaping this criticism. Students also are very critical of the racial and ethnic issues in U.S. History. The study of immigration is extremely popular in Japan. These days, many students are interested in the history of environmentalism in the U.S. too.


What topics do you think your students are most interested in learning about U.S. history? Why?

Some students are interested in history of American ideas: racism, feminism, liberalism, communitarianism, and environmentalism. They want to understand the value of references to these American activities. Others are interested more specifically in modern political and diplomatic history. They want to try to make out best interests in the current global economy. I have to respond to both groups.

What goals do you have for the students who take your classes?

The primary goal of my classes is to expose students to different national histories, to make them study how human beings can be both conscientious and vicious at once in order to give them a deeper understanding of themselves.

Is there a primary source that you find very important or useful when teaching to help students to understand some aspect of U.S. history, perhaps a difficult topic in diplomacy, international relations, or race relations? 

  • William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647
  • The Declaration of Independence, 1776
  • The Federal Naturalization Act of 1790
  • The Monroe Doctrine, from James Monroe’s 1823 annual message to the Congress
  • W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
  • Randolf Bourne, “Trans-national America,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1916
  • Henry Luce, “The American Century,” Life, 1941
  • John Hersey, Hiroshima, 1946
  • Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, 2006