In this Q&A, we speak with Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Scott Aalgaard. Originally a native of British Columbia, he joined Wesleyan after completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago. Affiliated with Wesleyan’s College of East Asian Studies, his courses this year included Pop Music Revolutionaries, Japanese Women’s Writing, and The Everyday in Modern Japan.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background.
A: I’ve been on the move for most of my life. I grew up in a small resource town on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada; we had a sister city in northern Japan, and it was through that relationship that I got to visit Japan for the first time when I was 12. I was just a kid at the time, and in all honesty, it was more my mother’s idea that I should go to Japan and see the world beyond our little town than it was mine. But being able to see and experience a different part of the world and different ways of life had a real impact on me, and made me ask different questions, both of myself, and of what I was experiencing. I guess now I’d call that a thirst for knowledge, but I didn’t understand it in those terms at the time—I just felt that I needed to keep going back, keep talking to people, listening, learning.
I went back to Japan when I was 15, again when I graduated from high school, and that set the pattern—I’ve been living somewhere in between Canada, Japan, and now the United States for more than 30 years now. I’ve been fortunate to have a wide range of experiences in Japan—I’ve been a student, a farm worker, a local government employee; I’ve even worked in the music industry in Tokyo. I can’t say that any of this has brought me closer to any answers, but I hope that I’ve been able to refine the questions. How do individuals in Japan and elsewhere make sense of their lives? Why? How does this get expressed in things like literature and music? What are some of the consequences of that? These are some of the questions that drive me, and Wesleyan is an ideal place to pursue them.
Q: What drew you to Wesleyan?
A: Wes is renowned for attracting sharp, inquisitive, critically-minded students, and being able to think through these questions with them is a real treat for me. Rather than trying to offer up some stock answer to the question of what “Japan” is all about, in other words, I see my role as helping students to formulate and articulate different sorts of questions, in a way that not only addresses Japan and its cultures and contexts, but students’ own circumstances, contexts, and historical moments, as well.
Q: In your faculty bio, you say that your scholarship “aims to hear and amplify voices that can challenge and reshape our own stances upon the world.” Can you talk about how/where/if you’ve seen that happening today? How do you emphasize that in your work?
A: I’m really interested in questions of collectivity, and in how different social actors and cultural producers deal with those questions. Collectivity is something that we all need, but when that gets reduced to exclusionary, reactionary forms of nationalism, or questions of nation-state power and prestige, then we’ve got a problem. People grapple with this question of collectivity in different ways.