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Garrett Washington

A historian of modern Japan, women, gender, and religion, Garrett Washington is the Department of History’s newest tenured faculty member.

Can you tell us about your work, in a nutshell? 
My first, super long project—now a book, Church Space and the Capital in Prewar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2022)—was basically trying to answer a nagging question: Why do Protestant Christians, who were a very tiny part of the Japanese population, loom so large in the historiography of modern Japan? I found that Protestant spaces, particularly schools (which have been studied quite a bit) and churches (which have not been studied much in their own right) were key to answering that question. My work reveals where, how, and for whom urban churches were built; how the Japanese educated elite preached, lectured, organized, and mobilized in the church space; and what impact all of this had on Japan. 

Where is your scholarship headed next?
The term “good wife, wise mother” brings to mind the restrictive social roles and rights of elite women in early modern Japan, as well as the reformatted misogyny that the new, modernizing Japan generalized to all women. But a few women still managed to build public and professional lives well beyond the frameworks approved for women. Using the lens of space (again!) and the medium of the critical biography of one exceptional woman, I’m studying how this was possible and how it complicates our understanding of the rigid gender constructs of modern Japan. My project focuses on Hirooka Asako, daughter of the leading banking family in mid-nineteenth century Japan. Although she experienced tremendous pressure to conform, was forbidden from studying, and was married off young, Hirooka educated herself; built a banking, mining, and insurance empire; and was the primary fundraiser, promoter, and benefactor for Japan’s first university for women. And physical and social space were central to the limits that confined her and how she overcame them. I'm slowly chipping away at this project this year while on sabbatical at Le Centre de recherches sur le Japon within the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociale. 

I also just made a quick, action-packed, last-minute research trip to Japan. It was more than two years in the making, and I was able to use the Healey Endowment Faculty Research Grant to travel to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukuoka, all in one week, to make progress on this project. In Osaka, the corporate communications director of Daido Life Insurance, a company that Hirooka Asako helped create, welcomed me and allowed me to spend two days gathering materials in the company archives. He happens to be a historian by training, and has been working hard to bring more recognition to the family that founded the company, including Hirooka Asako.

Primary source documents

From left to right, primary source documents from Washington's ongoing research: A photo of Hirooka Asako, C 1900; a 1884 receipt of sale of Uruno Coal Mine signed by Hirooka Shingoro and Hirooka Asako (notably, the document shows Asako's signature, even though married women were not allowed to own, sell, or buy property); Uruno Coal Mine company store tickets.

What sparked your interest in these areas of work?
When I studied abroad in Japan as a junior in college, a friend from the US visited Japan. And he took me to meet an old family friend in Nagasaki, a ninety-year-old Polish Catholic monk. This monk had lived in Japan for seventy years and only spoke Polish and Japanese, but he sparked my interest in Christianity in Japan. A few trips to Nagasaki later, and I was hooked. So I wrote my year-long research project on the Jesuits in Japan, which then became the subject of my master’s thesis. I then decided to examine Christianity in modern Japan for my PhD. As I worked on my last book project, the name of Hirooka Asako appeared several times. But at the time I couldn't find any scholarly sources on her, and aside from a dozen specialists tied to the institutions she founded or helped found, no one seemed to have even heard of her. So I started digging and asking and collecting materials back in 2014, and here we are!

Garrett Washington in the Memorial Hall of Daido Life Insurance Headquarters in Osaka, 2022.

How would you describe the evolution of your work over time? 
Basically, I work on a project that interests me and then I become fascinated with some small aspect of that research that then becomes the focus of another research project. So, looking back, I can see the lines connecting my work on Protestant churches to missionary hospitals, Christianity’s relationship with the women’s movement in Japan, Buddhism’s spatial response to Christianity, and my current project on entrepreneur, philanthropist, and late-life Christian convert Hirooka Asako. Over the past ten years, my work has been more and more focused on Buddhism and Shinto as well. I’d like to write a history of the rebuilding of Shinto Shrines in postwar Japan, which would really bring things full circle, I think. 

What is one, or multiple, things you are proud of thus far in your academic career?
I’m proud to have tenure but especially at UMass Amherst, where I have amazing colleagues, tremendous research and teaching support, great students, and lots of freedom to grow.

I’m proud to have published my first single-author book. It was a long road and COVID didn’t help, unsurprisingly. Publishing the edited volume Christianity and the Modern Woman in East Asia a few years ago was outstanding as well. But the monograph is the fruit of many many years of research, and so it is the one I'm most proud of.

And I’m proud of the relationships that I’ve built with students at the places I’ve taught. It makes me happy to get postcards, recommendation letter requests, and emails from former students. 

Are you digesting any history media these days, like podcasts, shows, movies, blogs, books, and the like? 
Not a lot. I just watched a movie on the Danish expedition of Ejnar Mikkelson and Iver Iverson and I’m reading Women and Networks in Nineteenth-Century Japan, an edited volume on which I’m writing a book review. But I don’t consume much history media. This will probably change when I get back from sabbatical though. 

And you also produce your own podcast, too? 
Yes! I published a podcast series myself this year, although it is not directly related to history (aside from its potential as a source for future historians). It is called "Black Men We Know." In it I introduce listeners to black men succeeding in a variety of fields that defy common assumptions and stereotypes while trying to maintain positivity and humor. I've talked with an architect, a life coach, an artisan woodworker, a non-profit founder, a Silicon Valley IT executive, a circuit court judge, and a therapist, and every conversation was illuminating and inspiring. Hopefully my fifty or so listeners thought so too! 

What are you looking forward to most when you return to UMass after your sabbatical year?
I’m looking forward to teaching. I have given a few lectures in person and on Zoom, and they remind me what I’m missing! By the time I get back to campus, I will have been away from the classroom for two years (because of a year of remote teaching followed by my sabbatical)! That’s a long time. 

What is something you want students to know about you? 
That I used to play professional rugby, and that, as of right now, I’m still playing at the amateur level. It’s been a part of my life since I was eighteen, so I think knowing that reveals a lot about me. 

Rugby Club USO Massif Central, 2021-2022 Season Team Photo

What is one piece of advice you would offer to students?
My PhD advisor used to say: “This is YOUR education, and it needs YOU in it.” Old-fashioned but still excellent advice. Study what interests you, write about topics that interest you the most, raise your hand, make sure you take the time to do the readings, make sure you talk to the professor during office hours or in passing, think about what you want out of your education, and figure out how you can go get it. We’ll do all we can to help you do all this. 

- Interview by Nick DeLuca