David C. Atherton ’00 is an Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard College. He specializes in Japanese literature of the Edo period, and teaches multiple Japanese literature courses as well as Gen Ed 1067: “Creativity.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FM: Why did you end up studying Japanese texts?
DA: As a kid, my family were followers of an Indian guru, and so we spent time as sort of pilgrims in India. I was an exchange student in high school to rural Thailand. I came to Harvard as an undergraduate and decided to study about China, and then ended up teaching English in Japan and learned Japanese along the way. And eventually that led to studying more about Japan.
Real answer, I think, to why I ended up turning it into more of a career — and even why I focus on something that may sound obscure, which is the 17th through the 19th centuries in particular — is because that time in Japan gets called the Early Modern period or the Edo period. It’s sort of like this reflection through the looking glass, in some ways, of our own time.
FM: Has that changed the way that you think about our current cultural moment?
DA: One thing that we think a lot about when I teach a traditional Japanese literature class is we’re really thinking about the nature of tradition, and how that intersects with creativity. Because when we think of tradition, we don’t necessarily think tradition is what makes you creative and expressive. But in the Japanese case, you can really see how so many authors are taking materials that already exist and sort of reworking them in creative ways.
Starting in the 18th century, in Western Europe, in particular, we get this new idea of the original author, the creative genius, and that still lingers with us in many ways to this day. But attending more to the dynamics of remix, pre-modern remix, and that reworking of tradition helps me see, I feel like, how much so much of our own culture prioritizes taking things that we already know and reworking them.
FM: You study these texts on an academic level. Do you ever also read them for fun?
DA: That’s the other reason I would say that I study what I study, is because the texts are actually really fun. When you get to the Edo period, in particular, it’s commercial literature. It’s designed to be sold, and so it has to entertain people.
We sort of think of literature with a capital “L.” You know, in my classes, we often read literally literature about farts. And seeing people do actually really creative things in writing about farts. Like, I’ll read that for fun. You don’t have to assign it to me.
FM: You also have an MA in Thai literature, right?
DA: I do. That’s where the big money is.
DA: No. That’s where they really come knocking on the door, like, “Give us classical Siamese poetry!” It’s what they should — I mean, it’s wonderful.
When I was living in Japan, I went back to visit Thailand and just realized that it would be really nice to sort of deepen that connection and deepen that linguistic knowledge. And I suddenly realized, I read up a little bit, it was like, there’s all these genres of Thai literature that I’ve never heard of.
And it was really wonderful and I would have continued with it if there was the possibility of a job further down the line, but there’s no real field for Thai literary studies in the U.S. But getting those two years of getting to go deep with a language that is so playful, with just really seeing the power of what words can do. Even classical-type poems, they have the most elaborate rhyme schemes you can imagine.
FM: How has the field of East Asian Studies changed since you've been researching?
DA: East Asian Studies as a field is, in many ways, a product of World War II and the Cold War. So a lot of money went into, “Let's learn about these different regions” — this is true for all areas studies — “Let's learn about these different regions of the world because they’re fronts in global conflict, but we need to know about their culture, we need to know about their literature, we need to know their language.”
So that context has changed. A lot of that money has dried up, a lot of that mindset has dried up. It used to be very focused on countries: Japan, Korea, China, each one was its own kind of front. Now I think there’s a lot more focus on, particularly in more of the humanities side of East Asian Studies, how do we enter into conversations?
How can we find and contribute and generate interesting humanistic questions and different ways of thinking about things like literature and culture that are not bound by region at all?
FM: Have you visited Japan frequently?
DA: If you add it all together, I lived there for about five years: two years in a little fishing town as an English teacher, three years doing dissertation research in Tokyo, and then up until Covid, I would go back roughly every year.
FM: Did you have any particular experiences that stood out to you?
DA: Three days after arriving in the town, I went on a field trip with a bunch of middle schoolers where we all climbed Mount Fuji.
The thing that’s kind of fun about it is, and we did this, there are these little stations along the way as you climb up, and you can sleep overnight in them. So we climbed up, it’s summer, so it’s brutally hot at the bottom, everyone’s in t-shirts. By the time you’re at the top everyone’s bundled up like it’s winter. And you bed down in this little hut at night, and then wake up before dawn and everyone, we all had little headlamps, and you climb the rest of the way at dawn and then watch the sun — Land of the Rising Sun, right? — so watch the sun come up over the mountain, and they’ve got a post office up on top and you can get instant ramen and coffee.
FM: It was you and a bunch of middle schoolers?
DA: Yeah, and some teachers.
I then was going to become their teacher, but this was how I met them. We’re all in a bus for a bunch of hours, and now we’re climbing a mountain together. And then after that, it was, we went to a hot spring. And it was like, “Oh, now we’re all going to take our clothes off and take a bath together.” Wow! Okay. This is different. Including my colleagues. Oh, wow, we’re all — oh, wow. Now I’m a big lover of Japanese hot spring culture. But that was a sort of sudden awakening.
FM: What contemporary Japanese writers do you read?
DA: As an undergraduate I read a lot of Murakami Haruki, Haruki Murakami. And he was fun and exciting at that point, and then he just kind of started writing the same book over and over again. And now I don’t really read as much of his newer stuff because, “Oh, a cat appears! And a woman vanishes! And someone is cooking spaghetti!”
One contemporary author I really like is Ogawa Yōko, Yōko Ogawa. She’s fantastic, not as well known in the U.S.
I tend to read the older stuff more.
FM: What inspired you to create the “Creativity” Gen Ed?
DA: At the time I was — and continue to do a lot of work — thinking about the nature of creativity in the very specific context of early modern Japan, but had been reading sort of widely about, you know, just getting to know the field of creativity studies and realizing, “Oh, wait, it’s across all these different fields.” No one field even has a monopoly on it. Psychologists talk about it. Artists talk about it. People in business schools talk about. Neuroscientists talk about it. What is it?
I was reading these two leading scholars on, you know, the psychology of creativity, and they were, like, questions that must be addressed in creativity studies going forward. And the first question was, “What is creativity?” I was like, wow, this really is a wide-open field.
FM: Are there places in your own work or your hobbies that you think of as being particularly creative?
DA: I think of teaching itself as a fundamentally creative act. And really trying to think about, how do we shake up established models of teaching, so that we’re not all — instructors and students alike — just kind of going through the motions. Particularly at a place like Harvard, where undergraduates, as you may know, have so many things on their agenda every day. And they have 50-year plans, four-year or 50-year plans. And going to class can be just one thing in the middle of that. How do we make learning something that everyone is committed to and engaged in and not just another piece of the day to get through?
I have been taking a poetry class through the Extension School.
That’s challenging, but rewarding. And I like to think that ultimately scholarship at its best is creative. So like I have a book coming out later this year.
It wasn’t just, I’ve done my — I think this is true for everyone in the humanities — I haven’t just done my research and here’s the result. It’s, how do I really think about arranging what I have here in such a way that anybody can pick it up and find it engaging and grasp the ideas and follow it all the way to the end? To me, that feels like a creative process.
FM: What’s a book that you think everyone should read?
DA: A book that I really like teaching and have taught in my literature classes, but also taught it once for Hum 10, it’s called “The Life Of an Amorous Woman.” And that is a really entertaining and confounding text. Because it’s a book written in the voice of a woman who’s navigating her way through a kind of hypercapitalist society of the 1680s, relying on her wits, her talents, and her body. It’s written by a man who draws attention in various ways to the fact that, yes, this is a female character being portrayed by a man. The text is hyperaware of that gender dynamic and is playing with it, and playing even with the idea that there’s so many things said about what a woman should be and how women should behave.
And so when I teach it, I’ll often ask students, “How many of you thought this was hilarious?” and a bunch of students will raise their hand. I’ll say, “How many of you felt like this was more of a tragedy?” and a bunch of students will raise their hand. And it’s very rare, I think, to get a book that is so difficult to pin down and is doing so much in so many directions simultaneously, and at the same time is an entertaining and compelling page-turner.
FM: What is it like to come back here as a professor after having been at Harvard as an undergraduate?
DA: I had a really good time, but the year after I graduated, I think that entire year I never ate breakfast, because I was sleeping in every day as late as I could, just, I think, catching up on four years of sleep.
And one thing I’ve discovered coming back is just, I feel like that culture has, if anything, just ramped up all the more in the last 23 years. Everyone just seems to be going, going, going all the time, but also absolutely exhausted. So these last couple of weeks, whenever I walk into the “Creativity” class, people are there and they’re engaged, but they look just destroyed.
Everyone knows they’re doing too much, but no one can quite stop. I feel like I can see that now in a way that I couldn’t quite see before. So even in the “Creativity” class, I try to build in some spaces. We are going to have something this year called “Remember to Breathe Week,” where there’s no lectures, and there’s no class, but it’s scaffolded with everything we’ve been talking about in the class, about the importance of a little more breathing room, even to the creative process.
Can I ask you, how do you feel as an undergraduate?
DA: I was teaching classical Japanese and had one — it’s usually graduate students, but there was one first-year student. And so I was watching her land on campus, and kind of go through, you know, that matter of finding the limit, and I remember I was like — there’s one thing I can do here — I can articulate, like, it’s okay to do less. It’s okay to have a limit.
It’s okay to do less and just do what you enjoy in a way that you enjoy it.
— Associate Magazine Editor Benjy Wall-Feng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @wallfeng.