When the earthquake and tsunami hit the northeast on March 11, Robert Campbell, an Irish-American scholar of Edo Period to early Meiji Era literature, was in Tokyo.

Not having ever been to the most severely affected areas of Tohoku, he said the whole picture of the disruption, both physical and geographical, was something he initially found hard to understand. “I have to say it was eerie to me, living in Tokyo basically feeling secure, and being inundated by images of all of the pain.”

The 53-year-old professor at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Fine Arts — also widely known recently for his frequent appearances as a TV commentator — said he felt like he was in a “depressed fog” after the quake. For a whole week, he was anxious and could not do any work. He just sat in front of the TV, listened to the radio and read newspapers.

His perception of the disaster changed, however, after he flew later in March to the United States to do a survey at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and hold a lecture at Harvard University.

“Talking to a lot of people gave me courage. People, unlike the way that the Western press (coverage of the catastrophe) has been introduced in Japan, were basically concerned about people (in Japan).

“People didn’t come up and say, ‘What’s going on at the reactor’ or ‘We’re not going to eat any Japanese fish.’ They asked me whether I knew anyone who was threatened or injured,” Campbell said. “People wanted to know how Japanese people felt and what people were saying about the disaster. Many people were very impressed by the calmness and the ‘hang-in-there’ spirit that they felt from Japan.”

He also felt encouraged by the students at Harvard, who put on a “Harvard for Japan Week” with symposiums, concerts, a candlelight event and a donation drive to help raise money and awareness for the disaster in Japan.

According to Campbell, natural as well as man-made disasters are frequently featured as topics in classical Japanese literature that he covers in his research.

“For example, (the city of) Edo was constantly beleaguered by fires and earthquakes. . . . I feel that it’s important to understand how a society absorbs, but also comes back and resuscitates itself after an enormous disaster.”

Campbell was born and lived in the Bronx, New York, until he was 13, in a very close-knit Irish-American community. All of his grandparents and most of their siblings were immigrants from Ireland, where “they were poor farmers and didn’t have enough to eat.”

Because his mother worked, his grandmother took care of him during the day when he was little. Campbell has vivid images of himself in an old photograph, with his grandmother washing his hair in the kitchen sink with one hand while holding a cigarette in the other. “She bathed me in the kitchen sink, where she could be close to her sisters and friends, who would gather and talk and talk, smoke and smoke, eat coffee cake and drink tea all afternoon long,” he recalled.

The family later moved to several locations in Europe, and came back to the United States to settle in California, where he went to high school. He then studied at the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in Oriental languages — mainly Japanese and some classical Chinese — and economics.

His first exposure to Asian languages and culture was at high school, where there were a lot of Asian-American students and a course in Mandarin was offered. Campbell took the course as the only Caucasian in class.

After he went on to college, he watched large numbers of Japanese movies by directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, and also became fascinated by Japanese language, architecture and art.

“I was very attracted to Japanese visual culture. Art seemed to be connected to society. For example, ‘byobu-e’ folded screen paintings reminded me of 17th to 18th century Dutch paintings that described people’s lives. However, (in a byobu-e) each person is not depicted as a recognizable individual. They are realistic, but not realistic in a Western way where there’s perspective,” he said.

He went on to Harvard University to gain a Ph.D. in classical Japanese literature, and then got a scholarship to continue his research at Kyushu University in Fukuoka in the mid-1980s under his mentor, Mitsutoshi Nakano, a scholar of classical Japanese literature.

Studying at Kyushu University, he said, changed his mold of thinking completely, and it was a disturbing experience for him.

“I was in my late 20s. I came from Harvard . . . as someone who was on top of everything, and ready to conquer the world,” he said with a laugh. “I had my own map of how Edo Period or Meiji Era Japanese culture, society and literature were.”

However, it was based on a very narrow set of knowledge — built on the teachings of other people, he said. “I was stuck in a mold. In order to make new discoveries and be original, you have to somewhere break the mold that you’re in and move beyond it. Going to Kyushu allowed me to do that.”

While at Kyushu University, Campbell had the opportunity to explore the rural areas to sort out and catalog, for example, the library of an Edo Period feudal lord, where there were over 1,000 books that no one had touched for 200 to 300 years. “I could actually touch and look and feel and go over all the primary materials, which was a fascinating experience. It sort of rewrote my map of (classical Japanese) literature,” he said.

Prior to the experience, “I had studied Japanese literature as literary history, which had a clear structure, having different genres and different writers. I thought literature was only novels and poetry, but people in the Edo Period thought a lot of religious and historical writing was literature,” he said. “Literature is a much bigger, more fuzzy, all-inclusive thing in the Edo Period.”

After spending 11 years in Kyushu, he grabbed an opportunity to move to Tokyo to become an associate professor at the National Institute of Japanese Literature. Five years later, he moved on to the University of Tokyo as an associate professor.

As a scholar, he said he is still trying to figure out what people in the Edo Period were thinking of — what they loved, what made them anxious, why people turned to literature in times of need, in times of stress.

Although he loves horror stories, erotic and historical adventure stories in classical Japanese literature, he also likes to read simple parables. “I’ve always been interested in what courage and power literature had for people in the Edo Period. . . . One of the strongest aspects of Edo Period literature is that there’s always a desire to teach people and share wisdom. There are a lot of didactic literature meant for merchants or farmers or young people which are easy to read, and are helpful and give messages and lessons on how to lead a constructive, healthy and peaceful life.”

Especially now, after the disaster, Campbell said he is thinking of ways to contribute to Japanese society — by combining the work he does as a scholar with his public appearances in the media.

“I’m at a point where I have a responsibility to return a lot of the support and kindness that has been shown to me over the years that I’ve been studying and living here,” he said. “I want to be involved in a more direct way. The way for me to do that right now is to actually move and see how people are living and trying to recover. I have one or two small areas of talent or abilities that perhaps I can use to cheer people up or help them find their own sense of calm and strength,” he said.

One of his plans, he said, is to go to Tohoku and hold some kind of “terakoya” community school and give talks on classical Japanese literature to the evacuees — both young and old.

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