A select group of 24 incoming UW-Madison first-year students got a head start on their Badger education in summer 2023. These badgers went through a unique three week experience where they immersed themselves in the unfamiliar sights and sounds of Kyoto, Japan, while engaging with Japanese tales about ghosts and monsters.
“The UW Summer Launch in Japan: Supernatural and Surreal” is part of the UW Study Abroad Summer Launch program, which is designed to encourage incoming first-year students to grapple with important social, political, and historical issues, develop college-level critical thinking and writing skills, build community networks, and develop cross-cultural awareness – all while traveling abroad before the start of their college degree program. The Japan edition of Summer Launch, initially slated to run in 2020 but stalled by Covid, finally debuted this year with funding from the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) and in collaboration with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). Dr. Charo D’Etcheverry, a Professor in the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures, served as the program leader for this study abroad experience.
“The further in time I get back from that trip, the more fun it becomes,” said Professor D’Etcheverry during a post-trip conversation in her Van Hise office. The responsibilities of leading 24 pre-freshmen on their first trip to Japan weighed heavily on D’Etcheverry so that she was only able to fully relax and process the trip in hindsight. A specialist in premodern Japanese literature, D’Etcheverry explained how she drew heavily from “Japanese Ghost Stories,” an upper-level topics course she has taught for many years, for her Summer Launch. The topics course, which she revised for the summer, allowed her to take advantage of student interest in contemporary Japanese popular culture to explore older literary texts that are within her field of expertise.
Considering the compressed nature of the summer program, the younger age group of incoming college students, and the historic importance of Kyoto as the capital of imperial Japan, D’Etcheverry decided to select “The Demon at Agi Bridge and other Japanese Tales” as the primary literary text for the study abroad iteration of this course. The text is an English translation of 38 Japanese anecdotal (setsuwa) stories from early and medieval eras. These stories explore themes of Buddhist sensibilities and monsters, offering critical insight into foundational Japanese cultural beliefs that impact contemporary Japanese society.
According to D’Etcheverry, this collection of stories lent itself well to a summer study abroad course as it comprises bite-sized stories that run from as short as two paragraphs to four pages in length. These short stories allowed students to examine traditional Japanese literary narratives on the supernatural in manageable chunks while visiting historical sites where some of these stories were first compiled over a thousand years ago. Their time in Kyoto was divided between class every morning and site visits in the afternoon. One of the sites the group visited, for example, was Mount Hiei (aka the Devil’s gate), in the northeast corner of Kyoto. They toured a monastery there and discussed how supernatural forces, as understood by early Japanese/Chinese continental feng shui thinking, shaped city planning in ways that still influence city life to this day.
The students, all of whom were visiting Japan for the first time, got to experience the joys and challenges of navigating a new culture and environment. They quickly learned, for instance, the importance of staying hydrated in the punishing humidity of Japanese summers, where temperatures often soared past 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They also noticed how North American and Japanese notions of space differ from one another, and how cultural conceptions shape the way one’s body inhabits a particular environment.
One of the key highlights for D’Etcheverry was how much her students connected with the older stories in “The Demon at Agi Bridge.” She had occasionally given them the option of watching five-minute contemporary anime episodes as a substitute for reading. (These episodes were part of a digitized series of modern short horror anime.)
To her pleasant surprise, D’Etcheverry said students often chose to stick with reading the traditional Japanese ghost tales and looked forward to discussing them. The short story that seemed most compelling to students was “Take a Good Look,” which depicts a procession of demons in Kyoto. A man, who is at a festival reviewing booth with a prostitute, hears a demon singing and has a conversation with him. The story abruptly ends after this conversation with the narrator detailing how the man never returned to the festival stand again. Students had a generative discussion on whether it was a morality tale because of the presence of the prostitute and other theories on the meaning of such a strange narrative.
Another delightful outcome of the trip for D’Etcheverry has been seeing the fruits of connection that were seeded during the program. Many of the students who went on the trip have since formed friendships with each other and have come to serve as each other’s primary social network as they settled into campus life this Fall semester. The group has also had two reunions with D’Etcheverry after their return from Japan. At least half of the Japan study abroad cohort got together for ice cream during the first month of the semester and pizza towards the end of October.
While there were certainly challenges during the study abroad experience including those presented by the social and physical mobility landscape, communication issues, and jet lag, D’Etcheverry’s students agree that it was an incredible learning experience overall:
“It’s a wonderful opportunity and a great way to start off your freshman year of college. I met many friends that I’ll be happy to see around campus and a professor that I’ll definitely feel comfortable contacting if I have any questions about college in the future.” – Student feedback on post-program evaluation
“The time I spent in Japan is irreplaceable- anyone who wishes to explore, learn, and foster new relationships should not hesitate to apply.” – Student feedback on post-program evaluation
D’Etcheverry is glad to have been part of the program and will be leading a second Japan study abroad group next summer. She assures incoming students who are curious about Japan but nervous about international travel that “this program is for you.” She emphasizes the level of care and detail that various departments on campus, including Study Abroad, invested into the success of the program. She also commended the McBurney Center for their work with students in ensuring their accessibility needs were met during the trip.