In touch with… Melanie Oppenheimer

Intrepid historian Professor Melanie Oppenheimer has been appointed the 2018-19 Visiting Professor in Australian Studies at the Centre for Pacific and American Studies (CPAS) at the University of Tokyo. FiT sat down with her for a coffee and chat.

Why Japan?

I’ve had a long-held fascination with the Japanese Red Cross and it led to an opportunity for me to bring a western perspective to a little explored chapter of Japan’s 20th century history.

In particular, my placement at the highly ranked University of Tokyo has given me unrivalled access to important historical documents in Japanese archives.  I’m one of the first Australians to explore these hidden archival treasures, which are bringing a richer understanding of the evolving connections between Japan and Australia.

Your tenure coincides with a watershed moment in Japan’s history…

For the first time in more than 200 years an emperor is abdicating (today, 30 April 2019) or perhaps retiring is a better term. Traditionally they die in office and there’s a period of mourning. So the country is in uncharted waters. It’s a huge administrative challenge, and a cultural one too. As Emperor Akihito hands over the chrysanthemum throne to incoming emperor Naruhito, there’ll be a “golden week” which is actually 10 days, they’ll change the name of the year and change the dates, adopting a whole new calendar. They’re a nation with a strong sense of identity, bound by protocols and steeped in tradition – how will they manage an ex-Emperor? Where will he live? What status will he be afforded – it’s an utterly fascinating place to be right now.

Has your experience been what you expected?

It’s exceeded my expectations in every sense. I’d highly recommend Japan to academics looking to recharge their batteries… teachers as well as researchers. It’s mind broadening and stops you getting stale – and you don’t have to take LSL to do it. Plus the skiing is amazing!

Japan is an incredibly safe place with virtually no crime and an endlessly interesting country. For me personally it’s been great to get back into the classroom after years of research. They do education rather differently here; very little digital and online learning, which is kind of strange for such a technologically advanced country. The emphasis is on face to face learning, group work and attending lectures, with a very rich campus experience as a result. My students are terrifically engaged, soaking up topics on Australian history, humanitarianism, immigration and Australian-Japan post war relations – I’m confident many of them will seek to come to Australia and I’m keen to make sure they come to Adelaide. Japanese universities are starting to look outward – just recently the Japan Times ran a feature on the need to internationalise, and opportunity is knocking for Australia.

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