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CEAS Humanities Colloquium: Erin Brightwell, "Reflecting the Past: Place, Language, and Principle in Japan’s Medieval Mirror Genre”

Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm

Online via Zoom. REGISTER HERE

Erin Brightwell, Assistant Professor of Pre-modern Japanese Literature, University of Michigan


Shifting norms of governance, civil and martial unrest, and anxiety about the fate of the world: these pressing concerns of today were also prominent in the narrative prose of late-eleventh- through early-fifteenth-century Japan. In the case of the latter, this was nowhere more visible than in the outpouring of historiographic Mirrors, works that sought to impose textual order on real-world instability. So authoritative was the genre perceived to be that over roughly three and a half centuries, court sympathizers, bakufu partisans, and even thinkers who seemingly despaired of all contemporary institutions turned to it repeatedly to promote their particular claims to authoritative understandings of the world.

Today, however, while works labeled as “historical tales” or “war tales” are often treated as preeminent forms of medieval narrative, the Mirror genre as such is largely unrecognized. In this talk, I argue for the necessity of an alternative to the more familiar classification of medieval writing in terms of shared linguistic, formal, and content-related features. Instead, reading the Mirrors together demonstrates that we can productively think about a medieval Japanese genre based on a set of shared intellectual commitments: beliefs in the importance of narrative setting, the performative function of language selection, and historical change as subject to cosmological logic. Such an approach allows us to better understand how medieval thinkers understood the world around them and their place in it, often in ways that resonate well beyond the socio-historic, cultural, and linguistic specificity of their texts.

Erin L. Brightwell is Assistant Professor of Pre-modern Japanese Literature at the University of Michigan. She holds an MA in Chinese from the University of Washington (2007) and a PhD in Classical Japanese Literature from Princeton University (2014). Her recent publications include Reflecting the Past: Place, Language, and Principle in Japan’s Medieval Mirror Genre (Harvard Asia Center, 2020), and “Making Meaning: Lexical Glosses as Interpretive Interventions in the Kakaishō,” Journal of Japanese Studies (2021).  Her current research is on medieval Japanese narrative strategies and twentieth-century text-based intercultural “encounters” between Japan, Germany, and Taiwan.