Unconventional exploration

Rebecca L. Copeland's research on 'bad girls' of Japanese literature has reshaped many academic opinions

Born in Japan as the fourth daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries, Rebecca L. Copeland, Ph.D., associate professor of Japanese language and literature in Arts & Sciences, has spent much of her career studying the “bad girls” of Japanese literature.

Copeland in the classroom
Rebecca Copeland discusses the concept of “confession” in the work of Uno Chiyo during a spring-semester seminar on “Japan Meets Modernity: Reading the Modern Girl in Pre-War Japanese Literature.” – Photo by David Kilper

“I’ve always been interested in women who do things their culture or society does not want them to do,” Copeland said. “I’m intrigued by women who write despite serious social pressure to do otherwise, women who use their writing to raise important questions about society even as society tries to exclude them from the discussion.”

In her dissertation research, Copeland focused on Uno Chiyo, a flamboyant Japanese woman writer who became a national sensation in the 1920s by writing scandalous, tell-all books about her sexual exploits with prominent Japanese men. Copeland’s research has reshaped academic opinion and established Uno as an important literary figure.

In recent research, Copeland digs into the historical context behind her own family’s experiences in Japan, examining how Japanese women writers of the late 1800s were influenced by the peculiar notions of foreign missionaries — women who offered examples of strong-willed independence in sharp contrast to the gender norms of Japanese society.

Her book on these and other issues, Lost Leaves: Women Writers of Meiji Japan, was named as a Choice magazine Outstanding Academic Title for 2001.

A faculty member at the University since 1991, Copeland is the author of several books, including two on Uno. She has edited anthologies, essays and other publications in the field and is an accomplished translator, an essential skill for Japanese scholars because most American students find the language difficult to read.

Jim Fujii, a professor of modern Japanese literature at University of California, Irvine, describes Copeland as a highly respected scholar-critic whose contributions have benefited the field of gender and women’s studies in Japanese literature. He praises her translation of a “complex and daunting” essay by Maeda Ai, an important literary critic in postwar Japan.

“Rebecca did a superb job, hunting down obscure references, untangling thorny elliptical sentences and giving us a highly readable translation of a work that brings women’s literature into the center of modern Japanese literary activity in its early stages,” Fujii says, “a time that up until very recently was seen as being an exclusively male writer- and reader-dominated realm.”

Copeland often returns to Japan to conduct research, including trips sponsored by the Japan Foundation, the Association for Asian Studies and Fulbright-Hays. She has presented at universities across the United States and in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and even Tasmania.

This summer, she will attend conferences in Leeds, England, and Warsaw, Poland.

Copeland and husband Richard Ruby
Copeland and husband Richard Ruby enjoy a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains of eastern Tennessee.

Her recent work explores how contemporary Japanese women writers are using the popular genre of detective fiction to raise questions about Japanese society. In a forthcoming article, she contends that detective fiction writer Kirino Nasuo uses pornography to unsettle readers and force a disconcerting consideration of the oppressing limitations placed on women.

“Kirino takes readers through the dark and dangerous world of the pornography industry where women are exploited as objects of desire,” Copeland writes. “But at a deeper level, Kirino questions contemporary sexuality in Japan, interrogating the agency and authenticity of female desire. Juxtaposing the marriage system alongside the pornography industry, Kirino undermines the sacrosanct position of the Japanese family institution.”

Japan has long been a part of the Copeland family institution.

Her parents moved there as missionaries after World War II. In 1956, after Copeland was born, the family moved to Wake Forest, N.C., where her father began teaching at a seminary. Copeland grew up fairly indifferent to Japanese culture, but that changed in college.

She was pursuing a creative writing degree at St. Andrews College in North Carolina when her father became chancellor of a Baptist-founded college in Japan. Her parents urged her to join them and study abroad.

“I was torn,” Copeland says. “I was 19 years old and enjoying my freedom. I was caught up in my poetry and living this wonderful Bohemian existence.

“I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of spending junior year back in my parents’ home. I didn’t give in until a professor told me I’d be an idiot to pass up the opportunity.”

She now sees the experience as the most important year of her life.

“I became enthralled with Japanese poetry and writing,” she says.

“Encountering another culture transformed me, and I wanted to expose others to the experience. It really solidified for me what I was interested in and what I wanted to do with my life.”

Rebecca L. CopelandUniversity title: Associate professor of Japanese Language & Literature in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures and director of the Visiting East Asian Professional program, both in Arts & SciencesYears at the University: 12Degrees: B.A. in English and creative writing from St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, N.C. (1978); M.A. (1982) and Ph.D. (1986) in Japanese literature, and M.A. in philosophy (1983), all from Columbia UniversityFamily: Husband, Richard Ruby, a St. Louis-based entrepreneur and gemologistHobbies: Hiking, non-competitive triathaloning, canoeing, and raising German Shepherds; exploring out-of-the-way hot-spring towns in Japan with her husbandIn 1978, Copeland entered the Japanese literature graduate program at Columbia University. In a field dominated by male scholars, she capitalized on her “otherness” by becoming the first at Columbia to research modern Japanese women writers.

Her decision to focus on Uno brought encouragement from her professors and puzzlement from male scholars in Japan.

“People in Japan were appalled when I told them what I was working on,” Copeland says. “Uno was not the kind of woman that people expected some missionaries’ kid to be interested in, and most scholars considered her work second-rate.

“People thought it odd that a scholar from Columbia would waste time on the writings of a modern Japanese woman. My choice of Uno was even more shocking.”

In the end, she proved her critics wrong.

Her research affirms that Japanese women managed to write despite intensely restrictive social expectations and gender limitations. Through persistence, dedication and clever subterfuge, they found ways to add their voices to cultural discussions, often becoming the first writers to raise questions about societal issues such as feminism, discrimination and environmental degradation.

After earning a doctorate and two master’s degrees from Columbia, she taught one year in Japanese language and literature at University of Tennessee. In 1986, she began a five-year stint on the faculty of International Christian University in Tokyo.

On three occasions, she led students on hikes up Mount Fuji.

“There’s a Japanese saying about Mount Fuji: ‘He who does not climb is a fool. He who climbs twice is a fool,'” Copeland says.

“Apparently, there is no mention of he who climbs three times.”

At Washington University, she has climbed into several departmental administrative roles, serving as director of East Asian Studies in Arts & Sciences from 1998-2002. She also led efforts to win a $1.3 million grant from the Freeman Foundation for the Visiting East Asian Professionals (VEAP) Program, an undergraduate Asian studies initiative launched in 2002.

The Freeman contribution represents the largest single foundation grant for promotion of Asian studies that the University has ever received, says Edward S. Macias, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor and dean of Arts & Sciences.

“Under Rebecca’s leadership, the VEAP program already has resulted in extended visits to campus by an impressive array of prominent Asian journalists, artists and other professionals,” Macias said. “VEAP visitors are interacting with faculty and students and participating in public forums, special courses and workshops.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the program is generating some terrific new ideas.”

Copeland teaches the University’s undergraduate course on Japanese civilization, as well as upper-level courses on Japanese literature, fiction and theater. She co-teaches an individual practicum designed to help students with their translation skills.

She also brings her research into the classroom with courses such as “Modern Japanese Women Writers: Madame Butterfly’s Delinquent Daughters” and a special topics seminar on “Japan Meets Modernity: Reading the Modern Girl in Pre-War Japanese Literature.”

Copeland is respected for her research and teaching, but her hallmark may be the life-shaping impact she often has on the students she advises and the colleagues she mentors.

Eleanor J. Hogan, whom Copeland mentored during master’s and doctoral studies at the University, recalls Copeland as a solid, good-natured teacher who was very giving of her time — qualities she continues to heap on students long after graduation.

“She has continued to be a marvelous mentor by introducing me to other scholars in the field, suggesting avenues for further research, commenting on my book proposal and writing recommendations for grants,” says Hogan, now an assistant professor of Japanese at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

“In addition to all of that,” Hogan adds, “she has also become a great friend. I could want nothing more from a professor and mentor.”