Introduction to the Special Collection

Deborah Shamoon, Department of Japanese Studies, National University of Singapore [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 2 (Discussion paper 1 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 September 2013.

The essays in this special collection in the electronic journal of japanese contemporary studies developed out of a conference titled ‘Teaching Japanese Popular Culture,’ held at the National University of Singapore in November 2012. The purpose of this conference was to share pedagogical approaches to teaching Japanese popular culture and strategies for incorporating topics related to Japanese popular culture in courses across all disciplines. With the understanding that research and teaching are linked, and feeling the lack of a coherent pedagogy for teaching popular culture, we envisioned a conference where instructors could share ideas and best practices.

The conference featured twenty-eight presentations by scholars at all stages of their careers, from graduate students to senior faculty, from institutions around the world. The disciplines represented included film and media studies, literary studies, anthropology, sociology, and history, as well as Japanese language instruction. Presenters discussed their experiences and ideas about creating and teaching both courses about popular culture (for instance, emphasising media studies or anime studies) and courses that use popular culture to teach other topics (for instance, using manga in a history course). 

While the majority of the presentations focused on course design and lesson planning, some were on larger pedagogical, ethical and legal issues involved in teaching popular culture or using popular culture materials in the classroom. Those presentations and the discussions that arose from the conference led to the essays that appear here. These four essays were chosen for online publication in the wake of the Teaching Japanese Popular Culture conference because each addresses crucial issues affecting those of us who include popular culture in our classes. 

In “Teaching History and/of/or Japanese Popular Culture,” William M. Tsutsui laments the lack of research on popular culture by historians, and makes a strong case for why historians should take popular culture seriously in their research and teaching. He also provides a concise overview of English language scholarship on Japanese popular culture, and advocates for treating Japanese popular culture as a field of study in its own right. His discussion of these issues is relevant to instructors in all fields, not only to historians.

Sabine Früstück in her essay “The Uses of Popular Culture for Sex and Violence” discusses how she uses popular culture texts in her courses to disrupt students’ assumptions about sex and violence in Japanese culture, as well as in their own cultures. Both Früstück and Tsutsui show how popular culture can be used in undergraduate teaching to stimulate critical thinking and debate in intellectually rigorous ways. However, instructors who choose to include visual materials such as manga and anime, especially sexually explicit material, in their classes may face significant obstacles, as the essays by McLelland and McMorran demonstrate.

Mark McLelland’s essay “Ethical and Legal Issues in Teaching about Japanese Popular Culture to Undergraduate Students in Australia” discusses how copyright and obscenity laws affect which materials can be used in the classroom, as well as the ramifications of those laws for both students and faculty. The issues McLelland raises are not limited to Australia, where he teaches, but affect students and faculty worldwide, particularly as the media we access travels across jurisdictions.

Chris McMorran’s essay “Teaching Japanese Popular Culture with MOOCs: Possibilities and Challenges” also considers the impact of copyright restrictions on teaching, in the context of MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. At issue is the question of fair use: because access to MOOCs is not limited to matriculating students, and because many of the more commonly used MOOC platforms are for-profit enterprises, the fair use exception to using copyrighted texts in educational contexts does not apply. Whether we choose to use MOOCs or not, the growing presence of MOOCs could potentially change the status of the fair use exception for using copyrighted materials in teaching.

As Japanese popular culture is taught more widely, and as popular culture texts are increasingly introduced into courses on all subjects and fields in the humanities, it is incumbent on us as teachers and scholars to reflect critically on how we use those texts. As much as we imagine ourselves or our students as engaging in a borderless, free exchange of ideas, pressures from the university, local and legal structures prevent this from becoming reality; we are all constrained by obscenity and copyright laws. Stahl (2006, p. 34) writes, “The movement and distribution of people, ideas, money and technologies through this global economy takes hold in both the? imaginations of individuals as well as in concrete texts. At the same time, the flow of commodities through these networks is subject, much like capital, to local restrictions that create differential access.” As the enforcement of copyright and obscenity laws tighten, the constraints on access have already impinged on the freedom to choose materials for teaching and research that many of us have taken for granted.

The increasing presence of new media in everyday life and particularly in teaching has frequently been lauded as a benefit, or potential benefit to education, as in Jenkins et. al. (2009, p. 8): “Participatory culture is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways.” Yet copyright and obscenity laws have also responded in powerful if inconsistent ways, which constrict Jenkins’ utopian vision. The legal ramifications become even muddier when the media in question travels between nations with differing laws and cultural norms. We in academia ignore these laws at our peril.

Collective action through professional organisations is one way to deal with these issues. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) has been active in promoting best practices and advocating for fair use. A statement published by SCMS in Cinema Journal (2008, p. 155) points out that “academic gatekeepers (libraries, university general counsels, IT staffs, etc.) frequently choose to adopt overly cautious and conservative copyright policies that sometimes result in a diminished educational experience for film and media students.” This problem is not limited to film studies, but applies to any course using popular culture. SCMS has helped to convince academic publishers that reproduction of film stills falls under fair use (SCMS 2009), and has recently filed an amicus brief in an appellate court case defending fair use in course e-reserves (SCMS 2013). These are some examples of positive action by an academic professional association. Those of us teaching Japanese popular culture must consider similar ways in which we can take action.

The essays collected here begin this discussion. It is our hope that these essays will spark further critical dialogue on teaching Japanese popular culture.


Jenkins, H., with Purushotma, R., Weigel, M., Clinton, K., and Robison, A. 2009. Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

‘The Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ statement of best practices for fair use in teaching for film and media educators.’ 2008. Cinema Journal vol. 47 no. 2, pp. 155-164.

Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) 2009. ‘Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ statement of fair use best practices for media studies publishing.’ Available from: [14 June 2013].

Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) 2013. ‘SCMS Continues to Defend Educational Fair Use.’ Available from: [14 June 2013].

Stahl, G. 2006. ‘Tastefully renovating subcultural theory: making space for a new model.’ In: Muggleton, D. and Weinzerl, R., eds. The post-subcultures reader. New York: Berg. pp. 27-40.

About the Author

Deborah Shamoon is an assistant professor in the department of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore. Her teaching and research focuses on Japanese popular culture, including manga, anime, and film. Her book on shōjo manga, Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan, was published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2012.

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