Dr Laura Moretti

Japan, books, prints, popular culture, unusual scripts and cats: these are the great passions of my life.

In my research, I am interested in understanding what the ‘people’ in Japan consumed, read, and enjoyed back in early-modern times (from the beginning of the seventeenth to the beginning of the twentieth century). In other words, I am fascinated by what we refer to as ‘popular culture’ and ‘popular literature’. The questions that lead my study are well synthetized by Gary Kelly in the General Editor’s Introduction to The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture: “What did most people read? Where did they get it? Where did it come from? What were its uses in readers’ lives? How was it produced and distributed? What were its relations to the wider world of print culture? How did it develop over time?”. The only difference is that I am doing this by looking at early-modern Japan, not at Europe. The focus on the ‘popular’ side of the cultural production and consumption has encouraged me to go beyond the usual canon recognized in a few authors and in a small range of texts. What populates our literary histories is far from being what was actually widely read back in the Edo period (another way to refer to early-modern Japan). It is, for the most part, a selection made on the basis of our modern expectations towards prose. And our modern expectations are almost inevitably shaped by the standard definition of the ‘novel’. I am interested in going beyond this anachronistic, prejudiced and limited selection of ‘novel-like’ (and falsely so!) fictional texts. I am interested in reading the ‘Great Unread’ of early-modern Japan, populated by non-fictional, non-narrative, often didactic and practical prose.

So far I have published mainly articles in either Japanese or English about a variety of aspects of early-modern Japanese popular literature. I am currently working on three main projects.

The first is a monograph entitled The Everyman's Library: a new literary history of seventeenth-century Japanese popular prose, which aims at reconstructing the literary landscape of the popular prose printed in seventeenth-century Japan and at understanding what remained popular, and how, until the twentieth century. It is the result of the research that I have conducted since my PhD times and developed over almost ten years.

The second is a monograph containing the critical edition, the English translation and the critical analysis of an eighteenth-century piece of graphic prose intended for children that rewrites the famous classical text Ise monogatari (Eng. “The Tales of Ise”). It is the first time that I expand my research from the field of ‘popular literature’ to that of ‘children’s literature’. It is also the first time that I am working not with the usual academic publisher but with a private press who produces hand-made books beautifully crafted ‘for the collector who reads and the reader who collects’; this private press being Incline Press in Manchester. As I mentioned above, I love books, in particular books that are made to be also beautiful objects. And (it might be clear at this point!), I am in love with early-modern Japanese popular prose. With this project I intend to combine these two passions of mine and give life to a book which is as pleasant as an object, as solid as a piece of scholarship. It is also the first time that I am collaborating with a young artist, Mollie Andrews, to inspire the reader with an unusual and eye-catching paratext.

The third project has just started and focuses on that area of popular culture known as ‘ephemera’. I have been collecting a vast number of early-modern Japanese single-sheet prints, broadsides, pamphlets that have been discarded by collectors for being not ‘literary’ enough, too fleetingly ephemeral, too topical, too popular. These materials contain all sorts of exciting contents, from early-modern recipes to concise manuals of divinations, from table leagues of fashionable items to riddles, from humorous poetry to one-folio adaptations of longer bestsellers. They are useful, didactic as well as trivial, focussed on the here-and-now, at times gossipy. They are not so different from our magazines and, in being so, they challenge our idea of what ‘literature’ is. But they give invaluable insights in understanding how practical information was processed to become a kind of knowledge easily packaged for the popular reader. And the combination of texts and illustrations on the printed sheets makes these materials very pleasing to the eye. The project I am launching on this vast and un-explored territory also aims at gathering young graduate students and post-docs who are passionate about popular culture and popular readership.

As you might have understood from the projects described above, my focus is on early-modern Japan. I would not hesitate to call myself a ‘hard-core Japanologist’ and a ‘hard-core pre-modernist’. But I am also flexible and deeply interested in relating my research to both other cultures and to contemporary Japan. My readings and my reflections are informed by a comparative breath that makes me read studies on popular culture in other cultures and other epochs. Peter Burke, Roger Chartier, Joad Raymond, Margaret Spufford, Robert Mandrou… these are some of the scholars who constantly inspire my work and offer specific research questions. Also, I firmly believe that a better understanding of early-modern Japanese popular culture allows us to grasp a variety of cultural phenomena that populate contemporary Japan. For example, how can we understand manga and their towering place in contemporary Japan if we do not understand how Japanese popular readers have been enjoying various forms of graphic prose for centuries before the post-war period?

It is a privilege to be able to conduct my work at Emmanuel College. One of the greatest joys in being part of the Emmanuel community is the possibility to converse at length with colleagues who are working on similar issues in other cultures. You can easily imagine how I excited I was, when I joined the College as Fellow in 2012, at the idea of talking in person with one of my intellectual heroes, Peter Burke, the scholar who opened the field of popular culture! The informal, collegial and warm atmosphere which is peculiar to Emmanuel College allows me to share my ideas with those scholars who work on similar issue and to open my mind to areas of research I was not aware of.

Emmanuel College is also the best place to conduct teaching according to my ideals. I have the privilege to be working with students—both undergraduates and graduates—who like challenges and whose intellectual curiosity makes them interested in those non-canonical and under-researched territories that imbue my research. The energy and the inspiration that I gain from seminars and supervisions—conducted both in College and in the Faculty—are one of the invaluable treasures of being in Cambridge. I like to think that my demanding (often depicted as ‘intense’, and at times ‘scary’) teaching style exhorts the students to become even more inquisitive and critical as well as to discover what they really like when working on Japan. To foster intellectual inclinations and talents is also my motto when supervising graduate students. MPhil and PhD students come here to develop a research project they are passionate about. My work with them is nothing more than allowing their project to take the shape of a rigorous, solid, high-quality piece of academic scholarship that matches international standards. I love teaching to the extent that I organize ad hoc workshops outside term-time in which I train the new generations in those skills needed to decode Japanese manuscripts and printed texts (what we call in jargon ‘palaeographical skills’). You would be surprised at experiencing how fun and rewarding is to making sense out of what appear to be nothing else than funny ‘squiggles’ on the page! I am launching a new graduate summer school on Edo-period languages and scripts here at Emmanuel College. I am working with Prof Yamabe Susumu (Nishogakusha University) and this will become a fixed appointment for graduate students and scholars who want to learn hentaigana, kuzushiji, sorobun and kanbun (and if you have these skills you can read any Japanese document produced until the 1920s!). The first summer school will take place from 4 August to 16 August 2014 (the website is under construction).

A conclusive remark. If you apply to study Japanese at Cambridge, you will almost certainly be asked ‘why Japanese?’ And normally (even more so during your admission interview!), you will come up with a clever and sophisticated answer. I still have an answer to use in the more formal situations but the truth is that Japan was there in my heart since I was a kid. So, now I also have a playful answer: 前世は日本人だったの. I only wish it could be true.

My love for cats… well, this is an entirely different story!