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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies


Oliver White, PhD Student, Columbia University (New York​​ City)

Graduated 2015


Coming to Cambridge and discovering Classical Japanese

After a successful second application to Cambridge I was delighted to find myself joining the Japanese programme at Cambridge. At that point, I could not have guessed that I would carry on beyond an undergraduate degree. The first year was an intense and effective introduction to modern Japanese grammar and East Asian History. At the start of second year, we had the chance to choose between several courses, and encouraged by the promise that “Classical Japanese is not boring!” I went along to the first class, and was immediately hooked. After the stately 13th century Tales of a Ten Foot Hut, we moved onto the far earthier Fake Tales of Ise—an impishly clever direct parody of the famous Tales of Ise—and I had my first taste of Edo Period literature. At first, the term “Premodern literature” might not seem like it will be a thrill a minute, but I soon found I was enthralled by each new text we covered. In our classes, I enjoyed the challenges of untangling ambiguous grammar, understanding and translating the humour of the texts, and being able to engage with “real” Premodern Japanese literature without the feeling of slogging through a textbook. It was wonderful to be told that the main goal of the course was not simply to get high marks in exams, but to experience as wide a range of genres and periods as we could.

The weird and wonderful world of hentaigana and kuzushiji

Part way through this year I was able to join a small reading group where we learnt how to read original woodblock printed texts from the Edo Period. It was exciting to encounter these texts “in the flesh”, and not in edited, annotated critical editions. I was apprehensive at first—would it be possible to decipher the beautiful but seemingly-incomprehensible cursive kanji (kuzushiji meaning Chinese characters that are literally “collapsed” or “crumbled”) and the bewildering squiggles of hentaigana (Alternate or “anomalous” renderings of the Japanese kana)? I needn’t have worried. Often, after scouring through dictionaries, the character would leap off the page, and there was a huge satisfaction in having solved the riddle. At times, we would all be scratching our heads, thinking, “it could be this… but maybe it’s this…maybe we can’t work this out”, and that was ok. Sometimes we have to accept that there is no clear-cut answer, and this was a surprisingly liberating revelation. In another group we had the opportunity to work with scholars from institutions across the world to read virtually unknown texts, and collaborate to produce high-quality annotated transcriptions. It was through these groups that I began to experience the trials and tribulations of research using real Edo Period texts.


Anthropomorphised bottoms, and other curiosities

In my third year, as I headed off for a year abroad in Kyoto, ideas were bubbling up for an undergraduate dissertation that could combine my budding interest in Edo Period literature with my long-held interest in translation theory. Together with my supervisor, we decided I would work on a mid-19th century illustrated hanashibon (“book of jests”) that featured personified proverbs, creating fanciful origin stories for them and punning incessantly on them. It was a great opportunity to try out my hentaigana reading and transcription skills—I was lucky enough to be given the use of a version of the precious original texts—and also made for an interesting discussion about the concept of untranslatability. Unsurprisingly, there’s no good way to translate a proverb about courtesan with a bottom for a face. It feels like no mean feat to write a thesis, but I was well-supported throughout and at the end of my final year, I had produced a thesis of which I could be proud (see fig. 1).

Over White - Fig. 1


Fig. 1 - the courtesan with a bottom for a face













Diving into graduate studies

As I neared the end of the undergraduate degree, it became increasingly apparent that I might have the chance to carry onto an MPhil degree. I was warmly encouraged to apply for further studies, and felt that to leave the “forest of books” (an Edo Period metaphor that my supervisor used, which left a strong impression, and has stayed with me for a long while) at this point would be a shame. I was accepted onto the MPhil research program to produce a dissertation that would focus on translating the wit of Santō Kyōden’s (1761-18) kibyōshi (literally, “yellow-covers”, a type of popular fiction that flourished in Edo at the turn of the 19th century). It was a very valuable year—not only did I have my first ever experience of producing an extended piece of research, I also had to learn to manage my time properly (a work in progress!) without relying on the structure of a class-based taught degree. I was enabled to hone my research skills, and encouraged to gain the confidence to work with a greater degree of independence. At the end of the year I had the exhilarating and slightly intimidating experience of defending my thesis before two established academics from outside the institution, exposing me to the constructive criticism needed to produce good research.


Onwards and over The Pond

As I progressed through the MPhil degree, I was given a great deal of support by members of the Faculty to find the best way to continue my research and education. I was introduced to potential supervisors at various institutions in the States with whom I might build up further fruitful working relationships, and helped to navigate the ins and outs of making a successful application. I feel incredibly fortunate to have begun my academic training at Cambridge, which gave me the fundamental skills necessary for the PhD programme in Japanese Literature that I have now joined at Columbia University in New York City. Without the dedicated support of members of the Faculty I would never have looked beyond a first degree, let alone towards a career in academia.

31st October, 2016