Professor Kazuto Oshio lived in Germany until the start of elementary school. After returning to Japan he attended public school and after high school entered Tskuba University. His original intention was to be a high school English teacher, but life took him in other directions and he was presented with the opportunity to pursue graduate work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he got his M.A. in history. Professor Oshio then went on to get his Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he began his work on environmental history and water history in the western United States.
Recently, he sat down with the editors of the student journal Angles, to discuss his career, his work, and his teaching.
Angles Editors: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your life story please?
Professor Oshio: My life story? Well, I was born in the year of 1958, when the Tokyo Tower was built, so I’m as old as the Tokyo Tower, which is the Analog and you are the Digital generation, I’m the dead generation because of the analog generation [no cell nor smart-phone], though Tokyo Tower is still there! And I’m still here! That’s a little short story about me.
Angles Editors: You went to Europe when you were young?
Professor Oshio: Yes, Germany, for preschool, and then kindergarten, and when I came back to public elementary school in Japan I was shocked because everybody else was like me, yet I couldn’t speak Japanese so I was made to feel like an outcast and ostracized…
Angles Editors: Didn’t you speak Japanese with your family while you were in Europe?
Professor Oshio: No, the interesting thing is that back in the 1960s, when I was growing up in Germany, there was a strict social norm there where the adults’ life would not overlap with the kids’ life. That means that you would have your supper with your local kids, neighborhood kids, instead of with your parents. It was a sort of interesting era where the adults’ life, my parents’ life, predominately in Japanese was separate from my German life. So linguistically speaking I wasn’t really surrounded by Japanese native speakers, i.e. my parents, so, therefore, I grew up with German speakers. That was one of the reasons why I had a huge culture shock, coming back to Japan, I was born in Tokyo, but raised in Germany.
Angles Editors: What would you say your identity was then?
Professor Oshio: Split, or non-Japanese. Not really split, non-Japanese I would say. I was thinking: “Why am I here?”, “What am I doing here?” And my dad didn’t like me refusing to go to school so he dragged me there every morning, I didn’t like that.
Angles Editors: I see, what was the process like for you to learn Japanese?
Professor Oshio: It was a trauma. The trauma of getting rid of anything German, meaning anything myself, and trying to deny myself, that was a hard part of me growing up in Japan as a little kid.
Angles Editors: You went to local Japanese public school?
Professor Oshio: Yes, just an ordinary public school in Suginami where nobody spoke German, nobody went to Germany, or Europe, or anywhere. It was a tough time in the early 1960s. I think that the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 dramatically changed Japanese society. Before that, people were more domestic, inward looking, not outward looking, less international so, that was an interesting time to grow up.
Angles Editors: Did you feel isolated in school?
Professor Oshio: Yes, very isolated, the teachers didn’t understand why I didn’t speak Japanese, and other people didn’t understand why I didn’t act “Japanese.” I still vividly remember that time.
Angles Editors: I see, so you went to Japanese public school until high school?
Professor Oshio: Public school until my college life, then I went to Public university.
Angles Editors: Tsukuba?
Professor Oshio: Yes,Tsukuba University, that’s my alma mater.
Angles Editors: And what did you learn there?
Professor Oshio: In college? That was fun. I chose my college because I wanted to become a high school teacher. The reason why I chose it was very, how can I say, even a little, arrogant. Why, I’ll explain. For me, a foreign language is something to use as a tool, it’s a part of someone’s identity, but as soon as I went to junior high school, I discovered that the foreign language, i.e. English was taught in a grammatical manner, meaning that they didn’t really use it in daily life, practical situations, they sort of asked us just to cram grammatical rules, and I resented it. When I went to high school, the same thing, so I personally thought that I had to change the English education by myself, that I was the one to change it. That’s why I wanted to go to a Teacher’s school. Either Gakugeidai in Tokyo, or Tsukuba in Ibaraki and I wanted to teach in high school rather than junior-high school, so I chose Tsukuba instead of Gakugeidai. If you go to Gakugeidai, it’s either elementary school or junior-high school, if you go to Tsukuba, its junior-high school and high school, and 99% of my classmates became high school teachers.
Angles Editors: And you’re the only one that became a college professor?
Professor Oshio: Only a few did, do you want to know why? I enjoyed my college life so much, I woke up around the late afternoon, and I went to extra-curricular activities, and I enjoyed my life. My original plan to become a high school teacher didn’t exactly come true. I didn’t have enough credit. I went to a teacher training program like a kyouikujishu and I still remember that experience. That was Tsukuba-fuzoku, everybody wanted to go to Todai, they were brilliant students and I didn’t know anything about the English grammar that they needed. I wasn’t able to teach anything that they wanted to learn, so instead, I sang, danced, you know and had fun. They enjoyed it, but the teacher responsible for overseeing me, was so mad: “This was not English learning class, its entertainment”, it’ has to be edu-tainment instead of entertainment. The last day he asked me: “Oshio-san, you’re such a good person, I know it, but may I ask you one thing? Please don’t be English teacher, period.” Then I gave up on becoming English teacher in Japanese high school, that was the end of my life. Well, it wasn’t the end of my life, but yes, life number one, chapter one ended there.
Angles Editors: And instead you became US history professor.
Professor Oshio: That’s a long story. I was writing my graduation thesis and then my professor said: “How’s everything going?” I said, “Fantastic, but I just want to make a final try, I wonder if I can repeat my last year in college so that I may be able to collect some credit and become a high school teacher.” He said: “Well, it’s possible if you come to our masters’ program, you can take any other undergraduate classes for free.” I decided to join the graduate program. Without thinking anything about the outcome of graduate school life; which was very different from undergraduate life, just, academic, academic, academic and I didn’t expect it because it was such a fun four years, and I didn’t prepare for any form of academic rigor so to speak. I was shocked, I wanted to escape, but the good thing was that I belonged to the Area-Studies program so all my classmates were going either Europe, the United States, anywhere, Africa you name it. I said: “Can I go too?” and my advisor said: “Of course! As long as you get a scholarship.” I applied, got it, and I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I met my wife there, happily ever after! What a turn of events!
Angles Editors: Can you tell us about some of your experiences and adventures in the United States?
Professor Oshio: I went to the University of Massachusetts, and three weeks into the master’s program, one professor called me up because I just submitted the first draft of a paper to him. He called me up and told me to come to his office hours and said: “I’ll give this paper back to you” and said: “You’d better go home, what is this?” I said: “Uh, an English paper?” He said, “No, this is not English, this is not an English language paper, you’d better go home.” I couldn’t go home, I just escaped from Japan! So, I was hanging in there and the best thing was, there was a writing center, and a PhD student in the English literature program helped us. I was probably the only graduate student who struggled because I had never been taught how to write, either in my native language or in English. I didn’t know about paragraphs, topic sentences, I was 23, I didn’t know it! So how can I possibly write a paper without knowing it? You already learned it right in the English Studies Department? I never learned it, in either English or Japanese. I struggled, struggled, struggled, but I survived and then I came back to Japan, and luckily enough, one of the professors gave me a teaching position in Oberlin University, in Machida, and I started teaching English for the repeaters’ class. There were Soccer kids, American Football kids, Baseball kids, they hated English and didn’t know English, so we all struggled. I didn’t know how to teach, and they didn’t know how to learn, that was a fantastic two years. After two years of struggle, my main professor said to me: “Okay, why don’t you get the Fulbright Scholarship?” I thought, “What!? The Fulbright scholarship? Well, that’s top-notch” and I couldn’t believe it. He said: “I’ll write you a letter of recommendation and that’ll work” and he did and then I got the Fulbright Scholarship to go to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I still remember,1992, June 14th, my graduation photo. That was my happy ending to graduate school, and then I came back to Japan and I started teaching at Japan’s Woman University, English Department. That was how I became a college professor.
Angles Editors: What led you to teach US history?
Professor Oshio: That’s an interesting question. My dad, my mom, my uncle and aunt are all professors in university teaching European studies and I disliked Europe. Well I went to Germany but when I came back I had to reject Germany, I had to get rid of the German-ness from me. Germany, and Europe became my internal enemy so to speak. I had to overcome Europe. Where to look? Maybe the “New World”? That’s how I landed in the “New World.” I played American football in high school and that may have something to do with it. 1976 was the bicentennial of the American Revolution so the US government spent a huge amount of money promoting anything American in Japan: Rock music, sports like basketball, baseball, American football, so we were sort of the, part of the propaganda program and we got a lot of influence from the US government.
Angles Editors: How did you feel about the US when you first landed there?
Professor Oshio: I went to the US very briefly to Massachusetts when I was a high school kid, just an excursion to Boston, and actually to Cape Cod, and I stayed there for three weeks, and my friend took me to Plymouth Rock. It’s a rock, preserved in a Greek shrine type of structure, a small rock enshrined, near a town called Plymouth where pilgrims landed in 1620, and I thought: “What is this rock?” “Plymouth Rock,” “What kind of rock is it?” “Just the first rock that Europeans put their foot on,” “oh that’s fantastic, but why did you put this in a Greek structure?” “We think its historically significant.” I think that was my first encounter with US history: 17th century, white-oriented, male-oriented, Christian history, but that seemed false. My friends in the US had different experiences. I had friends who were Puerto Ricans and a friend who grew up in public housing in New York and those were my friends in Massachusetts when I stayed there for three weeks, and their stories of US history were very different. Puerto Ricans remembered when Americans came over to their island and took over, and they couldn’t become the 51st state, so they’re in limbo, and those who lived in New York public housing told me how they were trashed by American society. I thought the US had a lot of sad stories, and then I encountered Plymouth Rock and I thought: “Something’s wrong here”. Maybe that has something to do with my interest in US history too. At that time, I wasn’t really interested in US history per se, but American society attracted my attention.
Angles Editors: I see, so the conflicting views of a certain part of history got you intrigued about US history. That’s very interesting, actually, I remember you talking about going to the American south [in your history class] as well, how was that experience?
Professor Oshio: I didn’t live there, my close friend from Gardena California, lived there for six years in Jackson, Mississippi. When I was a graduate student in Massachusetts they invited me over for New Year’s Eve. One interesting thing about my experience in the American south, particularly the deep south was my discovery that there were many Japanese brides, particularly war brides, living there. They married with American servicemen during the Vietnam War and they went back to their home states in the South. Many of the southern youths in 1960s couldn’t get jobs, and probably the only secure and high paying jobs were in the military, so they were recruited by the military, the US Army and went to Vietnam, and then some got married with Japanese and Vietnamese and Asian women, and went back to Mississippi, Alabama, those states, and I met them, and their understanding of American society was completely different. A completely two-tiered society, rich and poor, mostly poor, and even the rich people who lived in mansions didn’t seem to be very wealthy, they held onto the legacy of 19th-century slavery, Jim Crow and what not, but economically speaking, not that rich. The entire society was so different from the north and west, so bright and forward-looking, development oriented, but there, the time didn’t really move, the clock stopped in the late 19th century so to speak.
Angles Editors: As a researcher, and as a researcher of US history, what’s the next goal of your research?
Professor Oshio: Two years ago, I finished writing my second book on North American environmental history. My next project is to enter a little more of a specific field of water resource management which was my original research project back in California, and I will try to write another book on North American water politics.
Angles Editors: What made you interested in water politics? Because I saw your profile [on our website] and found that you wrote a research paper on water, but I couldn’t connect a history teacher to water investigation.
Professor Oshio: This picture (graduation picture of Professor Oshio and his wife in a field of trees in California) is deceiving you, but it’s a desert, artificially watered about 500 km away from the Colorado River. They take the water away from Colorado, therefore the Mexicans do not have enough water to plant their crops. That’s the water distance that makes the California greenery bloom. And an interesting thing is that when I was there in 1988, it was the second year of a historic drought and then the University of California was giving away lots of money to engineers, lawyers, economists to think about this crisis. They never had that crisis before, it’s totally a drought, not a drop of rain for five years, and there were no historians looking back on the past, and I said: “I’ll have it!” I needed money, I was a poor grad student, and tons of money came in! “Thank you very much! I became rich!” Hahaha, well I didn’t become rich, but I became intellectually rich, but that’s how I started to become interested in water.
Angles Editors: If you look into California, drought issue is a big thing.
Professor Oshio: Yes, there’ are wildfires going around now, Bel-Air, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura County, not yet in Orange County.
Angles Editors: It may include politics as well and also economics because without the water you won’t be able to make crops, and then you can’t make certain items. For instance, I remember that pecans were a big issue.
Professor Oshio: Yes, it was! And also, Los Angeles has wealth and power to take the agricultural water away, and those farmers are angry because they have been feeding the world while those Los Angeles people are watering their lawn?! “Please give me a break, we have been farming for hundreds of years.” Well not for hundreds of years, but a hundred and fifty years, they were here for only half a century. So, city, farm, battle, north-south, the north has a lot of water sources, lakes and rivers, but not the south. So north-south, Owens Valley vs Los Angeles, Imperial Valley vs Los Angeles, those battles are rooted in politics.
Angles Editors: I’ll be looking forward to reading the book once it’s done.
Professor Oshio: Thank you very much, so that’s my next project.
Angles Editors: What are one or two texts or articles you would recommend to students interested in learning more about your specialty?
Professor Oshio: I would say George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, first published in 1864.
Angles Editors: I’m curious about, what is your ultimate goal in your field?
Professor Oshio: I think as a teacher, I was a failed English language teacher, but I hope I’m okay as a history teacher. History is a story basically, the parts of the story are connected by cause and effect, and I hope that the students’ understanding and my understanding evolve over time, meaning that change over time, history is not fixed, how you connect the dots as cause and effect changes the storyline and I hope that if I could spread the news that history is not boring, but history sort of helps you nourish your intellectual capability to connect different dots as cause and effect, your life will be much richer. For instance, if you have a really bad day, you might connect the cause to a very bad thing, but that’s not the only story that you could tell or you should tell, because there are lots of other causes that might have resulted in this tragedy. But this tragedy could be a cause for positive change in the future, so I mean to investigate the complexity of cause and effect in historical changes. I hope I can sort of share these stories. I don’t “teach” you, or I’m not in the sort of privileged place where I could teach you the truth. We together can think about truth, and try to enrich our understanding of those tough times. That’s my goal if you will.
Angles Editors: To help students have a better perspective on their life?
Professor Oshio: Their own life, individual life, personal life, as well as social life, and the planetary life. Yes, not all perspectives are negative, but not all are positive. We should strive, we should not stop thinking.
Angles Editors: Any words of encouragement or message for Sophia students or students looking to enter the university?
Professor Oshio: I would say, since English is a tool for communication, do enjoy exchanging ideas with others in English.
Professor Oshio teaches Introduction to the History of the USA, English Composition, Reading Skills, and a seminar in North American Studies. To learn more about his ideas, please take his courses, read his book on American Environmental History, and visit his personal website here.