Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
June 3, 2003
DeKalb, Ill.-NIU History Professor E. Taylor Atkins has won a major award for his book on the history of a uniquely American art form as it developed and took hold in an unlikely setting: Japan.
"Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan" won the annual John Whitney Hall Book Prize for best book on Japan or Korea. The Association for Asian Studies Northeast Asia Council presented the prize, which includes a $1,000 stipend, at its spring conference in New York.
Atkins says he wrote the book for anyone interested in jazz, music or Japan. "Blue Nippon" (Duke University Press, 2001) presents a social and cultural history of jazz in "the land of the rising sun" from the 1920s to the 1990s. Atkins devotes equal attention to the circumstances and practice of jazz at various historical junctures, including "Taisho democracy," wartime, occupation, postwar and the contemporary scene.
"The practice of jazz changed pretty dramatically, as jazz styles and historical conditions changed," Atkins says. "During World War II, for instance, there were many marginally effective campaigns to remove jazz music's most pernicious influences. Wartime policymakers actually tried to craft a new form of popular music with patriotic aspirations. They assumed that some degree of jazz influence was inescapable."
Jazz in Japan today doesn't have widespread popularity, but the music does have its devotees. "The people who do like jazz are unbelievably enthusiastic," Atkins says. "I would liken it to the interests that some Americans have in Japanese animated cartoons. There's a similar degree of enthusiasm and sort of a cultural identity that goes along with it."
Long a fan of jazz music, Atkins conducted several years of research in Japan. More than just a history, "Blue Nippon" chronicles Japan's interaction with the West over the last century. Atkins examines Japan's balancing act as it oscillated between attempts to join the elite club of modern nations and efforts to maintain a distinctive cultural identity. He argues that jazz became one arena for the struggle over how Japan could be simultaneously both Japanese and modern.
"Japan has a reputation for borrowing and adapting foreign cultures," Atkins says. "People assume this is a casual and neat process. But by using jazz as a case study, I was able to show that this process causes conflict and disagreement. Appropriating culture from foreign lands raised issues in Japan over the authenticity of the borrowed cultural form, and the integrity of national identity."
The jazz culture in Japan runs the gamut from artists who copy their American influences to those who put their own imprint on the music.
"Some Japanese jazz musicians never get beyond copying the art form, while others try to incorporate elements of traditional Japanese music," Atkins says. "Then there are others who try to create something totally new and personal."
In selecting Atkins for the John Whitney Hall Prize, the judges cited "Blue Nippon" as a powerful, well-rounded work. "The book is characterized by the pursuit of intellectual threads that themselves occasionally seem improvisational in their originality; discordant accounts and subtle insights are used in a brilliant interplay as many themes are brought together into this intelligent work of persuasive advocacy."
At NIU, Atkins teaches courses on Japanese history and popular culture, world history, modern Asia and oral history. His research addresses issues of identity raised by the international exchange of popular culture and the arts.