Bodies and Structures: Deep Mapping East Asian History

My humble website has been painfully neglected for more moons than I care to count. As with so many other early career academics, I initially built the site as a way to build my online presence (my “brand” *gag*, as they say) as I fumbled around the academic job market. For any graduate students or job applicants who are considering creating their own websites, I think it was helpful. I was able to share things I was doing that might not have translated as clearly or personably in typical job application material.

I’m now happily working at California State University, Monterey Bay. As I settle into my new university, a young public institution that sprouts out of the militarized ruins of the shuttered Fort Ord, I’m excited to expand my teaching into Japanese studies more broadly. I’m also thinking about how my website should evolve. There are quite a few scholars who have modeled how to make their interesting websites relevant and fun for people beyond potential employers. I hope to follow their leads.

To that end, I wanted to share a quick post about an exciting project that I’ve been collaborating with since 2017. My involvement began with a workshop at UC Santa Barbara that year, and has continuing through the implementation of the first phase of Bodies and Structures: Deep Mapping East Asian Historyan ongoing digital collaboration between historians working within multiple spacial and temporal frameworks. My contribution is centered on the Gail Project photos from The Okinawa Memories Initiative. Below, please see the H-Net announcement for the project. You’ll see links to the individual modules, along with ways in which people can propose their own. I really recommend that people read project co-directors Kate McDonald’s (UC Santa Barbara) and David Ambaras’ (North Carolina State University) overview essay of the project, which is a lucid synopsis of the field of critical geography and an important avenue into understanding spatial methodologies. Cheers to Kate and David for inviting me to participate!

Screengrab from my module for Bodies and Structures: Deep Mapping East Asian History.
Screengrab from the Tag Map, one of four possible “entry points” for the project.
Screengrab from the geotagged map, showing some of the places referenced in the various overlapping modules.

Official Announcement

We are pleased to announce the release of Bodies and Structures: Deep-mapping Modern East Asian History 1.0( Bodies and Structures is a platform for researching and teaching spatial histories of East Asia and the larger worlds of which they were a part. Built using the open-source platform Scalar, the site combines individually-authored, media-rich content modules with conceptual maps and visualizations, which reveal thematic, historical, and geographic connections between the modules. Each module is based around a translated primary source or sources. These translations are also included in the site.

Bodies and Structures 1.0 focuses on early to mid-twentieth century Japan and East Asia shaped by Japanese imperialism. The modules tell spatial stories about:

  • colonial political activists;
  • interethnic intimacies and regional migration;
  • department stores and empire;
  • the transformative potential of the modern drugstore;
  • Chinese settlement on the Mongolian frontier;
  • the firebombing of Tokyo; and,
  • the photographic eye of an American army dentist in occupied Okinawa.

We invite you and your students to use these modules and their interconnections to analyze how boundary-making and mobility inform each other; how spatially-constituted ideas of progress or difference have taken shape in different locales; and how events and actors construct and reconstruct places and their meanings within shifting imperial contexts. Above all, we invite you to explore, get lost, and find your own pathways through the materials.

Modules and Contributors

“What We’re Doing (Overview Essay)” (David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald)

“Border Controls, Migrant Networks, and People out of Place between Japan and China” (David R. Ambaras)

“Mitsukoshi: Consuming Places” (Noriko Aso)

“Place Annihilation” (David Fedman)

“Cai Peihuo’s Inner Territory” (Kate McDonald)

“The Okinawa Memories Initiative” (Dustin Wright)

“Xing An: A Contested Borderland” (Shellen X. Wu)

“The Drugstore as Contact Zone” (Timothy Yang)

Useful Guides

How to Use This Site

Guide to Using Bodies and Structures for Student Research Projects

Sample Visualizations

Going Forward

We are now working on Bodies and Structures 2.0. This version will expand the geo-historical scope to introduce materials from late-Qing and Republican-era China, Vietnam, and Korea, as well as additional materials on Japan and its maritime frontiers, and incorporate new tools for analyzing the site’s materials. Look for more information in Summer 2019.

Follow Bodies and Structures on social media

Twitter: @bodiesandstruct


We Want to Hear from You

Please share your feedback with us at

Or get in touch with us to propose a module!

Fall Update (see you soon, Tokyo)

I’ve always heard that fall is the season for New England and, so far, I haven’t been disappointed. My stint at Connecticut College has given me the opportunity to take full advantage of this beautiful southeastern corner of the state. For this west coast transplant, I’m partly relishing the crisp days and partly feeling guilty as California blisters from historic heat and deadly wildfires.

A late October storm sweeps in from the Long Island Sound and looms over New London.

The shorter days and cooler nights have helped me feel a bit more academically productive (props to Japanese Breakfast’s dreamy new album, which has helped to breathe life into otherwise quiet nights of writing and course prep).

I have an article on the Sunagawa Struggle in the forthcoming special edition of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture. Friend and fellow modern Japan historian, Chelsea Szendi Schieder of Meiji University, pulled together this special issue, which focuses on collaborative social movements between Japan and the U.S. (“other transpacific alliances”). Here’s the abstract to my piece:

The Sunagawa Struggle, a massive anti-US base protest in the suburbs of western Tokyo, had lasting impacts not only on the US–Japan security alliance, but also on the people who participated on both sides of the protest lines. This article traces the lives of two people who were profoundly changed by their experiences of the anti-base movement in Japan: Dennis Banks, a young airman who was tasked with guarding the base and would later help found the American Indian Movement; and Sunagawa protestor Shimada Seisaku, who spent a career as a Tachikawa city councilperson and remained committed to anti-base activism.

If you’d like to read it but don’t have institutional access, shoot me a note and I can share the article with you.

I’m also excited to be heading to the Association for Asian Studies annual conference in Washington DC next March, where I’ll be participating in a neat digital humanities-driven panel entitled, “Bodies and Structures: Deep-Mapping the Spaces of Japanese History”.

Finally, I’ll be in Tokyo for a few weeks over December and January, making use of the National Diet Library and (let’s be honest) eating more than I probably should. When I was in Japan last winter, I brought along an old Olympus 35ED film camera, pulled from the depths of the storage chest in which it was abandoned during the violence of the digital revolution. I bought it in 2003 at a small photography store in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, where I was teaching English after college. Even then, the 1970s camera felt like a relic (check out this link to read from someone who actually knows about the camera itself), but it proved to be surprisingly durable. It was completely waterlogged after a rainy backpacking trip across the nearby Yatsugatake mountain range (八ヶ岳連峰). I was certain it’d given up the ghost; the lens was fogged and rainwater pooled in the film compartment. Through no effort of my own but the installation of a new battery, it came to life, rust-free and unperturbed by my poor stewardship (the camera’s proof of life are the photos below).

See you this winter, Tokyo. I’ll try to remember the camera again.

The entrance to Meiji Shrine (明治神宮).

Empty handles in empty trains.

Rikkyō University (立教大学), home of the wonderful Rikkyō University Research Center for Cooperative Civil Studies, where I did much of my dissertation research.

A strolling couple admires a street performer in Yokohama’s Minato Mirai.



As I write this, members of the Gail Project are wrapping up a two-week trip to Okinawa. I, however, am in New London, where I’ve just taken up a post as Visiting Assistant Professor in Japanese History at Connecticut College. While this means that I’m lucky to join a vibrant academic community and meet a whole new crew of eager students, it also means that my new schedule didn’t allow me to go to Okinawa with the Gail Project. I’ll admit that it’s been bittersweet to keep up with their travels from afar, but they’ve been doing a great job documenting their trip for those of us left behind. Alan Christy and the other directors of the project have mapped out what looks like a busy (ok, exhausting) schedule. I invite you to check out some of the Gail Project’s social media accounts to see just they’ve been doing. And don’t forget the all new Gail website!

Gail on Twitter

Gail on Tumblr

Gail on Facebook

Gail on Instagram

Giving Day for The Gail Project

UCSC’s Giving Day is here again. The support we receive today is so important in helping our students to engage with Okinawan history and develop skills that they can take with them beyond the archives. We remain grateful those who have supported our students as they coordinate our photo exhibit, digitize our archive of U.S. military documents, and finalize our new website. As we continue these projects, our ability to fund our student-researchers remains central to The Gail Project‘s mission of helping students with a keen interest in Okinawa to “get their hands dirty” with the real work of historical preservation and presentation.

This is a busy year for us. We are organizing the opening exhibition of the Gail photos, which will take place at UCSC’s Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery this fall, along with an intense study-research trip this summer in Okinawa, where our students will finally get to experience the place they have spent so much time researching. Finally, our interactive website goes live and soon people from around the world will be able to share their own experiences of Okinawa through their interactions with the photos.

I think Ira Glass could do it better, but I’ll say that we remain very grateful to our supporters! Today, March 8, please take a moment to donate to The Gail Project. A generous donor has agreed to match our donations 1:1 up to $2,500. And check out the promo video our students made!

Upcoming Workshop @ UC Berkeley: “New Topics, Technologies and New Times: Japan Ahead”

I was very recently invited to participate in an upcoming workshop organized by UC Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies. Entitled “New Topics, Technologies and New Times: Japan Ahead,” the workshop is sponsored by both CJS and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. By working through the example of the comfort women issue (慰安婦問題, ianfu mondai), I’ll be speaking on a language-themed panel about how historians grapple with controversial historical-political debates in the classroom. This interdisciplinary workshop takes place February 24-25 and is free and open to the public!

Teaching “Food Empires of Asia and the Pacific”

This winter quarter, one of the classes I am teaching is an upper-division history course called “Food Empires of Asia and the Pacific.” I designed the course to draw from a wide temporality, covering everything from the Spice Route, to the coming of tobacco and chillies to China, to the spread of canned Spam across the Pacific, to the sushi boom in the U.S., to the invention of “ethnic” cuisine. In some ways, the course can feel like other world history courses that build their historical frameworks (colonialism, migration, capitalism, etc) around commodities like sugar, salt, cotton, etc. With our particular attention on overlapping empires as a means to understanding Pacific history, however, the course feels refreshingly new. While I was aided by colleagues near and far in thinking about the course design, it became clear to me that food history is often taught as a corollary to the European colonization of the New World. When it comes to Asia and the Pacific, much of the important work on food seems to have thus far been accomplished by scholars and non-scholars outside of the field of history (for which I’m grateful and much of this material made its way into my course reader).

Because food is inherently social (whether in its production or consumption), I decided to construct the course assignments into interactive projects rather than research papers. The final project asks students to use ArcGIS Story Map to present the trans-Pacific history of a commodity, a dish, or a restaurant. This platform allows for the presentation of narrative, multi-layered mapping, as well as audio and visual files. Students can, for example, visit a local restaurant, interview the owner/cook, and create a project that puts their material into historical perspective. Though students are responsible for a significant amount of reading (accompanied by weekly reading responses and one-time presentation of a reading in class), the bulk of course evaluation comes from the implementation of their project.

“Food Empires” is a reflection of two of my recent interests and projects. First, this class is an addendum to a senior capstone I designed and taught last year, “U.S. Bases and Social Movements in Asia,” which drew from interdisciplinary material to illustrate the environmental, social, and political histories of communities that host U.S. bases in the region. The other force behind the food class is what I hope will be my book second project, the history of Spam (the canned meat) around the Pacific.

Though I put together a fairly beefy (pardon the pun) course reader, I also assigned the entirety of George Solt’s excellent and accessible The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze (UC Press, 2014). On top of the digital projects, we are also compiling a digital bibliography of food history sources and a collaborate recipe book of dishes that we discover through our research. As much as possible, I hope to make the products of our research available to anyone who may interested.

In the hopes of fostering collaboration, I’m sharing the syllabi for both of these courses and would be very interested to hear how other educators have approached food and empire in their own classrooms. I’ll have a lot more to say about the class and hope to share some of the student projects once we finish in late-March (gulp)!

Dustin Wright_Syllabus_HIS 106C Food Empires of Asia and the Pacific

Dustin Wright; Syllabus; US Military Bases and Social Movements in Asia


Assigned readings included George Solt’s work on ramen and a comprehensive course reader.

Digital Exhibit Building Symposium at UCSC

Next Wednesday, the Digital Commons at UCSC’s McHenry Library will be hosting the Digital Exhibit Building Symposium, which is shaping up to be a very engaging day of folks sharing their own visions of the digital humanities and the latest tools of the field. I’m a participant on the panel “Why Build Digital Exhibits,” in which I’ll be discussing The Gail Project, the digital project and exhibition that I co-direct. If you have the opportunity to attend, it’s recommended that you sign-up on the waiting list. Be sure to check out the great workshops on Scalar, Omeka, and the lifecycle of a digital project!

My Take on Obama’s Trip to Hiroshima

President Obama’s trip to Hiroshima today has immense historical significance for both Japan and the US. I have a piece in Thursday’s The Japan Times explaining why I think this could be an important opportunity for historians to open up new debates on the atomic attacks. Check it out!

As a follow-up to my article, I was thrilled to be interviewed yesterday by the excellent Sonali Kolhatkar on her show, Rising Up With Sonali. It was such an honor to appear on her show, which doesn’t shy away from the difficult topics. The show aired this morning and can now be streamed online (or below).

Giving Day for The Gail Project

While teaching at UCSC, I am also the co-advisor for The Gail Project, a collaborative public and digital history project that focuses on postwar Okinawa and is specifically centered on the beautiful photographs taken by an American serviceman in the early years of the U.S. occupation. The project is a lot of things: a space for students to collaborate with faculty and conduct hands-on research; the opportunity to gain project development experience; a history-based project that takes students from the classroom at UCSC to the archives and communities of Okinawa.

May 11th is Giving Day at UCSC and The Gail Project was among the projects selected by the university to compete for donor funding. We are reaching out to all of our supporters, asking for any amount they can contribute: $1? $10? $1000? A generous individual has agreed to contribute $5000 in matching funds, so any contribution you make will go even further. As part of Giving Day, the project that receives the most donors (not dollars) will receive an additional $10,000, which means that even the smallest contribution from our supporters can help us win. Please go this website to help us meet this goal and thank you very much for your support! 

Check out the video below for an introduction to the exciting work that we are doing: