Department of History
History of Japan I
(HIST 124-01)
Guidelines for term papers:  Approaches and Topics
updated: 14 Sep 11



There are two purposes in assigning a paper: first, to lead you to a deeper understanding in your own mind of some particular episode (i.e., some event, conflict, or problem) in world history; and second, to develop skills in expressing that understanding, through your own words, in a succinct, lucid, and persuasive essay.

Generally, the most successful papers deal with an explicitly-defined subject and try to resolve some apparent contradiction (or, show how some real-life contradiction was not resolved), rather than attempting a comprehensive narrative history (such as "Buddhism in Japan" or "Reunification in the 16th Century"). In other words, try to focus in on some very narrowly-defined event or decision and use that to illuminate some larger issue (rather than tackling the whole larger issue itself). Exercises in "counterfactual" history (i.e., what if X had -- or had not -- happened...?) almost invariably fall flat. Also, avoid "straw-man" arguments (i.e., stating a position in an extreme or unrealistic form, solely for the purpose of demolishing it).

Your paper should be focused in a manner you have designed yourself, and you have a good deal of latitude in deciding the scope which its content will encompass.  The subjects suggested at the end of this hand-out are by no means exclusive and are meant only to provoke your imagination; each of them is stated in "topic" form and must be focused much more narrowly onto a specific problem.  Also, most of these suggestions pose "what"-type questions; having answered that question through your initial reading, you should go on to analyze the underlying "why."  The only restriction (other than your own imagination) is that your subject must take Japan as its basic focal point and must fall within the timeframe covered during the current semester (i.e., up to the collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu in 1868).

Research Approaches:

At this introductory level, I do not expect you to be doing original research.  If you can handle sources in a foreign language, so much the better, but I realize that most of you will be working mostly with English-language sources.  But don't handicap yourself any further by using only books that rely completely on English sources; instead, check the notes and bibliography of your readings to see if the author has gone back to original-language documents.  In this sense, you will be highly dependent on others to dig up data.  Likewise, your conclusions do not have to be completely original, but they should be stated in your own words.  More than likely, you will find that an author has assembled a pile of data in order to support a particular argument; you can use the same data as a basis for supporting a different argument.

Deadlines and Requirements:

(1) Due dates for all three parts of your paper assignment are indicated on your syllabus. Also, note well the section on "due dates" in the Class Protocols.

(2) Statement of Topic: This should give a tentative title for your paper and a few lines describing the problem you want to investigate, and then a list of your preliminary bibliography (in proper format). This list should make a clear distinction among:

(3) The prospectus:

(4) The completed paper should follow the guidelines for footnoting, formats, and other technical matters contained in a separate hand-out called "Stylesheet for Term Papers."

Your instructor/s is/are available for consultation, guidance, explication, and encouragement whenever you need it.  In particular, although you are not required to get your subject pre-approved before turning in your Statement of Topic, you may want to get some preliminary feed-back on the feasibility of your chosen focus.  For help in organizing your research and polishing your writing-style, you should also feel free to take advantage of the services offered by the Georgetown Writing Center in Lauinger 217-A (687-4246).

Some Suggested Areas for Research:

  1. Japan's early interactions with the Asian mainland
  2. impact of the development of agriculture
  3. initial state-building efforts
  4. significance of Kofun Period architecture
  5. introduction of Buddhism
  6. what did or did not work in adapting the "Chinese" model?
  7. who "owns" the land in the Yamato or Nara/Heian periods?
  8. what are the origins of "Japanese origins" as codified in the Nara/Heian period?
  9. development of indigenous literature
  10.  role of Buddhism in Japan's economy or politics
  11. consolidation of imperial power
  12. development of the sekkan system
  13. origins/rise/development of bushidō
  14. impact of the Mongol threat
  15. strengths or weaknesses of shogunal power
  16. changes in social relations from the imperial to shogunal periods
  17. rise of local political power during the Muromachi period
  18. sources of authority during the Warring States (Sengoku) period
  19. impacts (trade, politics, religion) of early contact with Europe
  20. sources of Tokugawa stability/instabiliity
  21. debates between "national" and "Chinese" learning
  22. political and social impact(s) of drama or poetry
  23. cultivation of an architectural æsthetic
  24. "exclusion" and "Western Learning"
  25. Japan and "Western imperialism"