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Spotlight on Scholars lecture resurrects pre-modern Japan

Although many people are able to recognize the names of a few greats of contemporary history — Queen Elizabeth, Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible — the name Tokugawa Ieyasu generally does not ring a bell.

Morgan Pitelka, associate professor of Asian Studies and director of the Carolina Asia Center, is doing what he can to remedy that notion.

Pitelka gave a lecture on Tuesday about Ieyasu at Flyleaf Books as part of the UNC Program in the Humanities’ “Spotlight on Scholars” series, a subset of the Program in the Humanities organization that focuses on scholars doing interesting work.

Ieyasu founded the the Tokugawa Shogunate, the government that ruled Japan from 1603 until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Pitelka said he wasn’t interested in a biographical approach, but instead wanted to look at Ieyasu in terms of his social context.

“I’m especially interested in material culture — the history of things — and therefore focused on practices like the tea ceremony, gift giving, collecting, display, and the tools of warfare in my research.”

Interim director of the UNC Program in the Humanities in Action, Max Owre, said the “Spotlight on Scholars” series does not differ much from the other Program in the Humanities, Humanities in Action, which Flyleaf also hosts.

Humanities in Action, however, focuses on applying concepts learned in humanities departments to real-world settings, he said.

“‘Spotlight on Scholars’ deals with issues that don’t have a lot of coverage. It’s really an opportunity to expose people to information that they might not come across in their general approach on daily life,” Owre said. “[Tokugawa Ieyasu] is certainly a topic that you’re not going to come across.

“This particular series (Spotlight on Scholars) is very eclectic, and we look around for people doing on interesting works.”

Pitelka said that he was asked by Owre to give a presentation on Ieyasu because of his extensive research.

Two years ago, Pitelka spent time at the National Humanities Center at Research Triangle Park, where he wrote a manuscript for “Art, Agency, and Networks in the Career of Tokugawa Ieyasu,” a book on which he based this lecture.

Pitelka — the son of a potter and a historian — said that he’s always been interested in art history.

He said his love for Japanese culture is deeper than a mere interest, though. Pitelka is hoping to inspire a larger group of people.

“I think that our culture tends to belittle the value of the arts and to privilege other fields of human activity — economics, politics, science — as ‘real’ history,” he said.

“But in the case of 16th and 17th century Japan, it is quite clear that the arts were part of the political sphere, and played a vital role in the civil wars and reunification for which this age is quite well known.”

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