Falling in Love with All Things Japanese

Teaching Japanese history is a second career for Simon Partner

Simon Partner, center, on a field trip to Duke Forest with students from Alspaugh Domitory, where he lives as faculty-in-residence. Photo courtesy of Simon Partner.
Simon Partner, center, on a field trip to Duke Forest with students from Alspaugh Domitory, where he lives as faculty-in-residence. Photo courtesy of Simon Partner.

Name: Simon PartnerPosition at Duke: Professor of HistoryYears at Duke: 14

What I do at Duke: I teach about the history and literature of Japan. When I married my wife, who is Japanese, I realized that although I had a degree from Cambridge University in literature, I had never studied Japanese writings. I started studying the language and literature and history of Japan and fell in love with it.

Where I live: For the last three years I have been faculty-in-residence at Alspaugh Dormitory on East Campus.

My first ever job: As soon as I graduated from Cambridge, I was hired by a British bank and sent to Calcutta, India.

The best advice I ever received: The head of a company I worked for told me that when looking for a place to work, I should keep looking until I found myself in a situation where I could not stand not to be with the people I was with, doing the thing I was doing.

When I'm not at work I like to: Visit my wife, who has lived and worked in New York for the past few years. We love to concert and museum hop together. When I'm here in Durham, I spend a lot of time involved with the local Quaker meeting, particularly around issues of social justice.

A book I've recently read: I am a fanatical fiction reader and teach a class on historical fiction in which we read a different novel every week. Aside from required reading, I recently compulsively read "Double Crossed" by Ben McIntyre, about double agents in Britain.

To start a conversation with me, someone should ask about: Japanese history and culture, particularly the misconceptions and stereotypes that abound. Westerners tend to focus on what is different about Japan, whether it is the food or the stereotypes of samurais and geishas. I have come to realize that the basic desires and approach to life of the Japanese are much the same as everywhere else, even though their institutions have developed differently.

If I could have one superpower, it would be: The ability to make conflicts go away - big and small.

Something unique in my office: I have a small statue of Prince Shotoku, a 7th century ruler of Japan. It was given to me by a Buddhist priest when I first visited Japan 25 years ago. I learned later that Prince Shotoku helped introduce Buddhism to Japan and is worshiped by many Japanese. I've kept him all these years because he represents the enigma of Japanese religious practice for me - the question of how the religious worship of a historical figure relates to the wider culture.

What I've learned as a faculty-in-residence: Alspaugh is a pre-med dorm, but I am constantly astounded by the students' passion for music, literature, history and human rights. They don't want to be bounded by labels like "doctor" or "scientist." They love being able to pursue the whole range of their interests and passions here at Duke.