Student English Newspaper

“Why Should We Learn Literature? – to Learn, Teach, and Taste”

Jean Genet, French novelist. Prof. Minemura in this article specializes in French literature, especially on 20th-century French writer Jean Genet (1910-1986)

We undergraduate students are given illimitable opportunities and privileges in ways to spend our college life.  Law, economics, engineering, literature, physics, interdisciplinary fields, and so on – there are numerous academic fields to explore. To say, within all these options a person who indulges themselves in Greek philosophy is perhaps,  —a geek.

 Despite the fact we surround ourselves in an affluent and ever-enough academic environment, many of us perceive higher education as no more than a bare necessity, for the sake of receiving a social reputation or to simply “amuse” ourselves for a little time.

 Not many enter college on behalf of becoming an academic scholar or to be entitled to academic prestige. If so, we wondered, how do the university faculties feel about such attitudes? What would be their aspirations for teaching us? Why do we even study in higher education in the first place?  To find out, we interviewed Suguru Minemura, a Professor at Keio University Faculty of Letters.  Prof. Minemura specializes in French literature, especially on 20th-century French writer Jean Genet (1910-1986) and the representation of the penalty system at that time. The Professor shared with us “how” studying at university holds utter significance for us students, along with his joys in academic research and lecturing at the university.

 We ask any kind of college students to read this article, but especially prospective literature majors to redefine what significance higher education and literature research hold for them.

 *We conducted the interview in Japanese with the professor. The keyword in this interview is Bungaku (“文学” in Kanji). Literature, arts, and humanity in Japanese can be referred to as “Bungaku: “The faculty of letters” is equivalent to the faculty of arts and humanity as in Anglophonic regions.

What is “Bungaku” and what is its significance?

The definition of “Bungaku” is very vague. It covers a wide variety, including not only novels and plays but also from history to psychology. “Everything related to human linguistic activity” is literature, as Professor. Minemura says. If so, it does make sense that Keio University’s faculty of letters has a broad range of majors such as philosophy to sociology. We, humans, engage with “Bungaku” in wide ways, the same as its definition which is also very wide. We can read, make, teach, and research “Bungaku”. It continues to exist unless people stop engaging in linguistic activities. In the 2021 Naoki Prize, which is one of the biggest literary awards in Japan, a member of the committee has stated that “Bungaku’s existential value is to serve the purpose of giving people hope and joy.”  However, applying Prof. Minemura’s definition of “Bungaku (arts)”,  its significance resides respectfully in the presence itself.

 When the definition of “Bungaku” is narrowed to literature, Prof. Minemura says, “Bungaku” holds significance in two aspects: The first one is ” to know. Novels make us understand others’ lives out of our own. Prof. Minemura’s specialization, French literature, also provides new insights for readers today. He also says that when reading classic literature, it is important to understand the background of the time taking place. There is value in acquiring such knowledge itself as well.  The second significance is “to be inspired.” As in sports and other works of art, literary works can genuinely inspire readers. Prof. Minemura says that literature is not something that only has a singular value (fixed/ mono/ consolidated), but rather “a spring/ fountain/ cornucopia of value” that varies depending on the person who is reading it.

 What is the significance of literature when other various media such as film and painting also exist? To this question, Prof. Minemura answered that literature is a “time art”. (He continues to explain it) The context is something to be comprehended over time by following the letters. On the other hand, in a painting, for example, you can grasp the whole idea within the moment. (Through the method of expression in which sentences are piled up)The existence of a wide variety of media allows us to have different and varied approaches to art and its expression. In this sense, literature has no less importance than any other media.

Style of Research

 Next, we asked about his approaches to conducting his literary research. Prof. Minemura takes two ways to his research: one is to explore the social and historical background of a literary work, and the other is to analyze multiple works based on a particular subject, such as “minor news story (fait divers)” “return” and “confession”.

 Especially when reading classics, Prof.Minemura emphasizes that words have different meanings from today. we may misinterpret and misread a certain word, without taking into account the period in which it was written. Words are packages containing cultural and historical backgrounds of the past, so it has many possible meanings. A philological approach that explores the cultural and historical background allows them to regain the possibilities that it had at that period.

 Remarkably, the philological approach and an approach without consideration of such aspects do not contradict each other, the Professor explained. In other words, after going back to the historical background and exploring the possibilities of words, one can come back to the work itself to create a new interpretation. It performs a constructive cycle.

 We also wondered what are the ways for researching literature “appropriately”. Prof. Minemura noted that precise techniques are necessary for literary research, but more importantly, he emphasized comprehending deliberately. He said that he often speaks to his seminar students about a different way of engaging with literature from the way we generally read as a hobby. For example, when enjoying a novel, one usually moves on to the next quickly for their interests, but when reading a novel as research material, reading it slowly and repeatedly and analyzing the words and expressions closely, leads to discoveries that one may not have noticed. Prof. Minemura expressed it as: “By walking slowly, you can stumble upon bumps which you would not have noticed when running. Overall, Literary research involves considering the history to investigate the background of the period and its author, and to examine the author’s message in combination with what you found while reading carefully.

Characteristics of French Literature

 What are the professor’s reasons for reading and studying French literature as a Japanese person? We also came upon such a question.

 Prof. Minemura’s answer was simple: his literature of interest just happened to be in French literature. “French literature” itself was not his major concern but the individual writers were. Then, what was the reason for Prof. Minemura to specially study Jean Genet, a French writer of the 20th century?

 Genet, who lived in an orphanage, repeatedly escaped and later became a thief to survive on his own. He has since written novels and dramas and has even taken an interest in political movements, living a unique life of his own. People from different regions, periods, and cultures can gain new knowledge through reading Genets’ works. Prof. Minemura was one of them, as he said he became interested in Genet, who had lived in such a completely different world from him.

Professor as an Educator

 University professors are both researchers and educators who hold classes at universities. One of the main purposes of university education is to impart knowledge and skills for research. However, not many undergraduate students at universities have intentions of becoming academic scholars. The majority of students end up working in jobs that have little or nothing to do with research. Then, what is the value of studying literature at university for students who pursue a career that is not related to literature? What do university professors think about when they give lectures and seminars to these students? We asked Prof. Minemura for his thoughts as a university professor who comes into contact with students daily.

 The students in Prof. Minemura’s class range from those who are familiar with French literature to those who become interested in the class because it covers famous works such as “Les Misérables”. In undergraduate courses for such a diverse group of students, Prof. Minemura says he emphasizes not only acquiring knowledge and skills in literary research but also using these skills to enjoy French literature and make new “discoveries”. As mentioned earlier, literature is a holistic human activity. Having the opportunity to carefully read literature as a student is significant in itself for one’s life. Furthermore, Reading literature with the knowledge and skills of literary research will give students new perspectives and spark their enjoyment of literature.

 Specifically, Prof. Minemura says that in his classes, he is conscious of breaking down every expression in the works. As he has previously shared with us, it helps one to notice the connections between words inside a work– while reading as a hobby does not involve such in-depth reading.

 The students are to write a deep analysis of their choice of work for an undergraduate thesis as well. After they are given a go-out sign and leave the university with a degree their everyday concerns would be anything but literature research. Nonetheless, Prof. Minemura believes that the practice of examining written works thoughtfully on their own is a learning opportunity that enriches their lives. Learning such an attitude to think for oneself and to make discoveries is something that will be useful in seeing and hearing all kinds of things, even after one graduates from university. The professor aims to provide classes where students can experience the joy of making discoveries. He recalls when a graduate student of his, expressed how the memory of dedication they poured into their thesis supports them to overcome many hardships. The alumni explained that, from time to time they read the literature phrases they cited to encourage themselves.

 Overall, the experience of being somewhat incohesive with literature, as Prof. Minemura emphasizes, extends over mere convenience and pragmatism for fractional careers and employment. It cultivates a way of living for a long-enduring lifetime.


 We interviewed Professor Minemura to understand why we study in college and how  “literature (Bungaku)” is identified by literature scholars themselves. Today, in a world that seeks significance in a highly quantitative matter, the worthiness and studies of literature are frankly called upon in doubt. The sheer fact that we interviewees have come upon such a question presumably reflects such ways of thinking. Nonetheless, the discussion has markedly given us a clear-cut view to refute such a conception. The unequivocal perspective Prof. Minemura holds seems to come with much credit to the scholars’ long, steady dedication and passion for arts and literature.

Written by Kotaro Miyake, Kohei Miyauchi, Rei Watanabe, Mio Suzuki and Wakana Yamashita

*The interview was conducted in 2021

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