Carnegie Mellon University
August 29, 2023

Faculty Spotlight: Chris Lowy

By KellyAnn Tsai

Chris Lowy, assistant professor of Japanese studies, comes to Carnegie Mellon University with two major research projects. His first project aims to bridge the gap between Japanese linguistics and literature by focusing on the role of written language in Japanese fiction. His research explores the many ways writers and authors use written Japanese for literary expression. His second project surveys and examines the depiction of HIV and AIDS in Japanese literature and culture from the early years of the AIDS crisis. 

Tell me about your research.

One area of my research is the use of script in Japanese literature. Written Japanese consists of a minimum of three different character sets: there are two phonetic ones, hiragana and katakana, and a set of characters from China (sinographs, or kanji). The relatively loose mixing of these three sets makes for a dynamic literary space. Certainly, there are norms associated with what we call “standard” Japanese, but there's so much room for flexibility that exceptions can easily outnumber the rules. 

The minute you give anyone who's even remotely creative that freedom, they will mobilize this in a variety of ways. You can see it in poetry, you can see it in advertising, you can even see it in literature from minority communities in Japan. There's no one single way that script is used; it's an entire space of expression. I’ve developed a theoretical and analytical model that helps us understand how written language functions in any text written in Japanese, thereby allowing us to consider what it means in a given context.

My second area of research looks at depictions of HIV and AIDS in Japanese literature and culture from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. There's almost no research on this topic in English or Japanese, in part because the number of people affected by HIV/AIDS in Japan was significantly lower than it was in the rest of the world.

In my research, I'm interested in excavating some of this Japanese HIV/AIDS literature, which belongs to a larger global genre we generally call AIDS literature. Now, a lot of my time is spent rethinking about texts from that time, going through contemporary journals, and trying to cobble larger narratives together.

You have a background in Japanese to English translation. How do you approach translation between languages with different writing systems?

I'm a very firm believer nothing is untranslatable — but that's only in reference to language. When we're talking about writing systems, some are different from others, and we can’t assume there is a one-to-one transferability between two different systems. The complete set of characteristics of a given writing system is what I refer to as an “architecture.”

In the case of Japanese, the variability that I explore in my research — the use of hiragana, katakana, sinographs, etc. — is commonplace. It's impossible to reproduce this variability in Roman script in a way that actively mirrors the effect that you get in Japanese. The architecture of the Roman alphabet is very different from the architecture in Japanese, so to assume that you can take one “building” and put it into another is misguided. It's just a different experience. We can try to mirror those effects, but it's always with an asterisk.

How does your work add to the greater field?

My work on Japanese writing helps us understand writing systems better. There's a lot of misinformation about how the Japanese writing system works, so diving deep into the applications of this system is an important process. By establishing this analytical toolkit and providing examples of how we can apply it, my research helps give critics the ability to talk about script in ways they may not have felt comfortable doing before. 

Writing systems are generally viewed as the purview of linguistics, which doesn’t necessarily extend into literary representations of language. There's a sort of barrier that keeps the two from talking. Hopefully, my work can help bridge that gap. You can read more about my work in an ongoing essay series I’m co-authoring with Professor Konno Shinji, Japan’s leading scholar of the Japanese writing system. (My contributions, written in English, appear below his Japanese text.) 

This work also has implications for the question of technology and the humanities. For example, I am organizing the Unicode and the Humanities conference with Raja Adal, my colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, which considers the impact of Unicode — a standards body whose goal is to digitally encode and represent text in all of the world's writing systems — on the humanities and the many struggles they incur. 

As for my research on Japanese HIV/AIDS literature, the topic is largely unstudied and thus requires fundamental research to be conducted. Today there is very effective medicine for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, but this also means that the AIDS crisis is rapidly disappearing from our collective memory. While there is information available about the history of AIDS in Japan, there's almost no information about its treatment in Japanese literature and culture save for smatterings here and there. There's no real comprehensive study on the topic, so this is something I’d like to do while I have the opportunity to speak with people who lived through the crisis and are willing to share their experiences with me.

What are you most excited to accomplish as faculty at CMU?

Something that I've been incredibly excited about, and have already benefited from, is the unbelievably collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of CMU. This collaboration happens with my colleagues in the Department of Modern Languages as well as with colleagues in other departments, including those interested in using data visualization to examine script and language. For example, how can big data analysis help us understand trends in the visual representation of language? In addition, my research interest in Japanese HIV/AIDS literature has been warmly welcomed in the community, so I'm excited to see where those seeds for collaboration go. 

What have you enjoyed the most in your first year at CMU?

The students here have been amazing. It’s rare to be able to teach in front of a student body that is so enthusiastic and so engaged. I'm so very grateful for that. It's really a joy.

In fall 2023, Lowy will be teaching 82-275 “Queer Representations in Contemporary Literature and Culture from Japan” and 82-279 “Anime - Visual Interplay between Japan and the World.”