Student Spotlight: Benjamin Villar
Benjamin (“Ben”) Villar, M.A. '21, is pursing his master’s degree at the Center for East Asian Studies. Prior to coming to Stanford, Ben studied Japan’s colonial era and the occupation of Korea. Ben’s research interests have gone through some changes since receiving his undergraduate degree. At CEAS, Ben is researching Japanese horror manga with a special focus on the ethics and morality showcased in horror manga author Ito Junji’s work. But despite this shift in focus, Ben says that “I still share just as much interest in Korea as I did before and Korea is my main language of study right now while I'm doing the second year of CEAS.”
In the fall of 2019, Ben participated in the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies (IUC), a program in Yokohama, Japan, that provides an intensive 10-month training in advanced Japanese. Ben was keen to study abroad and has had an interest in studying abroad since he was an undergraduate; as an undergraduate he spent several semesters studying at different Japanese universities. “I definitely believe that the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in the language and the best way to do that is to go to the country [where it is spoken],” Ben explains. He also believes that if you really want to understand what’s happening in a country, you need a solid language foundation. He looked for opportunities to improve his Japanese language skills and was encouraged to apply for the IUC program by Professor Indra Levy. After applying, he received the Nippon Foundation Fellowship, a full tuition scholarship and modest living stipend that enabled him to attend the 10-Month Fellowship Program.
At the IUC, Ben was able to review and consolidate his language skills through grammar and literature courses. For his final project, Ben did a case study analysis of a short story by Ito Junji called “A City of Gravestones.” What drew Ben to Ito’s work is that despite Ito’s renown as a manga artist, there is not yet a lot of research on his work in either English or Japanese. Ben was struck by Ito’s moral narrative style. “You could see the morality of the author playing out in what happened to the characters.” Ben comments. “There's this concept in Japanese called ‘kanzen chouaku’ ( 勧善懲悪) and it's the idea that good deeds will be rewarded and bad deeds will be punished. [In his stories] when someone does something terrible, they don't get off scot free, they don't really get away with it. There's still an aspect of [the situation] coming back around to them, so I think that's really interesting. There are not a lot of stories where there are happy endings.”
Ben is also interested in how the horror genre allows readers to explore other social taboos. “One of the things that I like the most about [Ito’s] work, it’s how horror as a medium is specifically suited to illustrating this play of morality, because he also incorporates a lot of social criticisms and things that are more taboo in Japan, like suicide or things that you can't really freely talk about,” Ben notes. “And I think horror as a medium is so useful because it is essentially priming the reader to be uncomfortable, to be in a position where the reader is already looking at something transgressive by nature, so that, in turn, dilutes the transgressiveness of other taboos in society and makes them more palatable.”
Ben’s year in Japan was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. He left Japan in late March, right as the pandemic was starting to pick up. At the time in Japan, cases were increasing very slowly. The most visible sign of the gravity of the pandemic was the cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, which had a number of COVID-19 cases and was parked in the Yokohama harbor. When the IUC made the decision to switch to online courses, Ben decided to go home and continue his studies from the US.
Now in his final year at CEAS, Ben is reflecting on some of his favorite memories from the CEAS program. Before the pandemic, Ben liked spending time between classes studying or socializing with friends at the CEAS lounge in the Knight Building. “My friends and I would always be in the CEAS lounge and talk, do our homework, share food, do all of these things and it was just such a nice sense of community and togetherness that always holds a special place in my heart. It was always the space where we could gather and where I met new people and fostered really strong friendships moving forward.”