Government recognizes Laurel Rasplica Rodd’s work to improve understanding of Japan and enhance Japanese education in the United States
When Laurel Rasplica Rodd began studying Japanese language and culture, she was one of only about 7,000 students nationwide. Today, the United States has an estimated 200,000.
During the five decades since then, Rodd, professor emeritus of Japanese at the University of Colorado Boulder, shepherded what is now called the Asian Languages and Civilizations Department, which has grown to meet students’ steadily rising interest in Japanese language and culture.
In this and in other roles, Rodd has “contributed greatly toward promoting understanding about Japan and Japanese education in the U.S.,” the Consulate General of Japan in Denver stated.
For her efforts, the Japanese government on Friday formally awarded her an imperial decoration: The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon. Japan makes this award to recognize distinguished achievements in international relations, promotion of Japanese culture or preservation of the environment.
Other Coloradans who have won the award include the late Bill Hosokawa, a longtime editor at The Denver Post, and former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
Rodd called the award a “nice career-topping event.”
However, this career wasn’t exactly the career she had originally planned. In 1966, Rodd was in college studying French, with a minor in Russian. She was considering a career in the foreign service or perhaps academe.
In her junior year of college, she won a scholarship to spend 15 months studying Japanese language and culture at the East West Center at the University of Hawaii.
“It really just turned me in a new direction,” Rodd recalls. “I was fascinated by the language and increasingly by the culture and literature of Japan.” She went to graduate school and focused on Japanese.
The textbook used in the Japanese language classes featured a haiku inside the front cover of each volume, “and I was just particularly taken with those.” She hit the library, continued to study Japanese poetry and hasn’t stopped.
When Rodd came to CU Boulder in 1994, the university did not offer a bachelor’s degree in Japanese. Now, it has that plus a master’s and doctoral program.
“Since I’ve been here, the program in Japanese has grown dramatically,” Rodd said. She attributes the growth partly to rising worldwide interest in the culture and language of Japan.
Since the early ‘90s, “worldwide, there’s been a youth culture that focuses on Japan,” Rodd observed. Fueling that interest was anime, a style of Japanese film animation, and manga, or Japanese comics, along with Japanese pop music, or J-pop.
“Almost every year since I’ve been here, we’ve had more students than we could fit into beginning classes,” Rodd said. Since 1994, the number of Japanese majors at CU Boulder has doubled.
Students with widely varying career interests have studied Japanese language and culture at CU Boulder. Rodd said they deploy their knowledge in careers ranging from teaching to tourism to government service to business.
“I feel as though we’ve moved from being a kind of small, exotic and maybe tenuously rooted program in the United States to one that really has deep roots.”
Rodd received a BA in French from DePauw University, an MAT in teaching from East Tennessee State University as part of the Teacher Corps program, and the MA and PhD in Japanese Literature from the University of Michigan.
Since coming to CU Boulder in 1994, she has served as chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations and director of the Center for Asian Studies. Prior to coming to CU Boulder, she taught at Arizona State University and the University of Virginia.
Rodd has won the Rackham Prize, the Japan-America Friendship Commission Literary Translation Award, Alpha of Colorado Phi Beta Kappa Chapter Campus Scholar, University of Colorado Excellence in Service Award, Ronald Walton Award in Recognition of Distinguished Career Service on Behalf of the Less Commonly Taught Languages and the University of Colorado Campus Global Citizen of the Year Award.
The American Association of Teachers of Japanese is based in Boulder partly because Rodd presided over it for six years.
The year before she retired, she completed a book featuring her translation of about 2,000 poems from all periods of Japanese history up through the 12th century. The resulting two-volume set, published by Brill Press, is called Shinkokinshu: New Collection of Poems, Ancient and Modern.
Pre-modern poetry captivated Rodd’s scholarly interest through most of her career, “and I’m pleased to have been able to have shared that more widely now with an English-speaking audience.”