UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide


Terasaki Center looks to the future of Japanese studies

Terasaki Center looks to the future of Japanese studies

International collaboration and funding arise as main issues for scholars at the Annual Forum.

by Paige Holt

For its second Annual Forum on May 17, 2013, the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center brought together directors of Japanese studies programs from around the world to address the future of the field amid shifting political, demographic and financial landscapes.

Representing centers in Korea, Brazil, Mexico, the U.K., France, Australia, Massachusetts and Hawaii, the scholars discussed how best to meet the challenges currently facing the field. They touched on urgent questions of future funding, the need to improve students’ Japanese language skills, the language barriers that keep scholarship in the field canonized, and the renaissance in area studies that favors Japanese language, literature, religion and art history within a greater transnational focus. 

Noted Terasaki Center Director Hitoshi Abe, “We believe that there’s tremendous potential in relying on a network model and tapping into the international network of Japanese studies centers. I want to explore how a network model can contribute to shaping the future of Japanese studies.”

UCLA Assistant Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures Torquil Duthie, one of moderators at the forum, noted, “Depending on where research is carried out, its meaning and nature changes greatly.”

Language, hybridity and collaboration

Throughout the day, the need to improve current standards of students’ Japanese language proficiency, as well as to publish scholars’ work in additional languages, was repeatedly identified.

Colegio de Mexico’s Amaury Garcia noted that there had only been a limited advance of Japanese studies in Ibero-America, with too few scholars and serious linguistic obstacles. Not only do students arrive with insufficient Japanese language skills to conduct research with original documents, they cannot achieve this proficiency in the space of the center’s two-year Japanese studies M.A. program (which encompasses courses in the language, history, and politics of Japan; the center’s Ph.D. program concentrates on history).

Japan scholars in the Spanish-speaking world also face unique challenges, pointed out Garcia. Essentially, they must publish in English, Spanish, or both. While both Japanese and English proficiency remain essential research tools, he emphasized the importance of publishing for a Spanish-speaking audience in order to reach both specialists and the educated public.

“There are currently very few works on Japan translated into Spanish,” said Garcia, “This is perhaps one of our greater challenges, and one of the reasons that we are committed to publishing for the Spanish-speaking world.” 

Gay Satsuma of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, described the impact of Hawaii’s large Japanese and Okinawan diaspora populations on the university’s Center for Japanese Studies, which now offers a program in Okinawan studies.

The fact that most graduate students at the center have already spent a year studying Japanese in Japan, together with the university’s robust language programs, contributes to high levels of Japanese language proficiency among students.

In contrast, Director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of São Paulo Koichi Mori said that students in the center’s master degree programs generally had poor language proficiency. Brazilian youth have a growing interest in Japan, he said, but the center doesn’t cover topics of interest to them.

The biggest problem for Japan specialists at the University of São Paulo is being closed off from the greater Japanese studies community. If they publish in Japanese, students would be unable to read their work. By publishing in Portuguese, however, their work remains unknown by other specialists around the world. English is thus a necessity at the graduate level in order for students to read recent research.

Mori believed the university should offer a Ph.D. in comparative Asian studies that would include the study of several countries, including Japan, Korea and China. He also pointed to immigrant Japanese literature as another promising avenue of future research.

François Lachaud, of France’s École Practique des Hautes Études, argued that scholars should be able to conduct research in multiple foreign languages. Echoing Abe’s earlier message of internationalization, Lachaud implored that, “We must take into account the second emergence of area studies that looks beyond geographical borders,” stressing that Japanese studies cannot limit itself to the study of Japan if it hopes to remain a relevant, viable field.

For some panelists, this desire for hybridity points to a need for partnerships and alliances.   

Lachaud’s fellow panelist, Harvard University’s Ted Gilman, suggested that better teamwork across disciplines and language specialties offered another way forward. “I like the idea of hybridity, but I want to see more collaboration,” said Gilman.

Gilman’s own presentation on the cooperative efforts involved in developing Harvard’s Digital Archive of Japan's 2011 Disasters, a huge database of digitized information pertaining to the tsunami and nuclear catastrophes that befell Japan two years ago, embodies this collaborative spirit. 

Seoul National University’s Cheol Hee Park’s presentation on the extensive study of Japan in Korea drove home the message that stronger collaboration across geographic and language barriers is needed. “In Korea, there are over 14 official networks of Japanese scholars, and over 2,000 Ph.D. students working on Japan at the moment,” he explained. 

Park is working to establish a national consortium of these associations, complete with an annual conference. “We need to talk to each other first before talking to the rest of the world,” he observed. He also noted that there is an increasing opportunity to form an East Asian studies consortium that would integrate Japan studies into a larger field.

Moreover, scholars from Korea regularly teach at Japanese universities, something Lachaud noted is, “Rarely the case,” among western scholars.

These specialists publish in Korean or Japanese, which means their scholarship is also not integrated with that of the western world.  “Perhaps our biggest challenge,” reflected Park, “is how to introduce out work to English-speaking communities.”

Terasaki Center Associate Director and UCLA Professor of Japanese Language and Literature Professor Seiji Lippit agreed on the need to integrate this growing body of work into the field as a whole. “The size and quality of Japan studies in Korea in particular, and in Asia in general, “ he remarked,  “is something we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the future.” He also noted that English was becoming the de facto universal language of global Japanese studies.

The big picture: Funding, employment and the future

Two major ongoing discussions in higher education revolve around how to continue to fund the social sciences and humanities in the face of shrinking budgets, as well as how to deal with a surplus of Ph.D. students in an academy that may not be able to employ them. In France, for example, Lachaud noted that changes in tenure track rules mean that French scholars will only receive six-year, potentially renewable contracts, which may discourage serious scholars.

UCLA Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Thies suggested that corporate funding may be a solution. Noted Thies, “[Language programs] can train the next generation of international employees. . . Is there a way for [the] academic community to utilize this need on the part of companies?”

While the United Kingdom has historically had strong Japanese studies programs, the field currently faces funding challenges that Chris Hughes, University of Warwick’s Professor of International Politics and Japanese Studies, attributes partially to how the state funds research across disciplines.

As Hughes explained, “One government agency is charged with evaluating all university research in the U.K., and it's a very cutthroat, competitive process.” Their evaluations, which focus heavily on methodology rather than publications or other criteria, have resulted in a divestment from area studies.

Hughes sees potential for integrating U.K. scholarship on Japan into the broader community of Japanese studies in the European Union, as well creating better avenues for collaboration among various U.K. centers that focus on Japan. 

Carolyn Stevens, Professor of Japanese Studies and Director of the Japanese Studies Center at Monash University, addressed the unique benefits and challenges of Japanese studies in Australia.

According to Stevens, while Australia has a substantial Asian diaspora, Japan is a low priority for government funding, mostly due the low growth rate of its economy. Said Stevens, “I think what’s been hard for me is to argue is what Japan has to offer that the [other countries of East Asia] don’t.” She concurred with Hughes that the current approach to funding in Australia, which stresses theoretical methodology, was having a particularly adverse effect on Japanese studies publications.

The forum’s final speaker, Japan Foundation Director Junichiro Chano, offered the audience a comprehensive history of the Japan Foundation’s funding for Japanese studies. Noting that the Foundation had been created by the Japanese government in response to a report on the state of the field prepared by American Japanese specialists, he urged the scholars at the conference to undertake a similar initiative by organizing themselves and making suggestions about the future funding of the field.

This proposal is especially salient today, as Chano explained the unstable financial situations in both Japan and the U.S. again threaten the state of Japanese studies.

Reflecting on the day, UCLA's Seiji Lippit revisited some of the forum’s key themes. In particular, he mentioned the possibility that the future of Japanese studies may well be their integration into broader Asian studies. 

“Projects that leave in place the nation-state as their main framework are problematic,” observed Lippit. He also noted the striking impact that the Japan Foundation has had on present-day scholarship on Japan.

In this sense, he said, the Okinawa studies program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa offered a fruitful paradigm, as it conducts research on at Okinawans in both Okinawa and the diaspora. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “today can serve as the jumping off point of conversations that we will have the opportunity to continue over the coming months and years.”