In Defense of Japanese Studies

Try telling the 30,000 people who attended Otakon in 2010 that Japan is irrelevant.

Before I begin, I should mention that I’m reacting, in part, to an essay titled Pulling the Plug (on higher education and the humanities). Everything the author says is absolutely true, and the tone of her writing is absolutely appropriate. The system of higher education in America is either breaking or already broken, and the way people think about higher education in America isn’t helping, as most people don’t care about what grad students and professors in the humanities are doing. It’s difficult, after all, to explain why a traditional academic project such as identifying the author of a medieval German poem is relevant to the twenty-first century. I believe very deeply that the humanities are relevant, however, and I’d like to make a case for Japanese Studies in particular.

I grew up in a small city in central Georgia called Jackson. Despite what I’m going to say in the following paragraph, I love Jackson, but the town is very, um, special. To call it “provincial” would create a false sense of quaintness, and to call it “rural” would do a disservice to the banality of the McDonald’s-style commercialism centered around the intersection of the two old logging routes that form its main traffic intersection. To call it “isolated” also seems laughable in comparison to the county’s other municipality, a decaying, kudzu-choked, Southern Gothic survival horror creepshow of a place called Flovilla. At about an hour south of Atlanta on Interstate 75 and twenty minutes east of Interstate 75 on either State Route 42 or State Route 36, though, Jackson was passed over by the economic and cultural development that came to the greater Atlanta metro area in the wake of the 1996 Olympics, and in many ways it seems stuck in a different decade. The city has a small public library, however, and that public library is fully stocked with a large selection of manga. Every single one of these manga is well worn with use, and two of the Jackson librarians recently told me that the manga are just about the most popular titles in the library, bringing in many children from a wide range of economic backgrounds.

The point I am trying to make is that, even in a backwater town like Jackson, kids read manga. They read the books from right to left, and they know that the stories come from Japan. I don’t think this situation is atypical. In a PR release for promotional material released to libraries by manga publisher Viz Media, manga critic Katherine Dacey states that “it’s no secret that many public and school libraries have turned reluctant readers into regular patrons by adding manga to their collections.” Furthermore, the attendance of anime conventions I have attended in places as diverse as Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, and Seattle is staggering. I like to make the joke to my colleagues that, if even ten percent of the kids at those conventions goes to college, and if even ten percent of that ten percent wants to take classes about Japan, then we are in business. Even if these teenagers never take a single course in Japanese Studies, however, it would be laughably misguided to tell them that Japan is irrelevant to the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, if my own secondary education can serve as an example, I don’t think many Americans learn a great deal about Japan in high school. Some private and charter schools offer a year or two of Japanese language, and some AP Literature students get to read Yoshimoto Banana and Murakami Haruki as part of their curriculum, but usually Japan is only approached in “World Culture” or “World Religion” classes, if not briefly in relation to World War II in American history classes (they bombed us and we nuked them, the end). I know this is a huge generalization, but I think college is the first place where most young Americans can really learn about Japan in a formal academic setting.

For better or for worse, the focus on Western culture, history, literature, and languages in American secondary education makes sense. Before a student starts learning a language like Japanese, it’s infinitely more useful for her to learn English, Spanish, and the languages that form the etymologies of English and Spanish. Also, the stories of Classical and Judeo-Christian mythology carry far more cultural resonance in America than the stories of the Kojiki and The Tale of Genji. If American secondary education is meant to build a foundation of factual knowledge and critical thinking, however, American higher education serves to deepen this factual knowledge to a more specialist level while sharpening critical thinking skills. In high school English classes, you study SAT words and learn how symbolism works; in college English classes, you learn how to craft cogent arguments using sophisticated rhetorical devices while challenging received notions of how concepts like gender, race, and nationality are formed and shape our lives.

Besides equipping students with a better set of tools to understand the world, American higher education also serves to expand the world these students live in. There are a lot of academic disciplines, for example, that secondary education just doesn’t cover, especially in the social sciences. Psychology is a big one. Area Studies is another. The various disciplines broadly categorized as “Area Studies,” such as Asian Studies, African Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies, encourage students to expand their worldview beyond the Eurocentrism that they were exposed to for twelve years of primary and secondary education. Learning about different cultures at the college level isn’t really about factual information; rather, it’s about forcing students to acknowledge and become acclimatized to the idea that there are other people in the world besides Americans and Europeans. If, for instance, an American college student learns that Japanese notions of “poetry” are completely different than from Western Romantic idea of “poetry,” and if she sees that her professor takes Japanese ideas concerning poetry for granted, and if she reads enough Japanese poetry to begin to take these ideas for granted herself, then she will gradually realize that not everything in the world is or has to be like it is in the West. I think this attitude of acceptance and tolerance, as well as the meta-cognitive skills that accompany it (in terms of dealing with cultural change and difference), are a very, very good thing.

What Japanese Studies does, then, is not only to teach students about an important and highly relevant part of the world but also to encourage their development as “international citizens” or “global citizens” or “citizens of the twenty-first century” – regardless of the current buzzword, the demand for a broader cultural literacy is the same. Japanese Studies classes effectively transform Japan from a fantasy land that only exists within the American cultural sphere to a real place populated by real people who exist independently of the American cultural imagination; and, if Japan really exists, then it only stands to reason that other countries, such as Egypt and Afghanistan, really exist as well. The shift in cultural perspective is enormous. Probably most of the people reading this take such a cultural perspective for granted, but we’ve all been through college and probably don’t remember what it’s like to be a junior in high school and surrounded by nothing but Western language, history, and literature. For me personally, Japan might as well have been Disneyland while I was in high school, and I believe there are still a great many Americans well past their teens who don’t think too differently.

What I tried to argue at the beginning of this essay is that the younger generation of Americans is interested in Japan. Japan is of course relevant to everyone, whether they’re aware of it or not, but the cultural and economic influence of the country is especially relevant to the millions of teenagers flocking to anime conventions all around the country. These kids want to learn about Japan, and college is the place where they can do that. Since taking classes in Area Studies has tangible benefits not only to them personally as global citizens but also to the future of America as a global leader in business and technology, I firmly believe that Japanese Studies is highly relevant to this country’s national interests. If our government wants to shoot itself in the foot by canceling the Fulbight-Hays Fellowship for international research projects or cutting Title IV funding for international scholarship, it’s their prerogative. As for me, however, I’m going to stay in academia and do my best to make sure that higher education does what it’s supposed to do in terms of creating young people who are prepared to engage in international economies of commerce, technology, culture, and ideas.

Before I close this essay, I suppose I should address the issue of students with liberal arts degrees not finding jobs. If you’re wondering what a student can do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies, there is actually an entire website devoted to the topic. The language skills and cultural literacy acquired in even one or two Japanese Studies classes are invaluable to employers even without a major in Japanese Studies, and I have seen numerous classmates, colleagues, and students find jobs at international firms like Sony, Sharp, Toyota, Panasonic, and Nintendo, as well as positions at international periodicals such as The New York Times and The Japan Times. Others have found work at embassies and NPOs in Washington, London, and Tokyo. Of course regular job hunting skills (ie, networking, seeking summer internships, applying for a joint B.A./M.B.A. degree, etc.) are still necessary, but many university-sponsored East Asia centers (such as the one at my home institution) and internationally funded study abroad programs (such as the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies) help Japan-focused students to develop and make use of these skills. In short, the discipline of Japanese Studies is not only relevant, but it is also concretely useful to America as a country and to students as intellectually curious and job-seeking individuals. The crisis facing Area Studies specifically and the humanities in general is very real, but for anyone (whether in Congress or in a dean’s office) to say that Japanese Studies deserves any lack of funding that it might suffer because it’s somehow irrelevant is, I feel, gravely inaccurate.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Japanese Studies

  1. My ancient history course in high school covered the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Bedouins, the Aztecs, the Mayans, possibly the Native Americans, and there was all of one paragraph about the Yamato. I went to a lecture in Sept. about how literature studies needs to focus on multilingual approaches (Japanese literary criticism on Mark Twain) and how history needs to focus on integrated aspects. After all, Japan, Korea, and China in their pre-contemporary and pre-modern forms traded, exchanged culture as well as goods, and yet the focus was all on the Chinese dynasties with barely any talk of the rest of Asia (except Russia).

    I couldn’t study Japanese or Japan until college, but I tore through any book I could find on Japan at the public library. Japanese may not be as usual to business as Chinese or as critical a language (according to the US government) as Arabic, but with how hard Japanese is as a language for Americans, we need the help and support of governments, NPOs, and cultural organizations to continue and improve our cultural and business exchange.

    1. At my high school, we had three mandatory years of History. The first year was European History, the second year was American History, and the third year was either more Europe, more America, or (Western) Government. I recall that there was a class on “Africa, South America, and Asia;” but, tellingly, it was an elective not offered to “real” history students (ie, those who were taking classes at the Honors and AP levels). And this is at one of the largest and most prestigious private schools in the Southeast, no less.

      We also had a Japanese language class, but it was only offered to juniors and seniors who had already finished their (Western) language requirements, and the students in that class barely got through the first few chapters of a really outdated textbook during the course of a year. Also, the teacher was fired after a few years. The gossip I heard was that the French teachers were upset that he was drawing so many of their best students away from upper-level French classes, but who knows. There was always a waiting list about a mile long for those classes, so the issue could have been that there simply wasn’t enough interest in the subject to retain him on the faculty. (Am I bitter? Just a little.)

      Well, that was back in 2002, so things might have changed since then. (This morning I checked with my brother, who just graduated from the same school two years ago. He says things haven’t changed. Oh well.)

      Anyway, I think there are a lot of teenage Japan-focused autodidacts, and I’m not sure this necessarily is a good thing, as it seems to result in a frightening amount of Nihonjin-ron floating around. Interest in other cultures is always a good thing, and of course books on Japan written for a general audience are a good thing, but I still think there’s a very real need for professors and other experts in public and educational discourse on Japan.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I’m an honours student in Japanese Studies myself and I have often wondered exactly what my purpose is, and what sort of job I can expect to find when I ultimately complete my degree (I’m hoping to go on and do a Masters next year)… or am I just going to work at a cafe for the rest of my life?

    I found this post really interesting and quite inspiring because it really crystallised, for me, the importance of studying a different culture, and gave me hope that I will ultimately be able to have a useful and, hopefully, interesting job in the future. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. You made me realize that I failed to link to something really important in my post – there is an entire blog dedicated to figuring out what to do with your life once you’ve graduated with a BA in Japanese Studies:

      I hope this site is in some way useful to you, and good luck to you in the future! Keep your head up about finding a useful job that interests you, because there are plenty of people looking to hire someone with your skill set. Gambatte!

  3. I agree that Japanese studies are relevant. First, I live in North Alabama. There are 16 Japanese companies in my county. Two more Japanese companies in adjacent counties. One of the larger company’s has a Japanese cultural fest each year and there is Japanese Supplementary School here. I have been to Job Fairs where Japanese companies are recruiting people. So the need for understanding of Japanese culture and values is becoming part of people’s job. All total there are 67 Japanese companies in Alabama. Second, I too see lots of younger people learning about Japan thought anime and manga. Literature teaches us the heart of a culture. Contained in the stories are the hopes, fears, and values of the culture. The books I read as a teenager dramatically influenced me. Are the youth of today learning “Japanese culture and values”? I don’t know. But, I know I have.

    1. Thank you for this comment!

      Academic and cultural diversity aside, I do believe that Japanese Studies is a practical major and field of specialty. At George Mason, we get emails all the time from Japan-specific recruiting companies and job fairs, and these parties seem especially interested in people with a BA or an MA in Japanese Studies or Asian Studies, especially when the cultural knowledge is accompanied by a third- or fourth-year level of Japanese conversational ability.

      That being said, I get the feeling that more practical skills (like accounting, marketing, and IT) are also in demand, especially with North American companies specializing in Japanese pop culture, such as Crunchyroll and The Right Stuf.

      In general, however, what employers seem to what is educated enthusiasm accompanied by the ability to embrace and learn from learn unfamiliar and difficult systems, which a desire to learn Japanese language in particular seems to reflect.

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