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.

Graduate School in Japanese Studies

Over the past several years, I have received numerous emails from people asking for advice about applying to graduate school. I have been skeptical of offering any such advice, primarily because the job market has been terrible but also because there has been an air of general malaise surrounding grad school recently. (The blog 100 Reasons Not To Go To Grad School expresses this attitude succinctly.) The more I reflect on my own experiences in grad school, however, the more I realize how valuable they have been to me both on an intellectual level and on a personal level. What I have learned in grad school has lead me to think about the world in an entirely different way, one that encourages diversity, critical thinking, and humanistic compassion. I have therefore decided to stop discouraging people and to instead offer my best advice to anyone thinking of applying to grad school for Japanese Studies:

(1) Spend a significant length of time in Japan before entering grad school.

Deciding to spend the next five to eight years of your life devoted to Japan is a big decision, after all. Some people go to Japan for the first time and realize that they hate it, and others suffer severe culture shock during their first sustained visit to the country. You don’t want to risk becoming one of those people after you’ve already enrolled in a graduate program. Ideally, you’ll spend at least a year doing dissertation research in Japan. This is a commitment that will be difficult to get out of when you realize, for example, that Japan is not vegetarian-friendly and that you can’t eat any of the food there.

Another reason to live in Japan before going to grad school is that it’s helpful to have personal and professional contacts who can help with both study and downtime when you return to the country for dissertation research.

(2) Make sure you know Japanese before applying to grad school.

By “know Japanese,” I mean that you should be able to pick up a book in your area of specialty and read it. You should also be able to translate at a reasonable pace and with reasonable accuracy without the aid of a dictionary. As part of your application to the more competitive programs, you need to be able to prove your language proficiency, either by publishing a translation, passing the JLPT, passing an oral exam, or going through one of the higher levels of a study abroad program like KCJS or the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. Although doing your coursework in grad school will help improve your language, you won’t have time for rudimentary or refresher courses (for which you more than likely won’t receive credit anyway).

(3) You need to come to grad school with a clear idea of your dissertation topic.

The goal of graduate school is to get out as quickly as possible. You will most likely receive funding for an extremely limited period, and the funding you receive may not be able to cover the cost of living, especially if you don’t have a partner to help support you. Even if you don’t anticipate any financial difficulties, being in grad school traps you in the social role of a student, which seems fine when you’re 22 but becomes somewhat problematic by the time you’re 27.

You therefore need to make the most of the time you have by taking courses with the professors who will become your dissertation advisors and writing papers close to the topic of your dissertation. The best way to do this is to have a dissertation topic already in mind before you walk in the door. This topic will not be carved in stone, but you need to be specific. “The Tale of Genji” is not a dissertation topic. “Gender in The Tale of Genji” is not a dissertation topic. “Contemporary interpretations of homosocial relationships in The Tale of Genji as expressed in X, Y, and Z sources” is the beginning of a good dissertation topic.

(4) You need to be highly literate.

Even in the least competitive programs, grad school is a veritable orgy of reading and writing, and this reading and writing can occasionally be quite difficult. If you read less than forty or fifty books over the course of a year, you probably shouldn’t go to grad school. If you don’t know what a topic sentence is and can’t tell the difference between its and it’s, you definitely shouldn’t go to grad school. This isn’t elitism; it’s a matter of basic survival skills.

(5) You need to have thick skin and a hobby unrelated to your studies.

While you’re in grad school, you will be competing with some of the smartest people you’ve ever met. Each of these people will be better than you at something and know more than you in certain areas. Most of these people will be wonderful, but some of them will go out of their way to make you miserable. Likewise, your professors will hold you to a much higher standard than you dealt with as an undergraduate, and they will criticize your work accordingly. The majority of this criticism will be brilliant, insightful, and helpful, but some of it will be petty and downright vicious. On a broader level, you will sometimes be harshly rejected by fellowship committees, conferences, and academic journals.

As a student, you have no real power to combat any of this, so you need to have cultivated an attitude of friendly indifference and assertive self-confidence before you enter grad school. It is enormously helpful to have a hobby like biking, painting, or video games to clear your mind and help slough off any depression and anxiety that you may occasionally feel.


If I have made grad school seem like a daunting enterprise, that’s because it is a daunting enterprise and should not be entered into lightly. As I said at the beginning of this list, however, it’s also a wonderful experience that will change the way you think about the world and give you the potential to change the way other people think about the world. Grad school will equip you with a keen set of intellectual tools and serve as the gateway into a community of highly intelligent, interesting people. It is true that not everyone who enters graduate school graduates, and it is true that not everyone who graduates is able to become a professor. The statistics for employment and attrition rates may drive you away from graduate school, and with good reason. However, if you decide to go ahead and apply anyway, rest assured that the experiences you have and the friends you make will be well worth the trials and hardship you’ll encounter.