Gender and the Academic Job Market in Japanese Studies

What A Professor Should Look Like

One of the great sources of frustration in my life is when female grad students act as if I’m insulting them by explaining how difficult it is to be on the academic job market. These women are brilliant, talented, and hard-working; and, in their minds, there is no reason for them not to succeed. A common response I’ve received both online and in person is that it’s nothing more than a pessimistic attitude that has been holding back not just me but my entire graduate cohort.

I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps gender might have something to do with our frustration and relative lack of success. Certainly, we wouldn’t be the first women in history to find ourselves at a disadvantage on any given job market.

To satisfy my own morbid curiosity, I made a list of the job announcements in the field of Japanese Studies during the past two job markets (2012/13 and 2013/14). I then asked three questions of each position:

(1) Was it tenure-track?

(2) Did the job posting make it clear that the position requires Japanese language instruction?

(3) Is the person who was eventually hired male or female?

I found that the candidates hired for tenure-track positions that did not require language instruction were overwhelmingly male. Tenure-track positions that did require language instruction could go to men or women, but there was a small bias towards male candidates. Non-tenured positions tended to go to women.

The category of “teaching Japanese” might require explanation. To make a long story short, the majority of Japanese Studies PhDs from top graduate programs are not trained in linguistics or second-language acquisition, so jobs that do not require language instruction are considered to be the most desirable. Positions that follow this elite model tend to be elite positions, and positions that require language instruction tend to demand a heavier course load for a lower salary. In essence, teaching language is a burden that is almost never fairly compensated in the field of Japanese Studies.

Perhaps gender has nothing to do with the statistics I was able to gather. Correlation does not equal causation, after all. What I hope to highlight here is an apparent hiring trend that requires a great deal more research in order to be understood and corroborated.

Many thanks to Pau Pitarch of Kappa Bunko for his invaluable assistance!

Without further ado, here’s the data.

* * * * *

2013 – 2014 Job Market
_____

Total Jobs: 16
Tenure-Track, No Language: 4 men, 1 woman
Tenure-Track, Language: 5 men, 2 women
Non-Tenure-Track: 1 man, 2 women
_____

Bates College
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Dartmouth College
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Search Failed

George Mason University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Haverford College
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Michigan State University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Middlebury College
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Northwestern University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Princeton University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Kentucky
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Michigan
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of North Texas
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Notre Dame
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Wake Forest University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Wellesley College
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Western Michigan University

Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

* * * * *

2012 – 2013 Job Market
______

Total Jobs: 31
Tenure-Track, No Language: 8 men, 2 women
Tenure-Track, Language: 7 men, 5 women
Non-Tenure-Track: 3 men, 6 women
_____

Bard College
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Bates College
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Beloit College
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Boston University
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male
Hire Webpage: [link]

Chapman University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Centre College
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Earlham College
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Eastern Kentucky University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

George Washington University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Grand Valley State
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Kennesaw State University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Lehigh University
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Macalester College
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Middle Tennessee State University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

North Central College
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

The Ohio State University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Princeton University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

State University of New York, New Paltz
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Sewanee: The University of the South
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Arizona
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of British Columbia
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of California, Los Angeles
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Colorado, Bolder
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language-Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Denver
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Minnesota
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Pittsburgh
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of New Mexico
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

University of Notre Dame
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Williams College
Tenure-Track: No
Language Teaching Required: Yes
Result: Female Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

Yale University
Tenure-Track: Yes
Language Teaching Required: No
Result: Male Hired
Hire Webpage: [link]

* * * * *

Totals

Total Jobs: 47

Tenure-Track, No Language: 12 men, 3 women

Tenure-Track, Language: 12 men, 7 women

Non-Tenure-Track: 4 men, 8 women

All Positions: 28 men, 18 women

Lost Japan

Title: Lost Japan
Japanese Title: 美しき日本の残像 (Utsukushiki Nippon no zanzō)
Author: Alex Kerr
Translator: Bodhi Fishman
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1993 (Japan)
Publisher: Lonely Planet
Pages: 269

If you’re thinking about reading this book because you’re interested in Japan, I am sorry to inform you that Alex Kerr doesn’t like you. He just doesn’t think you’re very smart:

I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, “All is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land,’ where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […] Since World War II, Japan has had fifty years of uninterrupted peace, during which time the concrete of its social systems has set hard and fast. It has become a land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this. (106, 107)

A Rhodes scholar friend of Kerr’s from Australia studying China, for instance, had the opportunity to become involved in the 1989 Tienanmen [sic] Square incident. What a hero! There is nothing more exciting than politically motivated massacres. If only they had more of those in Japan, amirite? Japan is such a boring place. All they have there are earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and nonviolent political upheaval, not to mention a dynamic feminist movement that really began to gather momentum in the years following an unprecedented economic downturn. Japan is home to a conformist society, where everyone is unbearably polite, and there aren’t any youth movements to capture to attention of intellectuals who have picked on the connections between Japanese society and their own.

Perhaps I’m being too critical. Lost Japan doesn’t have end notes or a bibliography, and the book works much better as a travelogue than as a serious study of Japan. Unlike many other “foreigner in Japan” books that came out of the nineties, however, Lost Japan is still in print and still referenced and recommended within communities of English-speaking people visiting and living in Japan.

As should be apparent from the passage I quoted above, Kerr is a person with strong opinions. As Kerr himself readily admits, his opinions tend to be polarizing, but it is their controversial nature that make them so interesting and compelling. Unfortunately, these opinions also tend toward sensationalism. Kerr seems to firmly believe that Japan is hurdling along a downslope slope towards cultural disaster. In order to demonstrate what Japan is losing, Kerr offers examples of the beauty he himself has experienced. These descriptions are vivid and immersive. Kerr details natural beauty…

As anyone who has hiked through the mountain ranges of Shikoku and Kyushu will know, Japan’s mountains are a jungle of sorts. Wherever one looks, the humid, dense slopes are covered with ferns, moss and fallen leaves. Coming along the bend of an unpaved mountain road, I would suddenly have the illusion that I had traveled back hundreds of millions of years. It felt as though at any moment a pterodactyl might come flying out of the mist. (17-18)

…architectural and artistic beauty…

Even within tourist-clogged Nara Park there are places which possess […] religious appeal. Entering the Sangatsu-do Hall, next door to the Hall of the Great Buddha, you find a quiet room far removed from the flurry of people in the park. In this dim space, there towers a magnificent gilt statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon Buddha, surrounded by a mandala arrangement of statues of guardians, the Sun and the Moon, and other bodhisattvas. From the halo behind the Buddha’s head project gilded rays, gleaming in the darkness. Tourists come to Sangatsu-do talking and laughing, but they soon fall silent in the presence of Fukukensaku Kannon’s fearsome light. None of them, including myself, has the slightest idea what the significance of Fukukensaku Kannon is. It doesn’t matter – those beams of light are enough. (207)

…and more intangible types of cultural heritage:

Other villagers from Tsurui came one by one to look at the foreigner, and then pitched in to help with the renovation. A foreigner was rare enough, but a foreigner who was trying to repair an old thatch-roofed house was doubly bizarre. Old folk took an interest, and would come over with straw to teach me how to weave straw sandals. […] At night, Shokichu and his friends told ghost stories in the spooky light of the floor hearth. (35)

What Kerr seems to love more than describing beauty, however, is describing ugliness. There is the ugliness of Japanese cities in general…

There are innumerable detailed building codes, but the overall design of a building and its aesthetic relation to street and skyline are ignored; the result is careless, disjointed, ugly. (66)

…the ugliness of Japanese cities in particular…

I was once taken to see the new Yokohama residential district Kohoku New Town, and was amazed at the multitudes of enormous steel pylons and smaller utility poles clustered everywhere – a hellish web of power lines darkening the sky above one’s head. This is a site which is considered a model of urban development. (50)

…the ugliness of the Japanese countryside…

There is hardly a single object on the Kabuki stage recognizable to young people today. When stage chanters sing of fireflies or autumn maples, such things are now almost mythical objects in this land of vast cedar plantations. (67)

…and the ugliness of the Japanese people themselves…

Japan’s national problem is homogeneity. The school system teaches everyone to say and think the same thing, and the bureaucracies restrict the development of new media, such as cable TV, the information highway and even movie theaters. As a result, no matter where you go, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, all the houses look the same, the clothes look the same and people’s loves center around the same humdrum activities […] The passivity, the way in which [a department store counter saleswoman]’s shut out the outside world – it was a distinctive posture which I have seen in Japan so many times. Sensory deprivation? Passive silence? Fear of the world? I wish I could find the right words for it, but Japan is becoming a nation of people like this. (223)

…even though they know better:

I do not believe that the Japanese have completely lost the delicate sensibility of the Heian era. Somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know that Japan is becoming an ugly country. (51)

Sometimes I wondered whether Kerr really believed what he was saying, which seemed to be that Japan is an ugly country full of people who are either stupid or lazy. I wondered if it was really okay to say make generalizations like that about a country with a land area of more than 350,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 127,000,000 people. I also couldn’t help wondering what sort of person sees beauty only in very a small number of specific instances while seeing ugliness everywhere else.

It wasn’t just Kerr’s diatribes against ugliness that made me raise an eyebrow. For example:

Today, many Japanese would hardly know what the word yobai means, and it was a little short of miraculous that the custom still existed when I arrived in Iya. It was the subject of many a laughing conversation, and villagers slyly asked me now and then when I was going to start on my nocturnal adventures. At the time, yobai seemed to me just another local oddity, but later I discovered that there was more to it than I had thought. In the Heian period, the loves of the aristocrats immortalized in novels such as the Tale of Genji were modeled on the yobai pattern. (37)

Yobai, or “night crawling,” is when a young man breaks into a young woman’s bedroom late at night, often after a village festival (which usually involves alcohol), and ostensibly with the consent of the young woman’s parents. What an elegant, noble custom! It’s a shame that people don’t do this anymore. Let’s laugh about it, because there is nothing funnier than surprise sex! (Also, I think Kerr might be suggesting that marriage practices among the elite in an earlier historical period were modeled on a subset of rural customs from later historical periods, but this is excusable as everyone knows that history is like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.)

Also, sometimes Kerr says things that made me wonder if the Japan he’s talking about is some kind of bizarro-Japan from an alternate dimension. For example:

Standard Japanese, to the sorrow of [my younger cousins], has an almost complete lack of dirty words. (224)

The Japanese language has an almost complete lack of dirty words only if the words used to describe feces, effluvia, human genitalia, sexual acts, gay men, gay women, women in general, and displeasure at the behavior of others aren’t considered “dirty.” Seriously, there’s a whole book about this, and this book was written before cell phones and the internet became mainstream.

The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty – often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original – but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. (231)

I guess the huge historic Chinatowns in cities like Yokohama and Kobe don’t exist?

One can scour the history of Japan, however, without finding much in the way of articulated philosophy; to put it strongly, Japan is not a country of thinkers. (113)

Not only is this not true, it’s also not a very nice thing to say.

If nothing else, Alex Kerr is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and his strong opinions certainly contribute to the entertainment value of his writing. If one can simply take what he says with a grain of salt and understand Lost Japan as a story the author is telling about Japan, then it’s easy to enjoy being swept up in his tales of adventure. Kerr has had no small number of unique experiences, and he can take his readers into worlds that they would not be able to enter without him. Bodhi Fishman’s translation is both eloquent and frank, and each of Kerr’s chapters is written so that disappointment with one aspect of Japan will be balanced out by wonder and amazement at another.

Kerr’s follow-up book to Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons, reprises many of the same themes but contains a great deal more factual information. The author’s bitter and rancorous tone is somewhat gentler in Lost Japan than it is in of Dogs and Demons, however, and the earlier book contains much less ranting on the topic of how all popular culture is worthless and offensive. In comparison, Lost Japan has aged much better than Dogs and Demons, and its balance of adulation, criticism, colorful descriptions, and strong opinions make it an enjoyable light read more than ten years after its first publication in English.

Still, the book is far from unproblematic, and the reader is encouraged to maintain an attitude as critical of Kerr as Kerr’s own attitude is critical of Japan.

I’d like to end this review with a picture that I took while waiting for the bus one morning this past April just outside of the center of town in Kyoto, which Kerr describes as one of the ugliest cities in Japan. Is it really ugly? It’s a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s ultimately up the reader to decide for him or herself.

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.