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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Responding to new trends in Japanese studies abroad


Special to The Japan Times

The world is changing rapidly under the influence of globalization. At the same time, the political, economic and even academic environment surrounding Japanese studies outside Japan has changed a great deal. Traditional motives for studying Japan, such as curiosity in the exotic, the perception of Japan as a menace, and anticipation of political conflicts with Japan, have largely been replaced by other incentives.

Grant-making organizations and Japanese academic and educational institutions should reorient their policies to respond to the new trends in Japanese studies abroad. In attempting to reorient their policies, the organizations concerned should first of all recognize the new trends surrounding Japanese studies around the world, particularly in the United States.

One such trend is the decline in the importance of area studies as opposed to interdisciplinary studies. Amid the growing conviction that comparative studies are necessary for analyzing and understanding Japan, scholars in political science, economics and even literature are increasingly placing Japanese studies in a global context.

A second observable trend is the inevitable tendency for international political and economic realities to affect academic studies. Two current examples that pertain to Japan are the comparative stagnation of the Japanese economy since the mid-1990s and the growing politico-military interdependence between Japan and the U.S. Consequently, there is in the U.S. little of the sense of threat or risk that once characterized Japan-U.S. relations. This implies that, unless we actively encourage the interest in Japan at American educational institutions, it will remain difficult to increase the number of students who pursue Japan-related studies.

The third trend we must consider is a change in U.S. strategic interests, which have shifted heavily toward the Middle East and adjacent regions over the past several years.

At the same time, American intellectuals have also been focusing their attention on China. This does not mean, however, that potential interest in Japan as a partner in resolving global issues has diminished. On the contrary, there is revived interest in the strategic partnership with Japan, and this reality should encourage a new orientation of Japanese studies.

The fourth trend is the widening gap between academic works and the public's knowledge of Japan. Traditionally, there has been a certain intellectual link between academic studies on Japan and the promotion of understanding of Japan in general.

Recently, however, interest in and understanding of Japan has been increasingly divorced from some academic works on Japan. Young people's fascination with manga and anime has weakened, or at least blurred, the established link between some traditional types of Japanese studies and young intellectuals' interest in Japan. (This gap may partly be attributed to the growing "fragmentation" or "specialization" of Japanese studies, which may itself be viewed as part of a broader trend in many academic fields.)

Considering the trends described above, how should we develop policies to support the study of Japan? First, Japanese foundations and grant-making bodies should not only respond to the wishes and curiosity of people who are interested in Japan but also nurture and cultivate young people's "deeper" interest in Japan, particularly in its history, arts and literature.

Second, we should not focus on Japan in isolation. We must place Japanese studies in a wider comparative context and even encourage comparative studies that include, but do not necessarily focus on, Japan. This could mean expanding areas of scholarship on Japanese studies to include the study of other parts of Asia or even Europe. In this vein, we should promote, even within the context of "Japanese studies," joint international policy-oriented studies on global issues involving Japan.

Third, in order to bridge the gap between academic knowledge of Japan and the influence of manga, anime and other pop-culture phenomena prevalent among young people, we need to create programs that link Japanese studies at university level with high-school curricula in the fields of history and language.

In addition, we may have to develop courses that focus on subjects of greater interest to young people, such as sports, fashion and food. Studies on these subjects could be paired with programs that include demonstrations, performances, and other events held by foundations and organizations.

Kazuo Ogoura, professor of political science at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He served as Japanese ambassador to Vietnam (1994-1995), South Korea (1997-1999) and France (2000-2002).


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