Embracing the Rebirth of Japanese Studies

By Paula R. Curtis

Is Japanese Studies facing a crisis? There have been energetic discussions about the current status and future of Japanese Studies, amplified in no small part by the roundtable “The Death of Japan Studies” at the 2019 Association for Asian Studies conference in Denver. Speakers considered various influences on the field, from the impact of geopolitics and the “rise of China” to post-Orientalist critiques of area studies and broader decline of the humanities. Attendees, though struck by the provocative title, were hesitant to outright declare our field dead. Who wouldn’t be? But if the Japanese Studies rooted in post-WWII needs, Cold War mentalities, and “Cool Japan” has, indeed, died, then are we in a moment of its “rebirth”?

This was the issue raised in our 2020 roundtable, “The ‘Rebirth’ of Japanese Studies”, which I organized with discussants Melinda Landeck (Austin College), Takeshi Watanabe (Wesleyan University), Christina Yi (University of British Columbia), Ioannis Gaitanidis (Chiba University), and Mark Pendleton (University of Sheffield), with Laura Miller (University of Missouri-St. Louis) as chair. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, we agreed to move to a virtual format, which would allow asynchronous participation from quarantined homes wherever people are social distancing across the globe. In the face of a global pandemic and the precarious precipice upon which academics currently find ourselves, it can be difficult for some to imagine that these questions are pressing. And yet, if the very fabric of our institutions and profession at large are enduring an unrivaled transformation, if not now, when?

Japanese Studies in Crisis

Crisis, of course, is nothing new to academics, who face ongoing struggles inside and outside the world of education and research every day, fighting for equality, fair compensation, and for the value of their work in the private and public eye. The pandemic, threatening the closure of smaller colleges and resulting in hiring freezes at even the wealthiest universities, has only deepened our fears, our anger, and, often, our sense of despair. Last year, “The Death of Japan Studies” tapped into those underlying foundations; the room was packed to capacity, with some 100 seats filled and many people sitting on the floor. Before the panel started, conference security closed the doors and turned people away. The title had done its job.

The conversations that followed were valuable, with scholars from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia providing context on the state of Japanese Studies in their particular location or institution, highlighting issues such as the comparatively low number of Japanese Studies scholars in Europe; a lack of resources (and in turn, jobs) in Canada; the treatment of area studies as a data-driven industry by American institutions; and the loss of dedicated Japanese language and Area Studies programs in Australia hindering transnational research. Some audience members lamented that departments were turning to disciplinary or temporal terms in their job searches—environment, early modern, world—while others countered that one of our most important tasks was in fact for Japan specialists to pursue these positions. Others proposed that the “rise of China” is pushing Japan out, while some noted that overseas students, especially Chinese, now comprise the largest percentage of students in Japanese classes. One attendee noted that Japanese universities and the role of native and non-native instructors in Japan had been markedly absent from the discussion.

“The Death of Japan Studies” began an important dialogue, demonstrating the importance of reflecting on where we have been, and the history that brought us to our present moment. And yet, leaving the panel, many expressed frustration; they sought a further discussion of institutional roadblocks and the conditions facing recent graduate students and contingent faculty, of how we might justify Japanese Studies to disciplinary departments, or shape courses and research in a way that will fit new patterns in area studies. They wanted to think through solutions for the future.

Towards a “Rebirth”

The ‘Rebirth’ of Japanese Studies,” which features early career scholars from the United States, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom, seeks to continue these exchanges on the state of the field, with a special emphasis on discussion prompted by diverse early career scholars. The larger goal of this roundtable is to not stop at identifying problems and observed changes, but to engage with one another, to brainstorm practical solutions with the wider community, and to consider future directions for the field.

Statements by panelists reflect their individual locales, but also hit upon intersecting themes common to academics in Japanese and East Asian Studies worldwide: the effects of globalization on institutional requirements and the makeup of the student body, how to grapple with personal identities in teaching, seeing the value and fulfillment in career paths outside the “ivory tower” mindset of large private research institutions, and creating inclusive work environments with sustainable employment opportunities. Gaitanidis notes increasingly global-oriented trends in Japan, with new opportunities for Japan specialists from other countries to use transdisciplinary approaches to teaching critical thinking through case-studies from Japan, a “rebirth” present when we grapple with its meaning in the classroom. Watanabe echoes this sentiment, reflecting on his own experiences as an Asian American teaching both Japan and East Asia at large. He identifies the delicate negotiations of identity that inform our teaching, which is defined by both what we bring to the classroom and the (increasingly international) students we teach, where educators have the challenge and privilege of empowering students to use their own identities to reflect on Asia and its relevance in the world.

Student-centered teaching is also addressed by Landeck, who urges those at major institutions producing the next generation of scholars to take small liberal arts colleges seriously as important sites of professional development, pedagogy, and research, preparing young scholars early on to step outside of Japan and their own disciplines; only through diverse training are we capable of modeling for future mentees how a humanities education is valuable and capable of providing leadership and critical thinking skills also useful outside of academe. Pendleton, too, problematizes who is included and excluded in our “Japanese Studies” by considering the origins of Sheffield’s programs and reflecting on how scholars have worked to redefine “area studies” in a more equitable way, a battle that is far from over. He advocates for a Japanese Studies that is more fluid in its conceptualization of transdisciplinary boundaries and transregional approaches to education and scholarship, and which tackles broader issues in the education system to support those in the most vulnerable positions who are nevertheless at the vanguard of new developments in pedagogy and research.

Miller’s reflections put these many comments into perspective, stating “It is crucial to acknowledge that early and mid-career scholars in particular are concerned with changes that many senior scholars did not face. The problems we confront are tied to trends in higher education that impact all social science and humanities faculty, not only Japan specialists.” She insists that what is needed is to foster communication, collaboration, and accessibility in our efforts, both among students and colleagues. These are ideals our roundtable seeks to highlight, inspire, and manifest. They are crucial to the many cycles of rebirth that Japanese Studies face now and will inevitably face again as the world around us changes. 

Many of the challenges we encounter now are indeed different from those that came before. And, assuredly, scholars of many different regional and disciplinary specializations share them. But it is also just as critical to remember that we are a community, linked by the fluid, ever-evolving canopy of “Japanese Studies,” and it is in the professional and personal ties we have to one another that we might find a starting point to tackle broader systemic issues and the changing demands of our field.

Generating Data, Going Digital

Most graduate students and early career scholars today know the emotional and mental weight of a “bad year” in job opportunities. They find themselves caught between anecdotal evidence from advisors, fellow applicants, and online media outlets about the relative health or affliction of the market, unsure of whose perspective on which to rely. Having been through that process myself, another one of my goals for this roundtable was to track the East Asia-related job market for the academic year 2019-2020 and make that data available publicly for consideration. How many jobs were there in Japanese history this year? Literature? East Asian Studies? Where were they located? How many were tenure track?

I created a series of interactive visualizations that allow people to explore the information relevant to them—discipline, institutional location, time period, tenured or contingent position, etc. Tracking this kind of data is useful beyond individual curiosity; departments and institutional administrations often make decisions about what disciplines and regions of study to support by the numbers. Any arguments we, as grant writers and advocates for the opening of new lines or curricula development, need to be able to make evidenced arguments about what areas of East Asian Studies are the most vibrant, currently growing, or in need of further support.

A complementary examination of the data would not have been fully possible if our roundtable had been held in person at the Boston AAS gathering. Shifting to a virtual format for the presentation of the data and discussant comments does have its drawbacks, as there is nothing quite like exchanging ideas face-to-face, but there are also notable benefits. In addition to allowing a more detailed articulation of thoughts, this format is more accessible to a variety of participants. Graduate students, contingent faculty, early career scholars, scholars overseas, or others who for reasons of personal obligations, disability, or a lack of institutional support may be unable to undertake expensive and distant travel to a conference might never have had the ability to sit in that room in Boston and be heard. Furthermore, many of these individuals are also among the most hesitant to publicly take part in such dialogues, due to potential negative career effects when airing their grievances. For this reason, I made anonymous responses allowed for the virtual roundtable. In order to facilitate ongoing interaction to participant statements, responses will be publicly posted every two weeks, with two (or, if interest continues, three) rounds of replies to featured roundtable submissions.

If you build it, will they come?

The site received some 2,300 visits in the first three days of the virtual roundtable and data visualizations going live, with the data page (arguably aimed at a wider audience) only receiving about 500 more hits than the roundtable. One of the greatest challenges to a virtual format is soliciting participation—it is easier to ignore an email or a Twitter post than colleagues in a crowded conference room, and the lack of immediate response and validation to one’s thoughts will certainly dissuade some people from writing. However, I feel confident we will continue to generate fruitful engagement in the weeks to come. In the first round of responses, we received nineteen responses from colleagues in the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The next round is now open for replies.

Faced with trying circumstances, we are all eager to convey criticisms, to air frustrations, to give voice to the anxieties that we feel, and speak longingly of a time before—but it is to our community’s benefit to not stop there, to work together to articulate strengths, propose solutions, and challenge ourselves and others to implement them. We urge you to add your voice to the roundtable and reflect with us on how we can each use our own bodies of knowledge and privilege to continue to build a vibrant, collaborative, and international Japanese Studies community.


The “Rebirth” of Japanese Studies is currently in Round 2 of submissions; a third round may be added, pending further interest. The deadline for Round 2 is May 30, 12pm EST. Submissions can be made here.

Paula R. Curtis is a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer in history at Yale University.

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