Our Future, more or less

The head of the Japan Foundation (to whom I, like so many, owe thanks) has made some comments on the state and future of Japan Studies. It’s his job, after all.

Ogoura has divided up the issue into “trends” and “recommendations.” First, the Trends:

  • The transition from “area studies” to interdisciplinarity, and increasing integration of Japan into studies of global phenomena through comparative approaches.
  • The lack of economic or military threat from Japan means that there’s less policy-driven interest. There’s a corresponding shift, which Ogoura calls a separate trend, towards studies of the Middle East and China, both of whom represent significant ongoing policy issues, though the importance of the Japan-US relationship remains a valuable tool in pushing Japan studies.
  • Finally, the ever-popular academic-commoner “gap,” though pop culture studies might fill the role that dignitaries like E.O. Reischauer used to fill, bringing people into interest in Japan and to more substantial Japanese studies courses.

Then come the recommendations, mostly targeting “foundations and grant-issuing institutions” and which assume that the trends listed above are necessarily bad things….

  • Encourage young people to follow their interests into deeper study, instead of just sticking with what interests them.
  • Encourage comparative, international, transnational and other broader scholarship rather than sticking with an orthodox and limited view of Japanese Studies
  • Link university and High School programs, to broaden the minds of manga/anime-infected youth towards “real” Japanese culture and history.
  • Without a hint of irony, he then goes on to recommend “courses that focus on subjects of greater interest to young people, such as sports, fashion and food” preferably with cool show-and-tell cultural events.

As you can imagine, I’m not entirely sure that this analysis hits the mark. What do you think is the future of Japanese Studies, and what would you like to see groups like the JF putting effort into?


  1. As you know, I’ve been incorporating comparative, international and transnational
    elements into both my scholarship and my teaching all along, so I have no trouble
    endorsing that element of his argument. I also see no need for irony in his final
    comment. Are you assuming such courses are lightweight or somehow pandering?

    Last semester I gave a course on the historical development of East Asian
    cuisines and food cultures. While some food history courses take anthropological
    approaches, this was a conventional history course. We traced a narrative arc from
    the earliest known foods of the region, examining how political, economic,
    technological and trade developments affected diet and foodways. So, for example,
    when we got to the Tokugawa period, we discussed both how sankin kotai, by creating
    a permanent population of temporary bachelors in Edo, spurred the development of
    restaurant culture and dramatically increased the popularity of foods suitable for
    take-away dining, like sushi and noodles, and how the closed country policy meant
    that Japan experienced a much slower process of assimilating New World ingredients
    than China did. Plus we had some “cool show-and-tell cultural events.”

    In Ogoura’s terms, this course was highly successful – at least based on the
    feedback I got from my students. A number of them told me that, while they had
    never been particularly interested in Japan or Asia before, they were now planning
    to take more courses (which some are doing this semester) or travel there when they
    graduate. So, in my experience, his approach worked.

  2. I’m a big believer in transnational and comparative as well: what surprises me is that he feels the need to include it as a recommendation of changing directions, when it’s already, as he himself notes, pretty standard practice everywhere.

    The irony is that I don’t see a serious distinction to be made between courses on topics of interest — and I’m a great lover of food history myself (I want your syllabus!) — as he does, between
    those he deems good and bad. He includes “fashion” as a legitimate topic of study, but excludes pop culture…. how do you do that? He’s OK with show-and-tell cultural events, but looks down on accessible transnational media…. how’s that work, again? There’s an implicit deauthentication (I just made that up, and I’m gonna trademark it!) of more modern and well-known elements of Japanese culture and valorization of premodern and esoterica.

    What matters is that the course be taught well, as you did. We have someone here who’s teaching a course on Japanese religion, using modern films and anime as the fundamental primary sources for the course. I have my doubts, honestly, but if it’s done well, it can be extremely effective. I use literature in all my upper division courses, in some form or another, and almost everything I use was popular at some point.

    There’s something about his assumption that students interests and existing knowledge is fundamentally shallow or illegitimate that gets under my skin.

  3. Ok, I can accept that I misinterpreted your original comment, but I’m not sure I follow your critique. Give that we don’t have his original text, only your description of it, I don’t see “an implicit deauthentication of more modern and well-known elements of Japanese culture and valorization of premodern and esoterica.”

    You state that he argues for “courses that focus on subjects of greater interest to young people, such as sports, fashion and food.” This is not a comprehensive list (note the ‘such as’), so how is he excluding pop-culture? Nor is it premodern. Are you arguing that the study of sports, fashion and food are esoterica, shallow and illegitimate?

    Is there a complete copy of the text of his statement? That might help clarify the issues.

  4. Hmm. I know I put that link in there…. (what kind of a blogger would I be if I didn’t put the link there?!) … hmm. seems to be an HTML hiccup. I’ve fixed it, or you can go here (registration required).

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