Japanese Studies Overseas: A Target for More Strategic Support

Politics Culture

Three Concerns

The field of Japanese studies in other countries is currently undergoing a major transformation in various respects. I would like to offer a quick overview of the concerns this raises based on what I have heard from researchers and academics working in this field.

First of all, the focus of interest is rapidly shifting away from topics like literature and economic affairs to “soft culture” topics like anime and video games. Interest in these topics is not new, but it has now become firmly established as a major current. College students who have become interested in Japan through anime and games are signing up for Japanese language courses. This is fine, but there exists an undeniable gap between the Japan of their imaginations and the real Japan. So one concern is how to turn the interest in Japan whetted by young people’s encounters with our soft culture into the starting point for a deeper study of our country.

A second concern, one that is particularly pronounced at institutions in Europe and North America, relates to the fact that research and teaching about Japan is positioned as part of Asian studies. Both faculty posts and students have been shifting to the Chinese and Korean areas within this broader field, forcing the discontinuation of some Japan-related courses and positions and leading to demands for Japan specialists to teach about China as well.

A third concern is the difference in the topics of interest pursued by domestic and overseas researchers and the paucity of dialogue between them. This is related to the fact that within Japan itself “Japanese studies” are not treated as a distinct discipline except at a handful of institutions like the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. Unlike the situation in other countries, where these studies constitute a single field, in Japan they are broken up into various independent disciplines—Japanese history, Japanese thought, Japanese politics, and so forth.

The Role of Japan Specialists as a Media Channel

When we look at Japanese studies overseas, we find that Western research into the history of World War II, for example, tends to stress comparisons between Japan and Germany and examine topics like the treatment of American and European prisoners of war by the Japanese military. Research into this topic also exists in Japan, but the focus of interest is different. The existence of this sort of difference is only to be expected, and one might even say that it is better for there to be a certain degree of distance between domestic and overseas studies. But the Japanese studies in other countries seem to have been advancing together without an established framework of links to Japan’s domestic research, and the papers written in English and other languages by Japan specialists are not frequently cited in Japan’s academic journals.

The Japanese government provides financial support for Japanese studies in other countries through institutions like the Japan Foundation, but this support is positioned as a form of “cultural exchange.” This neglects the fact that the people involved in these overseas studies provide an important route for transmission of information about Japan to the rest of the world—they serve as a key media channel, so to speak. Whenever a newsworthy event occurs in Japan, it is the local Japan specialists who are called on to explain it. And while native Japanese language instructors and researchers dispatched from Japan serve as channels of information for college students who are interested in Japan, the main sources they learn from are these same nonnative specialists.

Promoting the Development of Experts, Not Fans

Above I have touched on issues relating to Japanese studies in other countries. Next I would like to offer some thoughts on improving Japan’s support for these overseas studies based on the idea that such support should be seen as part of Japan’s international public relations program.

The Japanese government seems to be concentrating its international PR efforts on sending Japanese people overseas to spread the word about Japan. But promoting dialogue with Japan specialists in other countries can also serve as a form of international publicity. For example, a series of surveys of domestic public opinion regarding nationalism by Genron NPO (a Japanese think tank) reveals that only a relatively small share of respondents feel nationalistic sentiments have increased in recent years. But in the same organization’s surveys of opinion in other countries, the share of those who say Japanese nationalism is on the rise has been increasing. And the same trend is found among specialists in Japanese studies. To close this perception gap, it would probably be most effective to communicate better with overseas specialists, since their opinions are likely to carry weight in the international arena.

Japan specialists are not necessarily pro-Japanese. Many Japan hands in Western countries are liberals and tend to be critical of Japanese policy. The critical bent is even clearer among Chinese researchers. But even if such researchers’ conclusions are negative, as long as they offer substantive facts and put them in proper context, we should appreciate their work. The key, I believe, is not to increase the number of “Japan fans” in other countries but to deepen the pool of people well versed in Japanese affairs, developing closer links with them.

In this light, and taking into account the concerns I noted above—the shift of interest toward soft culture, the decline of Japanese studies relative to Chinese and Korean studies, the lack of dialogue between Japanese and non-Japanese researchers—I would suggest that Japan should provide active, strategic support for Japanese studies in other countries as a key element of its international PR efforts.

Three Cautionary Notes

In providing such support, however, we must keep a number of points in mind. One is to avoid focusing on the “favorable” versus “unfavorable” content of researchers’ judgments and instead stress the need for the reliability of research in terms of its factual grounding and substantive analysis. Support directed only at research that produces positive assessments risks reviving memories of Japan’s prewar cultural propaganda efforts.

Second, I think we should stop concentrating our international PR efforts so heavily on the field of culture, which has traditionally been stressed, and on issues in dispute, such as territorial claims and historical perceptions, which have recently become a major priority. Instead, I would suggest paying more attention to sharing information about the various social issues that Japan now faces domestically—in other words, telling the rest of the world about Japan’s everyday realities. Our country is a “problem pioneer,” already grappling with population aging and other issues that others will confront in the future. We should keep this fact in mind.

Third, we need to pay more heed to what others have to say about our country. Some seem to think that only we Japanese can truly understand Japan, but there are bound to be points that we fail to see from inside, along with phenomena that cause us no concern but that attract considerable (and unfavorable) attention from people in other countries. Transmitting Japan’s message to the rest of the world is a worthy undertaking, but it must not be a one-way process. I believe that our insufficient awareness of some issues—including ones that we could address by making adjustments—is the source of a part of the criticism directed at Japan. We need to become better listeners.

Here at Nippon.com we are eager to deliver the sorts of information that overseas readers want and to develop closer ties with people involved in Japanese studies around the world. We hope to put together a series of articles about this field. And we are paying attention to the traffic on our site, noting that some articles that are little accessed in their Japanese versions are drawing numerous readers in one or more of our six other languages. Taking this sort of data into account, we will continue striving to improve the content of this multilingual online publication.

(Originally written in Japanese on October 14, 2014.)

anime video games China Kawashima Shin Korea culture research Japanese studies