Symposium hears of new ‘pan-Asian’ trend

by Tomoko Otake

“It’s been years since Japan, in the eyes of outside observers, entered the phase of “Japan Nothing.” This followed an era of “Japan Bashing” during its 1980s economic heyday and then “Japan Passing” in the post-bubble ’90s.

Yet between 1995 and 2005, the number of Japan researchers worldwide has grown by 3 percent, to 6,277, while the number of institutions that research Japan has gone up 13 percent, to 1,189, according to Japan Foundation survey findings released this year.

How do scholars who make a living from studying Japan regard all this? The foreign ministry-affiliated foundation, which since its 1972 inception has played a key role in promoting academic interest in Japan around the world, recently invited 16 leading Japan researchers from the world over to discuss the current status of Japanese studies in their respective countries and regions.

At a symposium held in Tokyo last month, the researchers provided — in impeccable Japanese — summaries of a three-day conference held a few days earlier in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, where topics of discussion ranged from a growing student interest in Japan’s pop culture, to the increasing integration of university-level Japan studies with other Asian studies and the rapidly expanding network of Japan researchers overseas.

Many symposium participants reported that, over the years, interest in Japan has diversified, though there is no denying that students’ main attention at the moment is on pop culture, including manga and anime.

According to Kitti Prasirtsuk of Thammasat University in Thailand, where Japan studies were introduced in 1980 with subsidies from the Japan Foundation, interest in Japan grew as the economy improved rapidly in the late 1980s. Back then, students’ main concern was to get a job with a Japanese company after graduation.

But then after 1997, Prasirtsuk said that students began to be interested in pop culture, especially manga and anime, as well as such aspects of Japan as Isson Ippin Undo (a movement to revitalize rural villages by picking a strong sales product for each), the aging population and the garbage problem.

While many researchers welcomed the growing role of manga and anime in making Japan studies accessible, some said that universities lack teachers to meet students’ demands, while others said academics are being severely challenged to expand such students’ understanding of Japan and Japanese culture to a deeper level.

Isam Hamza, a Japan researcher from Cairo University, also said that Japanese cultures are sometimes misunderstood or misrepresented in his country because manga and anime are translated into Arabic after being translated into French first.

With Japan’s status as an economic power waning, however, many universities have recently merged Japanese study programs with Chinese and Korean programs, to present them together under the heading of Asian studies. As a result, studies on Japan’s economy and politics are being integrated with studies of systems in the rest of the Asian region. This means that Japan is increasingly being researched from a pan-Asian perspective, some scholars noted.

However, this could actually be a good thing for students, according to Corrado Molteni, an Italian scholar, who said that universities have an obligation to help their students find jobs after graduation, and therefore it is better if they acquire not just Japanese but also Chinese or some other Asian language.

Scholars of Japan have been affected by the country’s diplomacy as well. Yi Kang Min of Hanyang University, who also chairs the Korea Association of Japanology, said that Japan had long been both “close and far” for South Korea, reflecting the psychological distance between the two countries.

“In South Korea, the public image of Japan has changed from a country ‘close and far,’ to ‘Japan as No. 1′ (in the 1980s) to the post-bubble ‘Japan as Zero’ to ‘Japan as Something.’ Then, since around 1996, a new image has emerged, which is ‘Japan is fun and enjoyable,’ ” he said, noting that Japan researchers in South Korea today feel uninhibited about pursuing their work, while their status in society has also gone up.

Yi added that, in many countries, a network of Japan researchers is rapidly expanding, as Japan studies have gone global.

“I also am actively involved in academic exchanges with a Japan researcher in Taiwan, taking my students to Taiwan and using Japanese as a common language,” he said. “The year before last, I also took a group of graduate students to Salamanca in Spain (for research).

“It’s only the Japanese people who don’t know all this.”