U.K. to aid East Asia studies

Colleges join to safeguard Japanese, Chinese disciplines

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

The British government will create centers-of-excellence in Japanese and Chinese studies following concern over the closure of several East Asian courses.

The centers are expected to be formed by several existing university departments working in collaboration and will offer support and training.

A number of institutions are currently preparing bids for a share of the £22 million fund, which will create specialist centers across several disciplines, including East Asian studies.

The five-year funding package follows a review by the government on how to protect certain minority subjects.

Ministers recognize that while some disciplines may not be very popular with students, it is in the country’s national interest to maintain a certain level of provision, according to government officials.

There has been growing concern at the steady decline in the number of institutions teaching Japanese at a specialized level in Britain.

Although the number of Britons studying Japanese has recently started to tail off and stabilized, departments have also been vulnerable to cutbacks because Japanese is more expensive to teach than other languages, observers say.

While academics have generally welcomed the government’s move, they recognize that it will not increase the number of Japanese departments in Britain or return those that have already closed down. The plans may also make it harder for smaller departments to survive.

Several Japanese departments are working together to become the center-of-excellence, and Kyodo has learned there will also be a bid for a joint Korean, Japanese and Chinese center. At this stage, it is unclear how many centers there will be, but there could be two for Japanese and two for Chinese. A decision is expected sometime next May.

The envisioned centers will sponsor students studying for master’s degrees and doctorates, as well offer language training for lecturers and students.

Janet Hunter, president of the British Association of Japanese Studies, said, “Members welcome the interest which the government has taken and the fact that they have shown their willingness to put money into it.”

Hunter particularly welcomed the emphasis on funding British postgraduates in East Asian studies, as many of the students are currently from overseas.

“However, I think that historically there has been skepticism about what the government can really deliver. And we have had experiences of short-term initiatives which don’t deliver.

“There is also concern that if this initiative is concentrating on places which are already strong . . . then smaller institutions may go to the wall,” she added.

Stephen McEnally, program director at the Japan Foundation’s London office, said: “It’s a beginning. We welcome any initiative that will help put Japanese studies in the U.K. onto a more secure and financial footing for the future.

“But still more needs to be done. Over the past few years, the subject has been, to say the least, vulnerable, and totally insufficient attention has been paid to its enormous strategic importance to this country.”

There are currently only six universities in Britain that offer single honors degrees in Japanese following Durham University’s decision to close its department for East Asian studies in 2003. Prior to the Durham controversy, single or joint honors in Japanese had been withdrawn at four universities.