U.K. affinity for Japan pop fuels language interest anew

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

The popularity of contemporary Japanese culture in Britain is helping to fuel a growing number of applications to study Japanese at universities, academics said.

Whereas in the 1980s the prime motivating factor for learning Japanese was business, today’s reasons are more diverse, they said. Many people are choosing the subject because of their interest in modern-day aspects of Japan such as “manga” (comics), “anime” (animation) design and fashion.

But academics also believe the increasing number of children learning Japanese in schools — estimated to be around 10,000 — is also spurring interest.

Mark Williams, president of the British Association of Japanese Studies, said demand is rising “rapidly” year upon year from people wishing to study the language and culture.

For example, there were 532 applications in 2002, 744 in 2004 and 1,126 in 2007, a 40 percent rise from 2006.

Williams said that in addition to popular graphic genres such as anime and manga, J-pop and video games also exerted a strong draw on young minds.

“But there are clearly other elements of popular Japanese culture — the various martial arts spring readily to mind — that act as an equally powerful magnet for some.”

Williams, a professor of Japanese studies at Leeds University, also noted that the recovery of the Japanese economy is a factor as well as the growing number of schoolchildren taking the subject.

Nearly half of those applying for Japanese courses can already speak some of the language. A total of 261 youngsters took Japanese at the A-level (exams taken at the age of 18 before university) this year.

Added to this, there are increasing numbers of graduates who spend a few years teaching English in Japan and want to continue their study of the country on their return home.

But despite the growth in applications, all is not well in Japanese departments.

Over the last 10 years, a number of departments have closed and there have been cutbacks in others because Japanese is more expensive to teach than other subjects. It attracts fewer students than more popular degrees and the ratio of teachers to pupils is therefore higher. Many fear the drive for efficiency will eventually lead to just a few large departments.

This contraction of supply has come about despite the growth in applications and has led to greater demand at the more established centers of Japanese studies, such as Leeds.

Williams said: “After having worked on admissions at Leeds this past summer — and I know that this picture has been repeated in all the other centers nationwide — I can assure you that there is a large number of excellent students out there who have been disappointed in their choice of degree and been obliged to look to other subjects.”

To try and remedy the situation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and the Nippon Foundation have just created 13 new research and teaching posts that will focus on contemporary Japan.

This was, in part, a recognition that some students are attracted to Japanese through modern-day aspects of the country. Many of them tend to take Japanese with other subjects.

It bears some similarities to the way Japan has recently been rebranding itself to tourists with its Cool Japan campaign. This has focused on the country’s manga and animation-related attractions, in contrast to the traditional emphasis on sumo, geisha and shrines.

Ian Reader is a professor of Japanese studies at Manchester University. His department will benefit from one of the new posts. The new lecturer is expected to work on the translation of Japanese as seen in several different media and social contexts, including the Internet.

He said half of his entrants this year already had A-level Japanese and many had been drawn to the language through manga and anime.

“We are not getting many students whose primary interest is to have Japanese for business,” Reader said. “In the 1980s a lot of the growth was built around business . . . now those kinds of students are turning to Chinese. This year’s applicants for Japanese studies are instead interested in the dynamism and creative genius of Japanese culture.”

Nicola Liscutin, a lecturer in Japanese studies at London University, will be using money from the foundations to create a post examining Japan’s creative industries, including manga, anime and design. The researcher will also be examining how Japan portrays the West and vice versa through various media. Several similar posts will be set up as well to explore Japan’s postwar and modern history.

Stephen McEnally, chief executive of the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, said: “Undoubtedly a number of applicants to Japanese Studies courses are attracted by the Cool Japan image — manga, anime, fashion, cutting-edge design — and not necessarily by the traditional image. But that is only part of the reason why Japanese remains popular as a degree subject.”