Commentary / Japan

Must Japan's humanities go global?

by Shaun O'dwyer

Contributing Writer

It doesn’t have to be about increasing their “global competitiveness.”

In 2015, Japanese and international media broke news of the impending demise of the humanities in Japan’s national universities. The education minister had apparently ordered university administrations to abolish humanities departments or “convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs.” Following a domestic and international backlash, however, government officials appeared to backtrack; the humanities would not be axed. Like a certain bewigged British monarch, they remain destined to be a long time a-dying.

University of Tokyo Vice President and sociologist Shunya Yoshimi, author of the 2016 book “The Abolition of the Humanities ‘Shock,’ ” has observed that this controversy was partly based on media misunderstandings of the intentions of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Science and Technology. Nevertheless, the intensity of the ensuing debate confirmed for him the need to clarify the usefulness of the humanities, in evaluating values and value change in contemporary society.

Yet proving the humanities’ usefulness is as fraught an exercise in Japan as it is abroad — perhaps even more so. In Japan the humanities have long been subjected to unfair comparisons with the sciences, for lacking obvious “profitability” for society. With the growth of global university ranking tables incorporating metrics for evaluating research output and quality, such comparisons have become more invidious. Relative to the sciences, the humanities lack high impact academic journals, do not generate high citation rates and do not attract the level of research funding that would enable them to enhance a university’s global ranking and status.

The Japanese government’s anxieties about the global competitiveness of the nation’s universities is further cause for gloom about the humanities. Much like their counterparts in other non-English speaking countries, most Japanese humanities scholars seldom publish their research in international English-language journals or with English-language academic book presses, and just as seldom present their research at international conferences. Relative to English-language humanities scholarship, the international impact of Japanese humanities scholarship is negligible, at least as that is defined in global ranking tables.

Why is this the case? Put simply, humanities scholars in Japan do not have the same pressures, or incentives, that scientists do to publish their research in English. English is now the global lingua franca of modern science; inability to communicate and publish scientific research in English practically guarantees scholarly invisibility and irrelevance. Humanities scholars, on the other hand, have many Japanese-language academic forums and publications in which to present and publish their research. While receptive to international research trends, these forums are also largely insulated from networking, and collaboration, with foreign scholarship.

For instance, most humanities scholars publish in Japanese-language departmental bulletins or kiyō, academic society journals and conference proceedings, while more prominent scholars publish with prestigious private book presses such as Iwanami Shoten, to sometimes enviably large public and academic readerships.

This state of affairs is now changing. Under pressure to increase their global competitiveness, national universities have downgraded the value of Japanese-language kiyō publications in faculty performance evaluations, while incentivizing publication in English-language Scopus-listed journals. Government funding for Japanese-language academic journals has also been cut, while special funding has been made available for scholarly associations to retrofit existing journals and academic forums for English-language scholarship and international research collaboration. More foreign instructors are being hired, and more courses are being taught in English.

The globalization reform process in Japanese universities has its critics. Generally speaking, they point to the distorting, corrupting influence of universities’ obsession with global rankings on scholarly research output and evaluation. In Japan’s case, they highlight the irrelevance of global competitiveness rhetoric to the linguistically insular but still academically productive world of Japanese humanities scholarship. These critics have a point.

Still, I want to suggest a justification for increasing the global impact of Japan-based humanities scholarship based on my own experiences and observations, which has little to do with global-rankings obsessions. That justification concerns the need for Japan humanities perspectives to be heard more by foreign audiences abroad, to have greater influence in international scholarship and the global public sphere.

First, a lack of English-language proficient Japanese scholars and public intellectuals active in global scholarship, or in elite level media communications in English-speaking countries, weakens Japan’s soft power influence. In July 2015 for instance, a bizarre controversy broke out over an exhibition of replica uchikake kimono connected to Monet’s La Japonoise painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, cosponsored by NHK, which had given museum patrons the chance to try on a kimono.

Then a group of self-styled Asian-American protesters with little cultural knowledge of the exhibited kimono began disrupting the exhibition. Through adroit use of politically charged social media rhetoric they seized gate-keeping power over the right to wear the kimono, denouncing the try-ons by mostly white patrons as “yellow face,” “Orientalism” and “cultural appropriation,” and persuading the museum to cancel them.

As I found out while researching an article about the “Kimono Wednesdays” affair for this newspaper, the opinions of Japanese fashion scholars, Japanese and foreign kimono designers and many ordinary Japanese — that the kimono is a universal fashion, wearable by anyone — had little impact in the international debate that followed. Much of the fault lay with culturally insular American mass media organizations, unreceptive to dissenting Japanese voices even as they devoted column space to the antics of social media bloviators.

Meanwhile, the few Japanese media reporting on the affair struggled to interpret to bewildered readers the muddled postcolonial and anti-racist theorizing lying behind the protests. They were not alone in their bemusement. To paraphrase an old French joke, if the ghost of Edward Said was wandering the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at that time, he must’ve been stoned. The outcome, however, was that few Japanese people were properly informed about this debate.

Indeed, the other main problem in this affair, and in similar incidents of “cultural appropriation” activism that followed was (with a few exceptions) a lack of Japanese fashion experts, academics, public intellectuals and netizens proficient and articulate enough in English to push back against such activism in international scholarly forums, and in mass and social media communications. Given the strong interest of kimono designers and advocates for Japanese culture in the global promotion of kimono fashion, this was a soft power fail.

Second, the lack of influence of Japan-based scholarship on international research can have distorting effects in some humanities fields. Take one of my research fields, in contemporary Confucian philosophy. The consensus of many scholars about the late 20th-century revival of interest in Confucianism is that this was the work of Chinese and Taiwanese scholars keen to regenerate Confucianism as an academic philosophy, and as a national moral and cultural bulwark against the march of “Western” ideologies such as communism or liberal individualism.

Yet this consensus misses the pioneering, modernizing role late 19th and early 20th century Japanese scholars trained in European philosophy had played in retooling Confucianism as an academic philosophy, a reinterpretation which they transmitted to Chinese scholars. It also misses the role that a modernized Confucian morality had played in statist ideologies that Japanese scholars formulated under the influence of German nationalist and idealist philosophies, with growing anti-Western, anti-democratic and imperialist fervor up to World War II.

There are Japanese scholars currently studying the 19th to 20th century history of Confucianism in Japan who can set the record straight, but their work is published largely in Japanese and is mostly unknown outside Japan, except to the few foreign scholars studying Japanese Confucianism. It needs to be better known.

Today nationalist scholars in elite Chinese universities are also reinterpreting Confucianism in increasingly anti-Western, anti-liberal terms, in ideologically repressive and febrile conditions chillingly reminiscent of elite Japanese universities in the 1930s. Awareness of 20th century Japanese nationalist appropriations of Confucianism, and of the duplicity of prominent Japanese Confucians in justifying state repression of dissent, could serve as a warning for where these present-day trends could lead to.

There are various means by which Japanese and Japan-based foreign scholars could increase the global impact of Japan humanities scholarship, including the means promoted by advocates of Japanese university globalization. But as I hope I have made clear, justifications for doing so do not have to be motivated by narrow obsessions with international competitiveness.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University. His forthcoming book is titled “Confucianism’s Prospects.”