Japanese Take Up US Studies
Demand is high for courses about the US at universities in this island nation. Many students say they are eager to use their training to improve US-Japan ties.
IN the weeks before the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, many students in the American studies program at Doshisha University here were puzzled by the Japanese media's Rashomon-like interpretations of the historic event.Skip to next paragraph
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Some articles blamed the United States for backing Japan into a corner in 1941. Others claimed the White House knew the attack was coming. Some simply pointed a finger at the Imperial Japanese Army.
So the students asked their professors at the Kyoto-based school to organize a special seminar on the origins of World War II, a period of history often given short shrift in Japanese schools.
They consulted books such as "At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor," by Gordon W. Prange, watched a video on the attack, and then discussed the war late into the evening. At about the same time, the American studies center at Tokyo University also held its own well-attended seminar on Pearl Harbor.
"We were able to see Pearl Harbor in a deeper historical context," says one Doshisha student, Yoshino Muramoto, "and to understand how the war was caused by both a perception gap and a communication gap between Japan and the United States.
"It's almost the same now in the trade disputes," she adds. "We must find a way to reduce our superficial knowledge of the US."
One way Ms. Muramoto and others have been trying to do just that is by taking up American studies. Many students are eager to use their training to improve US-Japan ties.
"We'll really be able to explain what America is," says Doshisha student Misa Sawada. "It could really change international understanding."
The three leading American studies programs in Japan are at Tokyo University, Nanzan University in Nagoya, and Doshisha University. Other programs, offering either a degree or a few courses, are at Tsukuba, Sophia, Rikkyo, Tsuda, Hiroshima, and Obilin Universities. Most of the professors have been trained at both US and Japanese universities.
Despite a high demand among young people for such programs, American studies in Japan "is a hard row to hoe," says Otis Cary, an American teacher at Doshisha and a long-time resident of Kyoto.
One difficulty is an Old World rigidity in Japanese universities that keeps professors enamored with narrow specialization, even though American studies is an interdisciplinary field, says Mr. Cary. One recent paper, for instance, was on New York garbage workers in the 1880s.
And because many Japanese believe they know so much about the US already, American studies has a hard time competing with French, German, or other area studies.
But, Cary says, the quality of scholarship in American studies is high. "We can give a US university a run for its money," he says.
Many programs have received some American support, usually from the government-linked US-Japan Friendship Commission, the US-Japan Foundation, and the US-Japan Educational Foundation, which provides a flow of Fulbright scholars between the two nations.
From 1951 to 1987, a popular summer seminar was held in Kyoto bringing together dozens of Japan's "Americanists" with guest speakers from the US.
Since its founding in 1966, the Japanese Association for American Studies (JAAS) has grown to 840 members, about half the size of the American Literature Association in Japan.
The most established program, one with its own building and a library of 50,000 volumes, is at Tokyo University. It usually has about eight undergraduates and two graduate students in American studies, who are taught by 11 of the university's professors as well as eight from outside. The program began during the American Occupation, says history professor Kensaburo Shinkawa, "when Japan wanted to learn from the US to reform Japanese society after the war."
"By the 1960s, however, our American studies became more critical of American society, or at least more objective. Now we have reached a third stage of doing just academic work in American studies," he says.