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.
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.
The ultimate purpose of the program at Tokyo University, according to the curriculum guide, "is to educate students to become an asset to the society with international understanding and vision, rather than becoming strictly academic with a narrow focus." And the teaching is also tailored to help "Japan's interest" with the US.
To help those Japanese who cannot afford to go to the US for American studies, Kyoto's Doshisha University set up an innovative master's degree program last April, enrolling 31 students, 23 of whom are women. The program is supported by seven full-time and two part-time faculty members, and a 40,000-volume library.
Many classes are taught in English, and students are required to do fieldwork in the US for their master's thesis.
Doshisha history professor Masahiro Hosoya, whose specialty is the American Occupation, says he teaches his courses by using the Japan-US relationship as a "window" to understand US society.
The most prominent Americanist in Japan, Nagayo Homma, now a professor at Tokyo Woman's Christian University, says that American studies in Japan has matured to the extent that it can influence American studies debates in the US because, he says, they "tend to lack a comparative perspective."
Also, says Doshisha student Sawada, using the comparative approach to American studies has shown her "how special America has been for Japan. Sometimes I am really touched. I was born after the war, and didn't know much. But Japan really did look up to the United States."
She recalls learning how the Japanese empress in the late 19th century translated Ben Franklin's essay on virtues into Japanese poetry called haiku.
Many students in the Doshisha program quit jobs to take up American studies. Ms. Sawada, who spent eight years living in New York, left a bank job in Japan. For her thesis, she is studying how the Fulbright program of international exchanges helped establish US leadership in the world.
"As you work in Japanese society, you begin to wonder why the US-Japan relationship is not working. I wanted to find out why," she says.
Another example of Japan-centered American studies is found in the Japanese Journal of American Studies, published in English. Recent topics have included the US policy in east Asia (1945-50) and Japanese immigrants in the United States.
One article dealt with a debate in the early years of the US over government support for industry, a very current topic in US-Japan ties. Another was about anti-Japanese feelings in the US and how Japanese-Americans are "still not completely established."
Discrimination against minorities is a common topic among Japanese Americanists. "Perhaps we study the ethnic mix of the US to understand our own problems with internationalization," says Dr. Hosoya. Compared with US programs, American studies in Japan is less focused on culture than on politics, economics, and foreign relations, says Dr. Shinkawa.
"We think that we have a social obligation to explain the American legal and political system to the Japanese," he says.
But Americanists in Japan have little influence in their own country, says Yasuo Sakakibara, dean of Doshisha's program. Dr. Homma of Tokyo Woman's Christian University, however, occasionally advises the government about the United States.
"There's a big wall between academics and Japanese policy-makers, although in the long-run, we do have some impact on scholars, businessmen, and journalists," Dr. Sakakibara says.
When members of the Japanese media do interview him, "They think I'm biased," he adds. "The media wants criticism, while I give explanation."
While Japanese people appreciate the role of the Americanist in interpreting the US, Sakakibara says, "Once relations [between the US and Japan] get friction-bound, people may listen to demagogues, and Americanist can be considered 'America-lovers.