Virtual Roundtable: The “Rebirth” of Japanese Studies

Laura Miller, University of Missouri - St. Louis

Laura Miller is the Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor of Japanese Studies and Professor of History at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Miller has published widely on Japan and is currently doing research on religion and the divination industry in Japan. In the past she has served as President of the Society for East Asian Anthropology, President of the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs, and Chair of the Midwest Japan Seminar. She is currently on the US Advisory Committee for the Japan Foundation.


Many of us in Japan Studies are facing ideological battles that might be different from twenty or thirty years ago. It is crucial to acknowledge that early and mid-career scholars in particular are concerned with changes that many senior scholars did not face. The problems we confront are tied to trends in higher education that impact all social science and humanities faculty, not only Japan specialists. The Re-Birth of Japan Studies requires us to be flexible and creative if we are to endure.

Some college and university administrators argue that globalization is fostering a single world zone, and therefore study of specific cultural areas is no longer needed, even though Asian studies scholars have repeatedly proven that this is not the case. Many administrators also believe that certain areas of study that do not have obvious practical application are unnecessary luxuries for students burdened with daunting tuition debt. Part of our work as faculty now includes advocating for an academic culture that recognizes Japan Studies (and Asian studies more broadly) as an essential part of the educational mission. Advocacy means that we must continue to explain, over and over again, to fellow faculty members, administrators, and students why we need Japan Studies (and Asian Studies). I do not recall many of the elite Japan Studies professors of the past having to do quite so much PR work. But all of us, in all humanities and social science disciplines, are called on to continually do explanatory work in addition to teaching and research.

Scholars teaching in smaller colleges and in public universities in the US have always had to teach a spectrum of courses outside their areas of training and specialization. We have always had to retool and pitch courses that attract students. Perhaps now more than ever these skills are critical for any new PhD. Although it has never been my experience in more than thirty years of teaching, I know people at major universities who are allowed to run courses that have enrollments of less than seven people. But for the majority of us, courses with low enrollments don’t fly. Some new faculty, in frustration at being asked to teach courses that draw more students, claim that “Japanese pop culture” is taking over Japan Studies and that “traditional” and pre-modern subjects are actively being discriminated against. There are even bogus accusations that grant agencies are discriminating against “high” culture or pre-modern Japan projects, which is empirically not true. The reality is that these days the majority of Japan Studies faculty must be prepared to do what faculty in smaller interdisciplinary programs and at non-elite schools have always had to do, which is teach outside our narrow specializations. Instead of having unrealistic expectations, perhaps we need to adjust by considering the following:

  1. Communicate with other scholars in Japan Studies elsewhere outside your own institution.
  2. Create links and collaborations with faculty in other programs, disciplines, and universities.
  3. Teach courses that are more accessible and appealing to a range of students beyond Japan studies majors.

Communication with scholars outside one’s own institution will help us in countless ways. For instance, I taught at a Jesuit university over a decade ago and was always frustrated with the utter lack of interest in Japan by university administrators. It was not until I talked to faculty at other Jesuit universities that the structural reasons for this became clear. Jesuit schools in the US are organized into distinct provinces or geographic regions that are in turn tied to different world missions that may serve as the basis for campus focus or specialization. Knowing the implicit models of your institution is critical if you want to pitch new curricula, programs, courses, and faculty hirings so that you can tailor your rationale to their worldview.

In order to flourish, we should also be thinking of ways to forge collaborations with faculty in other programs, disciplines, and universities. Some of the most exciting Japan Studies programs that are getting major funding these days are linking faculty and students in new ways. An example is the “Sustainable Japan” research program at the University of California at Irvine, with a focus on Japanese Environmental Humanities. It received competitive funding from the Japan Foundation.

Japan Studies scholars at smaller schools or in some regions of the US have often had to teach outside their areas of training and are frequently the only Asian studies faculty on their campuses. This is one reason that the Midwest Japan Seminar was established more than forty years ago. Scholars from all academic disciplines from around one hundred institutions in the US Midwest gather a few times a year to share teaching and research interests. For participants who are the only Japan Studies or Asian studies faculty on their campuses, these meetings are a vibrant lifeline for intellectual exchange. Faculty trained in Korea studies and China studies are members as well, as they are sometimes charged with teaching the Japan Studies courses on their campuses.

Teaching courses that are more accessible and appealing to a range of students might very well mean that most of us will be teaching outside our primary areas of research training. My own graduate training was in linguistic anthropology, one of the four main subfields of anthropology. It does not exist on my current campus. Because I teach at a public state university, my primary teaching duty, even as a senior faculty member, is to put bodies in classroom seats. I’ve created popular courses that often have nothing to do with my own research interests. Instead of feeling aggrieved by this I’ve used it as an opportunity to expand my reading and study of Japan. Other members of this virtual roundtable provide excellent examples of how expanding their teaching interests have enriched their campuses, attracted students to their courses, garnered public acclaim off campus, and helped their own career trajectories.

I have sketched only a few of the many issues faculty and scholars of Japan may need to handle in their careers. For example, there are also growing cases of internet and email harassment by right-wing trolls and student groups. How are individuals and institutions dealing with these threats? In addition, many of us are worried about how the global coronavirus pandemic will impact our futures. The virtual format of this roundtable is intended to share a spectrum of experiences and viewpoints, and also to elicit continuing discussion with scholars from the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Please join us in sharing your own questions and concerns.


Return to Comments Submit a Response