Virtual Roundtable: The “Rebirth” of Japanese Studies

Mark Pendleton, University of Sheffield

Mark Pendleton holds a PhD in history from the University of Melbourne and has taught since 2012 in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield where he was recently promoted to Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor). He co-edited the Routledge Companion to Gender and Japanese Culture (2019) with Jennifer Coates and Lucy Fraser. Mark is also a National Executive Committee member of the University and College Union, which represents over 120,000 people working in universities and colleges across the UK.


In a recent essay responding in part to last year’s AAS discussions on the Death of Japanese Studies,1 Grace En-Yi Ting asked:

How might we argue that Japanese studies has become antiquated due to its own problematic histories and tendencies? What or whose “death” is being acknowledged here? Meanwhile, how does such a framing block out the existence of problems that continue to drag on, or “live” on in Japanese studies?

Ting writes from her own experiences as a Taiwanese-American queer woman, but her challenge nevertheless has a wider resonance.

In January of 2012 I moved from Australia to take up a permanent job in Sheffield, arriving on the fourth continent of my still nascent academic career. I was fortunate to be relatively mobile, with just a partner and dog to convince – the dog is still with me, but the relationship sadly did not survive. That story of mobility (and associated relationship breakdowns) is not unusual in an unstable and precarious job market.

A couple of years earlier, while on a short-term fellowship at New York University, I attended my first AAS. Encountering people whose names I knew from books was, as I’m sure it is for many graduate students, intimidating. But I also found the context a little jarring in other ways.

Coming from a small but vibrant Japanese Studies community in Australia, I’d been trained to think about the field in a global context. I read material from everywhere, and researched job markets in the US, Japan, and pretty much anywhere I could conceive of drawing a salary. What surprised me at that first AAS was the limited worldview of some of the other graduate students I encountered, alongside some immense privilege. The perception seemed to be that Ivy League training should lead to Ivy League jobs. Other ‘good’ universities could be considered, but only within the USA (or Canada at a stretch). Japan seemed to function as a great object of study, but getting a job there was, and I heard this term more than once, “career suicide”. The rest of the world was largely invisible.

Things have changed somewhat over the last decade as job searches have stretched further in difficult markets, however some of this US-centrism persists. Even in Paula’s excellent data analysis for this roundtable, the terms (and assumptions about job security) don’t always translate well. Take the phrase ‘tenure-track’. In the UK, permanent academic staff like me have a fair degree of job security but not tenure in a North American sense – this was abolished by the Thatcher government over 30 years ago.

A year after I started working at Sheffield, I was invited to speak at an event convened by (now Emeritus) Professor Glenn Hook on “The Past, Present and Future of Japanese Studies in the UK”. The event marked the 50th anniversary of my department, originally created as a response to a 1961 government report by former diplomat Sir William Hayter about the need for greater understanding in the UK of the wider world. Hayter was inspired in part by his exposure to the emergence of area studies departments in the USA, and his report led to the creation of these in various parts of the UK. Our anniversary event was not held in Sheffield, or even at a university, but instead two hours away in London at a major philanthropic organization, with invited guests from government, business and our alumni. It seemed strange to me that the great regional centre for Japanese Studies celebrated its 50th year back at the heart of political and cultural power in this country, but this perhaps reflected some of the features inherent in the British Japanese Studies project, at least as it was conceived from the 1960s.

Relatively new to the UK and not really knowing what to say in my remarks, I did what historians do and dove into the archives. I found a 1962 letter from the then director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Sir Cyril Phillips, in which he was responding to requests to help Sheffield acquire teachers with advanced Japanese language skills. He agreed in principle but asked “in which discipline you would wish to have a man trained.” In my 2013 talk, I noted that while this gendered language may no longer be acceptable, it nevertheless continued to be reflective of some views in British Japanese Studies – speakers at that 2013 anniversary event consisted entirely of white men, and I was the only participant then under 40. I came away with a feeling of a field lagging behind in terms of who it included (and excluded).

I also found a 1960s flyer for Sheffield’s new Japanese Studies degrees.2 Printed in a simple font in black on a very historically appropriate shade of brown, it bore the slogan, ‘Japanese Studies: New Degree Courses for the World of Today.’ At the time of that 2013 event, our departmental website wasn’t projecting such a confident position: “Given the often negative reporting on Japan, especially on the long-term economic recession since the 1990s or the triple disasters of 2011, you could perhaps be forgiven for writing off Japan as a global player.” Nevertheless, we went on to try to make a version of the argument that helped create the Japanese Studies programmes of the 1960s – Japan was a smart choice for the savvy undergraduate looking for opportunities.

I went back to these documents again in preparing for this roundtable and after reflecting on Ting’s intervention. By the time I arrived, the model of Japanese Studies established at Sheffield, and in some ways enduring there and elsewhere in the UK, was already out of date, if not exactly dead. Gendered inequality; a complicated and sometimes complicit relationship with state power; active promotion of exploitation of the ‘other’ – these were all markers of a postwar area studies frame that has been under sustained critique for decades.

These critical discussions of ‘area studies’ have tended to be most prominent within a North American context. Scholars like Naoki Sakai have long highlighted the intimate connection between area studies and the global strategic and economic interests of the USA as well as the implications of conceiving of an ‘area’ of study. As Sakai and Gavin Walker argued in an introduction to a recent special issue of positions, “to know the object of area studies is also at the same time to know how to govern that particular population.”

By contrast, scholars like Tessa Morris-Suzuki have argued, if not exactly in defense of ‘area’ – she famously wrote a piece in the early 2000s called ‘anti-area studies’ – then for a way through this decades-old debate. In an article in that same positions volume, Morris-Suzuki argues that “rather than being a field of scholarship through which the hegemonic West observes and analyzes the non-Western ‘Other,’ [area studies] has increasingly become a transnational endeavor, in which multiple voices and perspectives have a place.” What’s needed then is not a rejection, but a reformulation away from nationally-bounded areas to something different. Area, in Morris-Suzuki’s construction, ‘is brought into being only by human activity — travel, trade, and communication.” Through a focus on flows (those movements that link people) and vortices (swirling whirlpools of social and cultural interaction) she suggests that it may be possible to imagine a more “liquid” area studies.

In 1966, just a couple of short years after the formation of my department, Professor Geoffrey Bownas argued in his inaugural lecture for a similar break from the past. Traditional Japanology, as Bownas saw it was “self-contained, inward-looking, and Western-centred.” Instead he argued for a Japanese Studies that was directed “to a comparative, multi-disciplinary treatment of Japan as part of the broad picture of man [sic] and man in society.” This concept of a language-based area studies grounded in the social sciences was revolutionary for its time in the UK and shaped the Sheffield approach for some decades.

However, in recent years we have been moving much more in the direction that Morris-Suzuki suggested. Appointments have been made who explore connection across and between ‘areas’, constituting new areas of their own – on topics like digital culture, human rights, music and more. Courses increasingly reflect this fluid approach with a newly revamped curriculum for undergraduates starting from our own vortices - undergraduate students of all three national areas in our department (China, Korea and Japan) must at least start their education together. We’ve also been able to make the case for increased hiring.

Across the UK, we’ve also seen a rebirth in East Asian scholarship, partly in response to generational shifts but also through the creation of new programmes. Durham University, which had made a spectacular own goal in the mid-noughties in closing its distinguished Japanese and Chinese degrees, quietly reopened them a few years back. Manchester University, which partly filled that gap when Japanese began there in 2007, has continued to grow. Strong programmes also exist at the universities of Cardiff, East Anglia, Edinburgh, Leeds, Newcastle, Oxford Brookes and more. There are real risks going forward, and certainly these are exacerbated by concerns about a post-Covid slump in student numbers, but Japanese Studies in the UK right now is marked by a wide range of approaches, increased diversity amongst faculty and students, and some truly innovative research and teaching.

In the UK then we are beginning to emerge from that defensive ‘whither Japan’ posture of the early part of this century into a more confident place in which we argue for a version of Japanese studies that is more than the models of the past. If Japanese Studies has a future in the UK it must continue to shift away from bounded ideas of Japaneseness that help sustained the field for many generations, but are no longer intellectually justifiable or responsive either to student need or to the world we find ourselves in.

But a Japanese Studies that exists in a university sector marked by inequality and injustice is also unacceptable. Over the last two years, the UK has seen the most significant industrial action in its history, with 36 days of large-scale strikes, plus months of disruptive working to contract. Our collective refusal to accept proposed pension cuts in 2018 made visible on picket lines the underlying inequalities at the heart of our workplaces – casualization/precarity; excessive workloads; gender, racial and other pay inequalities – which then formed the basis for further strikes in 2019-20. Japanese Studies colleagues were prominent in actions up and down the UK. Our actions have also made progress in convincing our employers that these issues must be addressed. As the Covid crisis progresses, those issues will only be more important to be confronted.

In the essay I quoted at the top of this piece, Grace Ting provocatively argues that, “The perception is that Japan and Japanese studies scholars are not political—instead, we remain at a remove from radical thought or politics.” Her solution, in part, is to radically rethink the difference between “here” and “there” in area studies, foregrounding the experiences of precarity, as others like Chelsea Szendi Schieder have done; expanding notions of solidarity; and continuing to problematize the “boundaries and assumptions of distance.”

I think she’s right - if Japanese Studies is to be truly reborn, then this will take both an intellectual transformation and an industrial one.


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  1. Information on the Death of Japanese Studies roundtable from 2019 can be found on the Association for Asian Studies' online web portal.

  2. Photograph reproduced with permission of The University of Sheffield.