Japan Studies Threatened in Times of Pandemic

Japan Studies Threatened in Times of Pandemic | Pro Club Bd

Japan has closed its doors to exchange students for over two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers from abroad face many obstacles in continuing their work. The resulting lack of opportunities to promote Japan experts has cast a dark shadow over the future of studying Japan abroad.

Japanese as a secondary language

Japanese Studies at US universities has a long history as an interdisciplinary field that includes literature, history, and other fields. They are often positioned as a program within a department of East Asian Studies, Asian Studies, or Modern Languages ​​and Literatures. The curricula include courses on Japanese language, history, culture and society, allowing students to acquire a high level of expertise.

Even before the pandemic, analysts had noted a decline in Japanese studies in the United States beginning in the 1990s, due in part to Japan’s economic stagnation and China’s rise on the global stage. But the circumstances are actually more complex.

The Modern Language Association, an academic association in the United States, publishes the results of a regular survey of foreign languages ​​being studied at both undergraduate and graduate levels at universities in the United States. The latest survey showed that 68,810 students took Japanese in the Fall 2016 semester, a small increase of 3.1% from the previous survey in 2013.

Although the United States has seen a general decline in foreign language teaching in tertiary education, Japanese and Korean are exceptions, attracting increasing numbers of students each year. But the total number of students taking Japanese (or Korean) is still much lower than for European languages. Despite the increase, the numbers pale in comparison to, for example, Spaniards (712,240) or French (175,667). Japanese is still a minor language in the United States.

Students want to improve job prospects

The MLA will release the results of its 2021 survey, its most recent, in 2023. This will highlight the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on studying Japanese in the United States. Personally, I believe that the number of students will increase slightly.

I teach at the College of William & Mary, where Japanese language courses have grown steadily in recent years. Courses in Japanese literature, history and cinema are also popular. Every semester, more students want to enroll than there are places available in the courses. Japan researchers at other universities report similar situations. Today’s American youth belong to a generation that has a close affinity with Japanese popular culture. Consequently, they see the Japanese language and Japan-related subjects as quite useful study options.

But does this encourage future Japan researchers? Students studying Japanese language and literature are not necessarily proficient in the language or in their Japanese Studies major. According to the MLA survey, while the number of students enrolled in Japanese language courses has increased, the number of majors in the subject fell by 17.5% from 899 to 742 between 2013 and 2016. This is not just a problem of Japanese studies—it is so in the context of a general decline in the humanities in higher education. The MLA survey shows that the number of bachelor’s degrees in other foreign languages ​​is also declining.

According to a survey by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of bachelor’s degrees for majors in traditional liberal arts subjects such as English, foreign languages ​​and literatures, history, classical studies, linguistics and philosophy has declined by 27% from 2012 to 2018. The proportion also fell of all bachelor’s degrees in these subjects to 4.4%. Even taking into account all humanities subjects such as communication and gender studies, it is still only 10.2% of all bachelor’s degrees.

With tuition fees rising in the United States, there is a growing trend among students (and their parents’ advice) to study subjects with a practical focus that are directly related to gaining employment. Literature, foreign languages ​​and history are perceived as abstract and not career-promoting. Universities allocate a large portion of their budgets to the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math to attract students. As mentioned earlier, Japanese language and literature subjects are popular choices among students, but many choose subjects such as computer science and economics for future career prospects. Very few progress to more advanced Japanese studies.

Missed Opportunities to Promote Japan Experts

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a time when the humanities were already struggling. What will happen to Japanese Studies in the United States in the future? One area where the pandemic has had the most obvious impact has been student exchanges to Japan. Since spring 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis hit, Japan stopped issuing visas for student exchanges – a measure that was maintained until 2022. The government resumed visa issuance from March, but students may not necessarily start exchange studies immediately as it places high demands on the preparations of both sending and receiving institutions. Also, students must consider the number of units they need to complete, major or minor requirements, and may have a fixed schedule that is difficult to adjust. William & Mary have student exchange agreements with Keiō University and Akita International University, but they will not fully resume until the fall semester.

As a result, undergraduate and graduate students interested in Japanese culture and history were denied the opportunity to study or do research through exchange programs for over two years. Students who were looking forward to studying in Japan, or who decided to study in Japan after careful consideration of their professional future, have had their hopes of an exchange study dashed. As an educator, it was heartbreaking to witness this. Before the pandemic, the Japanese government launched and promoted an initiative to increase the number of international students in Japan from 120,000 to 300,000 between 2008 and 2020. On a scientific basis, it was extremely irresponsible.

Exchange students often become Japanese researchers, translate and interpret, or work for Japanese companies or companies related to Japan. They are important human resources that help spread awareness and understanding of Japan around the world. The current popularity of Japanese food, anime, manga and other cultures around the world is undoubtedly due to the efforts of the Japanese, but we must not overlook the many foreign Japan experts who are also actively promoting our country and culture. The continuing exclusion of exchange students has dramatically reduced the opportunities to support these people.

Hindering the efforts of foreign researchers

There have been many media reports of exchange students being unable to enter Japan and widespread criticism of the Japanese government’s border control measures. But there is little awareness of foreign scientists unable to conduct research in the country. From June 2022, it will be possible to obtain a visa to visit Japan on business. In addition, foreign researchers can obtain a visa to attend international symposiums or engage in academic activities at the invitation of a university if they have a sponsor in Japan. It is therefore theoretically and legally possible for them to visit Japan.

But research is a solitary and inconspicuous endeavor: visiting libraries and research institutes to gather materials, meet people, and do fieldwork. Typically, scholars who conduct such activities do not have sponsors in Japan. Researchers usually set their own schedules and travel to Japan with a research budget or personal funds during the summer vacation. The Japanese government does not recognize such travel as essential – it is categorized as private travel. Recently, Japan partially reopened to foreign tourism, welcoming visitors from 98 countries, including the United States, but restricting entry to guided tour groups. There is no timetable yet for allowing independent travel. My colleagues at William & Mary, who specialize in Japanese culture or literature, have not been able to visit Japan at all during the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, they had no choice but to abandon or change their research.

Exchange students may be potential future Japan experts, but these researchers are actually already Japan experts. Banning her from Japan for more than two years was unfounded, despite the perceived risk. Japan is the subject of their studies, but if they cannot conduct research locally, they cannot publish research results in essays or other formats, and are prevented from interacting with other scientists at conferences and the like. If this continues, research on Japan in the United States and other countries is likely to grind to a halt. This will cause the quality of Japan-related education to deteriorate, potentially driving undergraduate and postgraduate students to drop out of their Japan studies. In this age of increasing globalization, a better understanding of Japan and a wider dissemination of its culture requires more than just Japanese-based researchers. It needs the collaboration of researchers based abroad who publish their findings in English and other languages.

Knowledge of Japan in the United States has grown over the past several decades through the efforts of individual researchers, bolstered by their ability to readily visit the country. We are now on the brink of a crisis – and that should be a matter of great concern in Japan. I call for these entry restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible to allow independent research activities to resume. This sentiment is surely shared by anyone who studies or explores Japan around the world.

(Banner photo: Arrivals await quarantine treatment at Narita Airport to enter Japan on November 8, 2021. © Jiji.)

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