Book Review: “New Frontiers in Japanese Studies” edited by Akihiro Ogawa and Philip Seaton

For a number of years I have been thinking about what Japanese Studies is and what its role is today. This leads on to further questions such as What do we actually mean by ‘Japanese Studies’? And, to what degree is knowledge of the Japanese language necessary to conduct Japanese Studies? These questions can also lead on to further questions about defining what Japan is and who the Japanese people are.

New Frontiers in Japanese Studies is a timely work in that respect as it helps the reader to consider some well-informed views on some of these questions.

The book begins with a clear definition of what it considers to be Japanese Studies…

Japanese Studies is defined in this book as the interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary study of Japan in the social sciences and humanities, in which analysis of Japan in domestic, international or comparative contexts using both Japanese and non-Japanese sources is disseminated to an international audience. More than simply the ‘study of Japan’, therefore, Japanese Studies is one of the area studies within academia and higher education.

Page 1

And, in answer to one of the other questions that I raised above, the book argues that understanding the Japanese language is ‘crucial’ (page 1).

But rather than focussing on these issues, one the main thrusts of the book is to emphasise that

Given that most of this growth in Japan-related interest is generated from within Asia, another priority for Japanese Studies in the twenty-first century becomes apparent: to place Asian scholars and students at the heart of Japanese Studies and to engage in a degree of ‘de-Westernisation’.

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It goes on to clarify that

This book examines ‘new frontiers’ within Japanese Studies. By ‘new frontiers’ we are referring partly to this shift in geographical emphasis.

Page 1

On top of this…

We also envision ‘new frontiers’ as part of a repositioning of Japanese Studies from ‘outsiders looking in’ to ‘insiders looking out’. In other words, the challenge for Japanese Studies is to leave behind the antiquated paradigm of ‘unlocking the mysteries of the Japanese and presenting this fascinating and unique culture to the world’, and to normalise discussion of Japan as one of the major world economies/cultures and integrate it more fully into global and transnational discourses.

Page 2

Ultimately…

Japanese Studies scholarship, we argue, has the potential to make important theoretical contributions with broader applications outside Japan, too, if only the broader academy can dispel notions (perhaps ‘prejudices’ is more accurate) that Japanese Studies is a peripheral area of scholarship that needs only be engaged by ‘Japan specialists’.

Page 3

I think that within this point, the crux of one of the problems of not only Japanese Studies, but academia more broadly, is highlighted. Indeed, as I touched upon in my post on writing about disabilities (and as I have also discussed in my own book Japan: The Basics and even novels such as FOUR), labelling and pigeon-holing can be a significant problem.

I have no issue with labelling myself as being in Japanese Studies. The one thing that connects all of my research (to date) is Japan. What I am less clear about is what that really means and whether it means the same today as it did when I began my PhD back in 1994, for example. I am not an expert on everything to do with Japan – such a thing is not possible. But I do strive to understand aspects of Japan for my teaching and my research, and I also aim to aid my students become experts on Japan so that if they are asked a question about Japan, even if it is on an area which they have not studied, they can form a logical answer derived from knowledge of other aspects of Japan.

That those that are in Japanese Studies are often involved in both teaching and research is perhaps a tension that New Frontiers in Japanese Studies doesn’t fully address. The demands, needs and expectations from research communities and teaching communities are not the same and that can lead to a situation whereby, even for those who are happy to identify as being in Japanese Studies, have to play a delicate balancing act when it comes to publishing our research, explaining what we do, or what we do for students.

I think the book presents a bit of a conundrum at times. I am not one who would argue that knowledge of the Japanese language is ‘crucial’ for studying Japan. Helpful, but not crucial. My own Japanese language skills are sufficient, I believe, to study Japan. But even after studying and using Japanese for over 30 years, I cannot be sure that I pick up on every single nuance of the language. Can I be certain that I can do this to the extent that is better than a Japanese person may be able to explain things to me in English? Absolutely not. Do I have the time to further improve my language so I can be more certain that my understanding is correct? Possibly – but living outside of Japan always makes this more of a challenge, especially if you have no inherent interest in the language (or languages).

The conundrum in relation to language is perhaps made even greater by some of the new frontiers that the book is suggesting. We cannot consider Japan in isolation. That is a given. What the book does well to point out is that far too often Japan (or some aspect of it) has been used as a case study to test against English/Western ideas (often with the underlying assumption that the Western way is ‘the way’). What is needed now is to take a broader approach. To accept that there are other ideas, theories and world views. Absolutely. What I am left wondering is how do we do this and in what language. If, for example, those in Japanese Studies in the UK are to fully embrace Chinese scholarship about Japan, how should this be done? Are we to learn Mandarin too? Do we also learn Korean and the variety of other languages that are spoken in the countries that are covered in the book? Can we become sufficiently fluent in these languages to properly comprehend all the meanings and nuances? Clearly for most this would not be feasible.

The conclusion that New Frontiers in Japanese Studies helps the reader to realise is that more studies related to Japan need to be done in Japanese. This is and should be the common language between all of us who study Japan. Not English. So, while doing ones own observations and interviews may not require knowledge of the Japanese language, to read all the books and materials related about Japan, Japanese is crucial. To not know Japanese, to not engage with these texts is to assume that everything should written by academics around the world in English. It also means that more needs to be done to have works by those in English-speaking countries, for example, written in or translated into Japanese. Without this, we are in danger of, at best, ignoring important works written by academics globally, and, worse, creating our own ‘Galapagos effect’ in Japanese Studies.

But this is, of course, not the end of the conundrum. If we agree that more needs to be written in or translated into Japanese, then we are, by default, making Japanese Studies even more exclusive and out of reach of those who do not speak the language. It is important for those in Japanese Studies to not only publish in Japanese Studies journals, but to reach beyond Japanese Studies so as to remind others that Japan (however we define it and its people) exists. It is for this reason that two of my recent articles (‘Developing a Model to Explain Modifications to Public Transportation Accident Memorials‘ and ‘Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?‘) were published in non-Japanese Studies journals. But those of us in Japanese Studies cannot reduce our role – at least on the research front – to merely presenting the Japanese angle to people who see themselves as specialists in a particular field or discipline rather than a geographical area.

I do not want our ability to use the Japanese language the thing that ends up defining people in Japanese Studies. This is a point I made in Japan: The Basics, but it is one that I still do not have a fixed view on and I even altered my view as I wrote that book and further reflected on Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs and my own experiences of studying Japan. As I begin working on a second edition of Japan: The Basics, it is a question that I expect to further consider and New Frontiers in Japanese Studies helps me to do that.

There are a couple of additional points to make about the book itself.

First, and against the standard in many Japanese Studies books, the book (in most chapters) puts names in the order first name-surname. Japanese Studies has tended to use the Japanese convention of surname-first name and the Japanese government itself has been asking more organisations to do this. I am glad to see New Frontiers in Japanese Studies going against this. When we write in English we should be doing so in a way that makes it easiest and most accessible to all readers. We need to remember that many will read chapters in isolation – we cannot expect readers to take time to check every convention being used. We need to map to what would be standard in that language.

One criticism that I have come across in relation to Japanese Studies is that many will use Japanese words in their texts rather than English ones. I have always thought there were good reasons for this – sometimes it saves words (e.g. ‘shinkansen’ is one word whereas ‘bullet train’ is two), and there are some words which are almost untranslatable (at least while maintaining the same nuance). But this book helped me more aware of another issue. This book will be (and should be) read by many people for whom English is probably their third language (after their own language and Japanese) – using key Japanese words is a very useful way of providing a grounding and reassurance that we are all talking about the same thing.

So far I have largely spoken about the key arguments that I have taken out of the book – many of which are established in the excellent introduction. If we consider the rest of the book itself, I cannot help that it does what, to some degree, the introduction itself seems to criticise some other Japanese Studies books of doing, for in the end it still largely feels like a book with a load of case studies. But this should not be seen as a negative point for maybe that’s because that’s what is, ultimately, needed, what publishers want and even, I suspect, to a large degree what the market tends to want (particularly students). What this book does do a better job at than many others is that (largely) these case studies aren’t focussed on Anglo speaking countries or even those countries that may typically be construed as ‘Western’.

Overall New Frontiers in Japanese Studies is one that needs to be read widely. The introduction is one that all in Japanese Studies need time to read and reflect on. As for the rest of the book, the diversity of the chapters means that there are going to be subjects covered that will be highly useful for students, for example, in writing their essays about Japan – that many of these will also introduce them to concepts and ideas that are not Anglo- or Western- centric can only be a good thing.

For more information about the book, see the publisher’s official page and Amazon.

One Comment Add yours

  1. This reminds me of the call for more multilingual approaches made by one of the educationalists in the conclusion of David Wiley’s Re-imagining Japanese education. ie I endorse it wholeheartely but find it impossibly daunting. So this kind of book that makes some more Japanese viewpoints available in English, sounds very helpful. I appreciate your support for the position that it is still worthwhile to study without 100% command of the language of a culture one studies. I think for me collaboration is a good way round it.

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