History of the Japanese Studies Association of Australia


Despite the relative youth of the Japanese Studies Association of Australia, the study of Japan has had a long history which can be traced back to the University of Sydney, where James Murdoch gave his first classes in 1917. In a short time, he was appointed Professor of Oriental Studies. However, the study of Japan and the Japanese language developed slowly until World War II, when the study of Japan was encouraged for strategic reasons.


 In 1962 the relationship between Japan and Australia was sufficiently important for the Australia-Japan Business Co-operation Committee to be established. Japanese was introduced at the Australian National University (ANU) that year. In 1965 Japanese language and literature programs were introduced at the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne. The AJBCC set up a scholarship and teacher exchange program in 1966 and the following year Japanese language courses were commenced at Monash University and Curtin University of Technology (then known as WAIT). Swinburne University of Technology began its program in 1969. By 1976 the Japanese language had grown so popular that it was taught at 13 tertiary institutions and at over 100 schools throughout the country.


 The Japanese Studies Association of Australia was established in 1978 as a result of the coming of age of Japan scholarship in Australia; the rapid growth in Japanese studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s; and the growing relevance of what we call "Japan literacy" to Australia's economic needs. Also in 1978, the Science with Japanese program at Griffith University was established, indicating that Japanese studies was no longer perceived as exotic and irrelevant. 


In the 1980s, there was a shift of emphasis from a humanities-based paradigm with strengths in history and literature to one more dominated by the social sciences and marked by a critical approach to contemporary Japan. This change had ramifications for the teaching of both Japanese language and studies in Australia. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a change in thinking about language teaching, and some of its basic assumptions and methodologies were thrown into question.


 The mix of paradigms and approaches to Japan which resulted can be called Australian-style Japanese studies. The inaugural JSAA conference was held at the ANU on 15-17 May 1980. The editors of that conference's publication commented that a feature of Australian studies of Japan was the lack of 'mysticism, exoticism and paranoia. . . in favour of rational and dispassionate -- though not unaffectionate -- inquiry'. Subsequent conference themes and subsequent publication titles were: 'Alternative Models for Understanding Japanese Society' (which developed into Sugimoto and Mouer's Images of Japanese Society, KPI 1986); 'Japan's Impact on the World'; 'Japan from Down Under' (which developed into McCormack and Sugimoto's The Japanese Trajectory: Modernisation and Beyond, CUP 1988); 'War and the Japanese'; 'Japan in Australia'; 'Japan and the World'; 'Japan and the New World Order'; 'Frontiers of Japanese Studies'; and most recently, 'Cultures, Communities, and Critiques' (1997) .


 Australia-Japan relations reached a certain level of maturity in the 1990s, as has the JSAA, reflected in the development of the Association. By mid-1987, the new JSAA Executive decided to transform the newsletter into a middle-range publication with some refereed articles, reviews and commentary. In 1991, the newsletter was further developed with a new look and the new title of Japanese Studies: Bulletin of the Japanese Studies Association of Australia. Currently, the JSAA's fully-refereed journal, Japanese Studies, is distributed by Carfax and is published three times a year.


 There have been many important issues and debates concerning Japanese studies in Australia that have found a forum in the activities of the JSAA. For example, in 1971, Alan Rix (at the time an undergraduate) noted three issues regarding Japanese studies and language education in Australia: the study of Japanese should be encouraged in schools, making it less of a language of the elite; the gender imbalance in Japanese language classes should be addressed; and that language study should not be viewed as secondary to social studies. The need for mass versus elite training continues to be questioned. The gender imbalance has diminished but not disappeared. As for the weight given to language and social studies, many programs attempt to combine the two.


 In 1986, Rix, who by that time had become Professor of Japanese at the University of Queensland, continued this debate, raising several issues such as the low level of funding for Japanese studies within universities; the lack of contact with European and American scholars; developments in computer-aided learning; the need for cooperation in library development; Australia's failings in Japan; and research directions. Has much progress been made? We can point to increases in enrolments in Japanese, which bring with it an increase in funds and responsibilities. As for interaction with overseas scholars, Australian scholars are represented increasingly prominently in international conferences, but there is still a problem in publicising Australian research abroad. E-mail helps many to bridge geographical distance, but computer-aided instruction is limited to universities with funds and expertise. The diverse nature of Japanese language programs in Australia makes it difficult to produce software which satisfies the needs of all universities. When it comes to books on Japan, sharing resources is a little easier and there have been calls for the establishment of a National Asia Information Centre which would combine the Asian collections of the National Library and the ANU library in one building on the ANU campus. Large data-base services have been introduced and the Australia-Japan Research Centre, for example, has facilitated the delivery of the Nikkei Database to Australian universities, corporations and the public sector. Australian companies who deal with Japan seem to have grown more interested in employing graduates with language skills, provided they have other occupational training and skills.


 Another point of debate is the area studies versus discipline-based departmental structures. In 1981, Bolitho and Rix were advocating 'freeing Japan from special "Japanese Studies" ghettoes, and introducing it into areas of the curriculum where it might otherwise not be seen'. Ten years later, this message was still the same, but was more urgent. As Marriott said in 1991, Rix argued that 'special funding for Asian Studies in the Australian educational context is finite' and he stressed the need for 'building Japanese Studies into school and university structures so that they will be entrenched in the infrastructure when the extraordinary funding and support are finished'. This process of 'mainstreaming' has been difficult to achieve. Quarantining Japanese studies in area studies departments sometimes has the advantage of making Japan the centre of focus rather than of marginal interest in discipline -- based departments. The debate over which is 'better' continues. Japan specialists can be found in departments of language and culture, as well in disciplinary departments. 


The definition of 'Japan literacy' is yet another point that has been debated by JSAA members. In 1991 it was suggested that all Australians might not require the same level of understanding of Japan. J.V. Neustupny had earlier proposed that three levels of Japan literacy might be appropriate. The first involved extensive teaching about Japan for most Australians. The second level added sociolinguistic knowledge and some Japanese, but mainly focused on communications in English which might be appropriate for those in business and government. The third level required regular contact with the Japanese and a comprehensive set of knowledge to facilitate that contact.


 At that time, Yoshio Sugimoto also suggested that there might be a negative correlation between the growth of Japanese-language programs and that of Japanese studies programs (a survey conducted by the Japan Foundation in conjunction with the Australia -- Japan Research Centre found no clear evidence of this). Sugimoto also questioned whether Japanese language skills alone would lead to high-ranking positions and that Japanese language graduates were forming a 'servant class' for Japan-related industries, especially in the service sector. Then JSAA President Marriott discussed the sometimes spurious claims concerning the economic benefits accruing from language learning. Sugimoto's third point concerned the demographic profile of Japanese departments in Australia where only a small minority of academic staff held doctorates, normally a pre-condition for lecturer appointments in other arts-based departments. The need for Japanese language teachers in tertiary institutions has seen the rise to high positions of people who have limited scholarly achievements. He hypothesised, at the time, that the more Japanese language teaching prospers, the more dominant amateur scholars will become in Japan-related fields. There were hopes that the increased number of students at the undergraduate level would result in an 'appearance of a rich stream of post-graduate students in the early and mid-1990s' but this flow on has had a long gestation period and is uncertain. At Monash University and no doubt elsewhere, Japanese language majors far outnumber Japanese studies majors. While numbers have increased very recently in the research honours program, few students go on to further postgraduate research. In postgraduate training, the ANU has a particular role. Some worry that the profession will not be able to reproduce itself. Two former JSAA presidents now work overseas; this brain drain, has in the past, been offset somewhat by the inflow of Japan scholars from those and other countries, including Japan. In some ways, this has helped to provide opportunities for advancement to Australian-born or trained scholars, a phenomenon which has been described as the 'Australisation' of Chairs of Japanese.


 In retrospect, the late 1980s provided a window of opportunity for the growth of Japanese studies which may not occur again for some time. Having seized this exciting chance to grow, Japanese/Japanese studies departments today are increasingly becoming service departments providing instruction on Japan across disciplines. While this is arguably something to be welcomed, there are some intrinsic problems. The popularity of double degrees, for example, enables many students to learn the Japanese language, but in some institutions, they are often unable to fit many Japanese studies subjects into their study program. With two degrees to complete, a further honours year is not so attractive. For three accounts which detail the history of Japanese studies in Australia, see H. Marriott, J.V. Neustupny and R. Spence-Brown's Unlocking Australia's Language Potential, Profiles of Key Language in Australia, vol. 7 -- Japanese, Marriott's shorter piece in the Asian Studies Review, and Morton's Japanese Studies in the Humanities in Australia, 1980 - 94. While people can judge for themselves whether riding the tsunami of Japanese studies was worthwhile, the Japanese studies scene has changed irrevocably, along with the needs of students. As the sociologist Patricia Steinhoff has said, Japanese studies has lost its irrelevance. We cannot turn back. The records of the JSAA shows how far we have come.


 Note: the above is an abridged and updated version of an essay by Dr. Morris Low which appeared in the Directory of Japanese Studies in Australia and New Zealand, The Japan Foundation with the Australia -- Japan Research Centre, Tokyo, 1997 (pp. 42-49). It is reproduced here with permission of the author.  







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