How UArizona Aims to Become National Leader in Japanese Studies

kyoto, japan

A scene from Kyoto in summer 2019.

Courtesy of Joshua Schlachet

Faculty members in the University of Arizona Department of East Asian Studies are on a mission to make the university a national leader in teaching Japanese culture, society and history.

That effort was bolstered in the fall with a $250,000, three-year grant from the Japan Foundation – an administrative institution in Japan dedicated to carrying out cultural exchange programs around the world. The award is already funding a faculty position, scholarships, research materials and other programming for the Japanese studies tracks under the department's East Asian studies undergraduate major and for the Japan area studies master's and doctoral concentration. The department is housed in the College of Humanities.

Joshua Schlachet

Joshua Schlachet

Joshua Schlachet, an assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Studies, is one of the principal investigators for the grant. Schlachet discussed why UArizona is already well-suited to become a go-to university for Japanese studies, where that curriculum is headed thanks to the grant, and the myriad career possibilities Japanese studies offers.

The discussion comes as the University of Arizona recognizes Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American Heritage Month. The university is honoring the month – which is officially in May – in April while students are still in class.

Q: The University of Arizona was the only institution to receive a flagship institutional project support grant from the Japan Foundation in 2020. Why do you think it was selected?

A: We're really proud and excited to be the only school that received this grant this (academic) year. Our proposal for our project was all about trying to bring together the resources we have for Japanese studies on campus and to try to channel that interest both among faculty and students into a more cohesive set of offerings that we can continue to build upon. Trying to build that up and integrate with our East Asian studies offerings more generally was a big priority for us, not only to think about the relationship between classical Japanese culture and modern and contemporary Japan but also how Japan fits into interregional, border-crossing East Asian studies.

Q: You've said this grant is "transformational." What kind of growth has the program already seen, and where do you see it going next?

A: We have some exciting growth already. The biggest is funds to support the hiring of Kaoru Hayashi, a specialist in pre-modern Japanese literature and in supernatural literature in particular. We're so excited to add that piece to our puzzle of the department and now have all the major disciplines in Japanese studies represented. We've also already given out over $15,000 in fellowship and scholarship support to undergraduate and graduate students that would not have been available without this and we have a lot more to give out in the coming years. We have started our Japanese Studies-Japan Foundation lecture series, which we're very excited about.

We'll also be able to expand our library acquisitions in Japanese studies to supplement our collection with material that will be immensely useful in faculty research and for student support. That includes, for the first time, a cache of rare books and documents from pre-modern and early modern Japan that we'll be able to house in Special Collections. And we funded a research assistant position in support of our Japanese document reading group that we launched a couple of years ago. So, a lot has already been happening and we're just at the beginning, not even a year into our three-year grant.

Q: How are the University of Arizona's offerings in Japanese studies unique compared with others nationally? What makes our program stand out?

A: I think there are a lot of things. One is this interdisciplinary breadth that we offer. We have faculty members across a variety of specializations, with a pretty wide and inclusive approach to the study of Japan in the disciplines of history, religious studies, literature, anthropology, linguistics. Also, I think we have a special opportunity to put that in regional, international and global context with our strong faculty working on China and Korea as well and faculty working on border-crossing.

I also just want to mention our great students, too. We have a really tremendous interest – especially at the undergraduate level – in Japanese culture, and one of the things that makes our program unique is that we have this kind of wellspring of excitement and interest to learn about Japan and to think cross-culturally among our student base, and we're so proud of them for that. At the graduate level, we have a strong and growing core of graduate students in Japanese studies. That is an area we hope to expand in the future.

Another strength is the university's location in the Southwest. One of our goals is to become a national leader, of course, but specifically also a regional hub for the study of Japan in the Southwest, and to be a place where people across our local and regional community can come to learn about Japan, learn to think deeply about cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural training and go on to careers that make use of those humanistic skills.

Q: The university is seeing growth in East Asian studies students, with major enrollment increasing by 57% and minors by 76% between 2013 and 2018, even though there has been a decline in enrollment nationally. Why do you think that is?

A: One, I think we have faculty who are working on and creating course offerings and research offerings that are exciting to students. I think that ties into our intellectual investments at the university and college level in humanistic studies and area studies, and studies of Japan in particular. I think the fact that we have the College of Humanities as a unit, which is designed to prioritize these studies of culturally and historically significant areas, is such a benefit to us. Making that investment both at the institutional level and intellectual level in prioritizing and demonstrating the most exciting and future-forward version of Japanese studies that we can create has allowed us to grow in a really exciting way.

Q: Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, is a well-known alumnus of the Department of East Asian Studies, and he's talked about how his Bachelor of Arts in Japanese has helped him as a planetary scientist. Can you talk about how Japanese studies can be beneficial in a variety of careers?

A: Dante, in many ways, is our model graduate, and we're very excited for his endorsement of Japanese studies as vital to a broad variety of careers, not just in the humanities but in the sciences and beyond.

For our current students, we have such a rich and diverse set of interests among students in our departments that are contributing to such a wide variety of careers. We've had students recently with double or more majors graduate in a variety of STEM fields, including computer science, biological sciences and pre-med. We have some students pursuing double majors more with programs in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, such as history and anthropology. And we have students taking it in a more artistic direction with double majors in fine arts and East Asian studies.

I think one of the things we're so proud of in our program is the ability to provide students with these cultural skills that Japanese studies and East Asian studies can offer through the humanities that you can plug into and combine with such a variety of interests. We think those humanistic skills are essential not just for careers in the humanities, but so many others. We're excited to work with so many students who are making those creative connections.

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