By Mikaela Lobe
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Turning over a long history of coming in second behind Spanish in terms of number of students enrolled, Japanese recently took the top spot in foreign language studies at the University of Washington (UW). Of the hundreds of students taking Japanese language courses, about 50 students major in Japanese language each year.
Since its humble beginning in 1909, the Japan Studies program has rapidly grown in size, impact, and recognition to become the academic powerhouse that it is today.
The Japan Studies program is not a rigid department or school within the university. It is an umbrella program, uniting faculty and students from various disciplines of study.
While the Jackson School of International Studies is considered the Japan Studies program’s administrative home, the program has ties with the university’s department of Asian language and literature, the department of architecture, the Asian Law Center at the School of Law, and the Foster School of Business. Any faculty, class, or student that is dedicated to the study of Japan — no matter from what angle — is considered a part of the Japan Studies program.
“Our mission is really to further understanding and knowledge about Japan in the world and in that way help create better world citizens,” said Ellen Eskenazi, the associate director and an alumna of the program.
Professor Paul Atkins, the UW’s department chair for Asian languages and literature, believes that the Japan Studies program’s interdisciplinary reach benefits not only students, but also university faculty. He points out that a historian and an economist see Japan in completely different lights.
“We wouldn’t ordinarily be working together or we wouldn’t even be having that much contact. But since we all study Japan, we have a second set of colleagues,” Atkins said. “It’s very refreshing to see the same object of study through someone else’s eyes.”
In total, the Japan Studies program currently hosts 17 faculty members, 30 graduate students, and hundreds of undergraduate learners.
“I think if you ask our faculty, most of them will agree that we’re in the top five Japan programs in the nation when it comes to depth and range of courses offered,” Eskenazi said.
Though Spanish is typically the most popular language studied in a foreign language context across the nation, the UW’s most popular language of study is Japanese.
Davinder Bhowmik — an assistant professor of modern Japanese literature, as well as a co-chair and alumna of the Japan Studies program — believes that the university’s placement in Seattle has an effect on both the popularity and significance of the Japan Studies program.
Bhowmik pointed out that Seattle’s position on the Pacific Rim gives the city a unique nearness to Japan. He also said that the city’s significant population of people with Asian heritage makes knowing about the demographics, culture, and spoken languages of the area “a way to understand Seattle’s history.”
But Bhowmik believes that studying Japan is not only important for those looking through a Seattle lens.
“Japan is one entryway into knowing more about a significant part of the world’s population,” Bhowmik said.
“Another reason to know about Japan is to understand how much of an impact Japanese language and culture has had on people, in general,” the professor continued.
Espen Thorkildsen, an undergraduate studying Japanese linguistics and international studies with a focus on Asia, has personally felt this influence.
“Probably the biggest impact in my life, would be a massive exposure to a culture that I would never have had any contact with if I had not started studying this language.”
According to Atkins, the Japan Studies faculty seek to provide students with a holistic knowledge of Japan.
Wanting to see students develop with the ability to read the newspaper, understand advanced discourse, and recognize the nuances of Japanese politics, Atkins noted that knowing how the historical context of Japan has shaped the current day is crucial to coming away with a complete understanding of the nation.
2019 marks the 110th year that the UW has been working to provide students with this knowledge of Japan.
According to Eskenazi, Gowen Hall — the university building that hosts the department of Asian languages and literature — is named after Herbert Henry Gowen, who was the first to teach a course on Japan at the UW.
According to Atkins, the university, which began courses on the Japanese language in 1927, started its focus on Japanese language much earlier than most American universities.
The professor says that many universities did not start teaching the Japanese language until after World War II.
Atkins, like Bhowmik, attributes the university’s progressive Japanese coursework to Seattle’s proximity to Japan, as well as the fact that Japanese is taught in many Washington state high schools. The professor noted that Japan studies at the UW have benefitted from having a Japanese consulate in the city of Seattle.
Through the consulate-general of Japan in Seattle, the Japanese government has on multiple occasions recognized the Japan Studies program for its development of the field. Most recent among these awards includes the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, given to Mary Hammond Bernson, the director of the East Asia Resource Center at the Jackson School of International Studies, for her contributions to education between Japan and the United States. Last year, the UW’s Japanese language and literature program was also honored, receiving the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendation.
The Japan Studies program as a whole was honored in 2009 by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the program’s centennial.
The UW Japan Studies program’s impact of excellence is not limited to just students and faculty. Eskenazi said, “Our extracurricular programming is really designed to engage with the community.”
The Japan Studies program holds faculty relationships that span across the world, partnering with groups such as the Japanese consulate and the Japan-America Society, and consistently hosts various events like artistic performances and international speakers.
Because of the program’s intellectual and cultural offerings, “We are a place that people can come and learn about Japan in a deep way,” said Atkins.
In the future, the Japan Studies program hopes to establish a Center for Japanese Studies at the UW to magnify the impact of resources and opportunities for students, faculty, and the community.
“We all share deep love of the area that we spend so much time thinking about,” Bhowmik said. “And we hope that we convey this in our courses and in the programming that we build in for the university and also the community at large.”
To learn more about the UW Japan Studies program, go to jsis.washington.edu/japan.
Mikaela can be reached at email@example.com.