Japanese Studies at SOAS

Japanese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London is one of the UK’s main centres for Japanese Studies.
In a recent interview with the JICC, Dr. Barbara Pizziconi, Lecturer in Japanese Applied Linguistics and Head of the Japan section, described the development of SOAS, the courses currently available and the make-up of the section.
Below is a summary of the interview.

Would you introduce to us the aim and background of the formation of the Japan section?
Japanese studies, including language teaching, begun at SOAS as early as 1917 (the name was then ‘School of Oriental Studies’) when the School was founded, and a “special course” in Japanese was established in 1942, aimed at supporting the war against Japan by intensive training of translators and interpreters. Many diplomats, businessmen and academics, who later developed careers on Japan, studied on this course. The programme continued successfully after the war, with the appointment of the first Chair of Japanese. Much friendlier relations with Japan, and the extraordinary popularity of things Japanese in more recent years, are reflected in consistently growing students and staff numbers.
Japanese, Chinese and Arabic are the three most popular languages at SOAS. The Japan section is located within the Department of Japan and Korea (of which Japan is by far the biggest section, in terms of both students and staff numbers). The educational aim of our section is to promote knowledge and critically informed assessments of the history, development and current state of Japanese culture within a broad range of disciplinary traditions, as well as rigorous training in classical and modern language.

Would you give a brief introduction of the structure and function of the Japan section, as well as any recent developments?
The section has six lecturers (specialists of pre-modern literature and drama, modern literature, popular and media culture, history, linguistics and applied linguistics), and 3 lectors (specialist language teachers). They provide the backbone for undergraduate degrees (single and joint) and postgraduate programmes, to which Japan specialists in other departments also contribute (in fields such as Sociology and Anthropology, Art, Religion, Music, Economics).
While the section considers the study of pre-modern language and culture a crucial element for the understanding of today’s Japan, it also recognizes the recent widespread wave of interest in contemporary Japan. This led to the development of a new position, two years ago, for the study of Japanese contemporary media and popular culture.
Another development driven by the changing nature of the student population is the creation of a ‘BA Japanese Studies’, due to start in September 2009. Unlike the BA Japanese, which includes intensive and extensive training in all aspects of Japanese language and a compulsory year of study in Japan, this new BA will provide a range of flexible options that will allow students to concentrate on the disciplinary study of a variety of Japanese subjects with less emphasis on language study. This will allow both beginners and advanced language students to study about Japan.

What are the recent trends in the reasons for students wishing to study Japanese language in your department at SOAS?
Today’s students seem to have a great deal of familiarity with Japanese culture by the time they decide to enrol in a Japanese course in higher education, and this is evident at SOAS as well. Popular culture -most typically manga, anime or Japanese music, but also literature and arts -seem to be the Japanese cultural products most accessible in young people’s environment, both in the UK and elsewhere.
This widespread interest in Japan is probably also evidenced in the increasing number of students who come to SOAS having chosen Japanese courses already at GCSE and A-level. However, we also receive many so-called ‘heritage students’, or students of Japanese descent who may have learned the language at home or in Japanese schools, and wish to pursue an academic study of the language and culture. At postgraduate level, many students come to study Japan after their experiences on the JET programme.
Recent research* that compared students’ objectives in France and England seems to indicate that while students in both countries possess both academic and vocational interests, students in England, and in particular at SOAS, predominantly aspire to achieve a solid background in various academic disciplines (especially Politics and Economics of Japan) and a deep knowledge of the language both in writing and speaking. The same research has also shown an overwhelming appreciation of the year of study in Japan, which is a compulsory and significant component of the BA Japanese.
Student’s interests and background have increasingly diversified in the last decades, and SOAS has striven to accommodate these changes, by providing multiple levels of entry and different curricular paths. We can now welcome students of almost all backgrounds who want to study Japan.

Do you have a message to anyone thinking about becoming a student of Japanese language studies?
SOAS has a truly unique multicultural character, with staff and students from all countries of the world, many from Japan. This makes it an ideal place to study and experience first-hand the culture of Japan. Five of the nine staff in our section are Japanese and all the non-Japanese staff are good role-models for the students – each has learned Japanese from scratch as an adult, and subsequently lived and worked in Japan.
Japan is a fascinating culture, both in its history and in its contemporary creativity across all fields from science and industry, to the arts. On the surface it is similar to the West in many ways, but yet it remains intriguingly different. Those who study Japanese language and Japanese culture/society are always stimulated to think differently about their own society and about the diversity in the world.
Japanese language or Japanese studies are not the easy route to a university degree. They are certainly challenging and demanding, but always rewarding.

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