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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (August 6, 2003)

Unwise Cuts in Japan Studies

Hugh Cortazzi (Former British Ambassador to Japan)

Information about Japan and Japanese culture was regrettably limited and unsophisticated for many years after World War II. Influential people in Britain, such as the late Sir Peter Parker, realized that the ignorance and prejudices of British people about Japan were damaging British interests and Anglo-Japanese relations. Major efforts were accordingly made to develop knowledge and understanding of Japan in modern Britain.

The 1991 Japan Festival in Britain marked the centenary of the Japan Society in London -- 10 years after The Great Japan Exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was followed by "Japan 2001," another major manifestation of Japanese culture designed to promote grass-roots contacts.

Interest in Japan has burgeoned and Japanese is now increasingly taught in schools. Yet there has been a serious setback at the level of higher education. Responsibility for this setback rests squarely with myopic authorities at British universities and on the Higher Education Funding Council, which answers to the Ministry of Education and Science.

Meanwhile, the Japan Foundation as well as Japanese organizations and companies have done much to help promote Japanese culture in Britain. Here are a few of their many generous gifts:

* Nissan Motor Co. established the Nissan institute at Oxford.

* Japanese studies benefited greatly from the generosity of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) and Tokyo Electric Power Co. to Cambridge.

* Sanwa Bank made a significant donation to Essex University.

* NSK Ltd., which had made major investments in the northeast, was particularly generous to Durham University.

* Konica Corp. funded the Japan gallery in the British Museum.

* Toshiba Corp. funded the Toshiba gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Many Japanese-studies departments funded by government grants have in recent years either run down or been closed despite strong objections.

The Universities of Essex and Stirling no longer have departments with full-degree programs. The latest blow has been the shortsighted decision by Durham University to close its Institute of East Asian Studies. This means that, although there is an active British Association of Japanese Studies bringing together researchers in a wide variety of fields and producing the scholarly publication "Japan Forum," only a few British higher education institutions have viable departments that can sponsor Japanese studies in depth. In addition to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, there are faculties at Cambridge, Oxford and Sheffield Universities and arrangements at Edinburgh and Cardiff (University of Wales).

The decision to close the Durham department was particularly deplorable. University authorities blamed the Higher Education Funding Council, which responded that it was up to the university. The university informed institutions with which it had exchanges in Japan and China of its decision before informing staff! Even worse was its failure to consult with donors to the department, including the Japan Foundation, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and NSK.

The university has been deluged with letters of protest, and the decision has been criticized in the media, especially in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Times Higher Education Supplement. There is a 90-day consultation period before the decision is implemented. All those who support the continuance of the department hope that university authorities will be persuaded to revise their decision and take due account of the opposition they have aroused.

Durham has argued that Japanese will still be taught at the university, but to what level? It also plans short courses in Japanese and business studies. What use will these be in promoting an in-depth understanding of modern Japan? The universities seem to have forgotten that their task should be to provide a rounded education, not simply to train young people for jobs. The rot started with the Thatcher government but has been exacerbated by the present lot who seem to some of us to believe that British culture is best represented by pop and football.

Durham University's decision followed the British Museum's move to "temporarily" closure its Konica-funded Japan gallery on the grounds that it could no longer afford the cost of guards. It also downgraded the Department of Japanese Antiquities by bringing it into a department headed by an expert on Afghanistan!

The British Museum's collection of Japanese art dates back to the late 19th century and owes much to the paintings and other treasures brought to Britain by William Anderson, the first chairman of the Japan Society in London. The museum certainly faces a major funding problem, perhaps because it spent too much on rebuilding the Great Court, but these decisions have caused dismay to many admirers of the museum's treasures.

Those opposed to decisions that could set back the understanding of Japanese culture in Britain should write to the authorities at Durham and the British Museum. I do hope that Japanese organizations will continue to cooperate in promoting Japanese studies in Britain.

(This article originally appeared in the July 30, 2003 issue of The Japan Times)

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