The current state of Japanese Studies in Australia in 2020

The current state of Japanese Studies in Australia in 2020

Rebecca Suter, ASAA Japan liaison

Japanese language and culture courses are offered in more than 20 universities in Australia. Some universities only offer a few language classes, but several universities including UWA, ANU, University of Sydney, UNSW, Melbourne, Monash have dedicated programs with eight-ten continuing staff members, supplemented by several casual teachers; they offer full majors of six-eight units of study, and have honours and HDR programs. The past twenty years have seen stable or growing enrolments in Japanese language and culture courses in Australia, and overall a significant growth in beginner level language units. A significant factor in this growth has been the rise in interest in Japanese popular culture, including but not limited to manga and anime, that has led students to an interest in learning the languages.

Another important factor is the overall increase in overseas student numbers in Australian universities: a large proportion of the students of Japanese language are international students from Asia. While this had been a positive factor for the financial sustainability of Japanese studies programs until 2020, it has made them particularly vulnerable to loss of enrolments during the COVID-19 crisis. Furthermore, a trend that was already highlighted in the 2002 report Maximising Australia’s Asia Knowledge: Repositioning and Renewal of a National Asset, pp. xvi and 24-25, the imbalance between the high number of students taking one or two Japanese language classes as electives and the relatively low number of students doing a full major, seems to have been further exacerbated. Furthermore, because the student enrolments are typically higher in language than in culture courses, Japanese Studies programs at Australian universities, like many other language-focused programs, are always at risk of being turned into teaching-intensive, “service” units, staffed heavily by sessional teachers. This may result in decreased support for research, creating a vicious cycle.

Research on Japan has been consistently strong over the past twenty years in the disciplines of history, literature, and linguistics, and has grown significantly in the past fifteen years or so in the area of cultural studies. Japan is a little less well-represented in the social sciences compared to China and South-East Asia, but there has been a consistent stream of high-quality research output in political science and economics particularly from ANU, and in law, particularly centring around the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL). This is a joint initiative of the ANU College of Law at The Australian National University (ANU), the University of Sydney Law School at The University of Sydney (USyd) and the School of Law at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to promote scholarly engagement with Japanese law in Australia.

Literature had traditionally been an area of strength in Japanese Studies; in the past ten to fifteen years the focus has been gradually shifting from purely literary studies towards more interdisciplinary research in gender studies, cultural studies, and media studies. This shift is both the result of the growing number of researchers at Australian universities who are working in this area (there have been quite a few early career researchers as well as senior hires in these disciplines who have contributed to the expansion), and the reflection of a broader international increase of scholarly publications and undergraduate courses on cultural studies and popular media in the wake of the manga-anime boom. In the Australian context, a significant proportion of the research in Japanese cultural studies remain centred on textual and discourse analysis rather than anthropological and sociological approaches. Japanese Studies is well represented also in literature associations like the Australian Languages and Literatures Association (AULLA ) and comparative literature programs like the International Comparative Literature Studies (ICLS) at the University of Sydney.

In linguistics, some Japan specialists are based in education departments; few are in linguistics departments and most are in Japanese or Asian language and culture departments. The best represented sub-disciplinary areas are applied linguistics and pragmatics; in particular UQ has developed an important cluster of research on politeness/impoliteness in language that has been the basis for research collaborations with non-Asian languages as well. More generally, most research collaborations involve comparative studies of Asian languages: Chinese-Japanese, Japanese-Korean (particularly at ANU), some Japanese-Thai (at Macquarie University), typological linguistics approaches such as comparative semantic analysis (UWA), and speech act research (UQ). This is a positive trend as it indicates a move away from English-centred comparative studies and towards comparative studies between Asian languages.

Linguistics has seen a decline in higher degree by research (HDR) enrolments over the past twenty years. Universities such as ANU, Sydney and most recently Monash (in 2017) have discontinued their dedicated masters degrees in Japanese applied linguistics; in some cases, these were merged with the broader applied linguistics, in other cases they were simply cancelled. Since these usually attracted native Japanese international students aiming to become teachers of Japanese, this decline may be related to the fact that Australian schools now require different qualifications for teachers. While these were postgraduate coursework degrees, they had traditionally provided pathways into HDR study; this may explain the decline in HDR study in linguistics. On the plus side, some universities, particularly UNSW and UQ, are now attracting students directly into the PhD who want to do applied linguistics topics; these are mostly native speakers of Japanese. These are supported by dedicated regular graduate seminars and annual graduate conferences such as the ones held at UNSW, which have been effective in creating a sense of community among graduate students that could potentially make the field grow further. While a number of these students continue on to academic jobs in Japan, some have also taken academic positions in Australia. In terms of discipline-specific conferences, the University of Sydney has been hosting an annual Japanese linguistics symposium (it will be held at ANU for the first time in 2020) since 2012, open to senior scholars, ECR, and HDR and honours students. That has been influential in creating a sense of disciplinary community in this area. 

Over the past twenty years there have been some Japan specialists in History departments (for example at Murdoch, UQ, UNSW Sydney and Canberra), but again, like for the other disciplines, most historians of Japan or Korea are based in Asian studies programs and/or foreign languages and cultures programs. There is growing scope also for research collaborations in Australia about inter-Asia topics, such as Julia Martinez’s book  The Pearl Frontier on Japanese-Indonesian-Indigenous relations in the pearl diving communities in Australia, which won the New South Wales History Association prize in 2017. In the last two decades, both history and Asian studies Ph.D. programs have produced high quality HDR graduates specialising in Japanese history, a number of whom have remained in Australia and helped develop the field further. A “historians of Japan workshop” has been held every two years since the early 2000s, although recently this has become less regular. On the downside, a number of formerly Australia-based historians of Japan have left for other countries. Another element of note is that there has been a decline in training in reading premodern texts, resulting in diminished research capability in premodern history. This stands in contrast to programs in classical Chinese, that have been growing particularly at the undergraduate level, catering mainly to native and background speakers. The modern/contemporary history area is not growing much either; there seems to be declining HDR interest in the history of Japan. This may be an undesirable consequence of the growth in interest in cultural and media studies supported by Japanese institutional initiatives like the “Cool Japan” campaign, promoting manga and anime as a cultural diplomacy asset. While literary studies have refashioned themselves as cultural studies to include analysis of these topics, research in Japanese history seems to be negatively affected by the popular culture boom.

Another important thing to note in regard to research is that while university-based research institutes on Japan that were created in earlier periods, like the ANU’s Australia-Japan Research Centre (established in 1973) or Monash University’s Japanese Studies Centre (created initially as an inter-university centre and now an affiliated centre of the Monash Asia Institute since 1989), have continued to be active in the past twenty years, and have developed new initiatives like the Monash Manga Library, overall Japanese Studies have been less successful than other area studies programs in attracting funding for the creation of new research centres. This may partly be due to the fact that academics teaching and researching in the area of Japanese studies in Australia are primarily located in language and culture schools/departments, whereas in other area studies fields, such as China and South-East Asia, there is a larger number of scholars based in STEM faculties. The concentration of Japan specialists in the Arts and Social Sciences makes for a more cohesive field, as it is easier for scholars to know each other and form networks, but it also reduces their ability to build interdisciplinary networks that could constitute the basis for research collaborations more likely to attract external funding, whether from ARC or other funding bodies.

Japanese language and culture courses at Australian Universities include:


Curtin University
University of Western Australia
Edith Cowan University


University of Queensland
Central Queensland University
Griffith University
James Cook University
Bond University


University of Newcastle
Macquarie University
University of New South Wales (UNSW)
University of Sydney
University of Technology Sydney (UTS)
University of Notre Dame
Western Sydney University
University of Wollongong (UOW)


Australian National University (ANU)


University of Melbourne
Monash University
La Trobe University


Flinders University
University of Adelaide
University of South Australia (UniSA)


University of Tasmania (UTAS)

Photo source: Rusty Shackleford, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 on Flickr

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