Founding Michigan's Center for Japanese StudiesSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In 1997 the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies celebrates its 50th anniversary as the first American interdisciplinary institute devoted to academic training and research on Japan. With a November symposium in Ann Arbor promising to look back at the history of Japan-related scholarship, as well as exploring the current state of Japan area studies, it is worth noting the origins of a center for Japanese Studies in the U.S. Midwest, some 6,000 miles from Japan itself.
One part of the narrative begins more than a century ago with the University's involvement in Asia. The arrival of the first Japanese students in Michigan dates back to President Angell's tenure as a special envoy to China in the 1870's, and on the heels of major changes in Japanese society. Following the reopening of Japan to foreign trade in the nineteenth century, Toyama Masakazu, later president of Tokyo Imperial University and eventually Japan's education minister, was awarded an honorary degree from the University in 1886. The first English-language academic studies of the Japanese economy were carried out at Michigan in the 1890s by Ono Eijiro, who became president of the Industrial Bank of Japan. The books he donated to the University became the core of an extensive library collection on Meiji economic history. Four of the first ten recipients of Ph.D.'s in economics at Michigan were also Japanese.
The war in the Pacific, however, was the crucial event in the establishment of a center of Japanese studies at Michigan. The Center's history of training Americans involved the Japanese-language courses first offered at the University in 1935. The study of Japan had a prominent place in the formation of an Oriental Civilization Program one year later, which led the U.S. Army to establish its Japanese Language School here in 1942. Numerous American soldiers arrived in Ann Arbor to enroll in these Japanese language courses. The U.S. military, however, hoped to keep this secret: in January 1943, Major General George V. Strong, an assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt it necessary to dictate, in a telegram to the University, IT IS THE DESIRE OF THE WAR DEPARTMENT THAT NO REPEAT NO PUBLICITY OF ANY KIND BE GIVEN THE ARMY LANGUAGE SCHOOL AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN YOUR COOPERATION WILL BE APPRECIATED.
Though the army regarded the Japanese language school's presence in Ann Arbor as a military secret, the Michigan Daily and the Ann Arbor News nevertheless ran frequent stories about the program.
By the end of the war Professor Joseph K. Yamagiwa and his associates had trained more than 1,500 American soldiers in the Japanese language, most of whom served the U.S. military in the war of the Pacific. After the war the strategic orientation of Japanese studies at the University continued. At that time Professor Robert B. Hall of the Department of Geography prepared a report on area studies for the Social Science Research Council, in which he presented a vision of an institutionalized approach to area studies that would build on language studies. He aimed to create at Michigan an interdisciplinary site of academic research that would unite the humanities, which he felt were developing in increasing isolation from one another. clearer connection between paragraphs?
Building on the highly-regarded army training program, the Center for Japanese Studies was established in 1947 as a result of Hall's initiative. Education through the center generally was considered an elective field of study. Students would begin with language training and develop a basic familiarity with an area, followed by the study of social-science theories and the chance to test theories empirically in fieldwork. Professor Hall was appointed director, presiding over a diversified executive committee of faculty from the departments of Fine Arts, Economics, Anthropology, and Oriental Languages.
Initially 25 students were chosen for the program. All of them were men, all had military language training in Japanese, and most had spent some time in Japan. In an effort to facilitate fieldwork and as a way of building knowledge of Japan "step by step from the grass roots up", (Hall, quoted in Newsweek, February 25, 1952) the center took on the difficult task of establishing a University field station in war-ravaged Japan.
Conditions in post-war Japan presented great challenges to University professors trying to organize a research station in Okayama. Through correspondence and meetings with General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo, the Center was able to secure permission from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) for studies in Okayama, Japan. According to General MacArthur, The four-year project for research in Japan appears to be boldly planned and soundly conceived. Carried to a successful conclusion, it should result in a body of knowledge which will prove of inestimable value not only to the academic world, but to a better understanding of Japan by our own people.
The support of SCAP was important in making the University's projects in Okayama possible, and suggests the University's continuing tie to U.S. strategic interests in the region.
The field station was located in Okayama, the area of Honshu island known as "the Cradle of Japanese Civilization." Research began with a four-year plan in Okayama, later to expand over the entire country. Having secured property - itself no small feat - the Center began working in the Okayama field station on April 1, 1950. Center faculty and graduate students were all Reserve officers in the U.S. armed forces.
Center affiliates studied three separate villages: a fishing community, a farming community, and a mountain village. The research staff was dispersed, but the program set its sights on developing "an approximation of a total knowledge of these representative communities." The data they collected thus represented contributions from many scholars and disciplines, and the normal working procedure was to have the community under study by specialists in several disciplines at the same time. During the first year, for example, the village of Niike was under almost daily observation by an anthropologist, a geographer, and a political scientist, among others.
Center staff at the field station, in addition to a wide variety of research duties, spent a great deal of time on "housekeeping" problems. Daily problems included finding room for the constantly changing round of students, faculty and staff, and securing even the simplest of supplies. Procurement of a stove, for example, took over a year and included battles with the manufacturer, two shipping agents, a number of warehouses and local authorities in Japan. The Center and its personnel were often the litmus test for new laws on immigration, imports/exports, and taxes.
The routing of supplies and personnel was often circuitous. Personnel traveled to and from the villages by jeep, and the field station's vehicles were in constant demand. It was also difficult to keep tabs on all personnel, as dozens of people were applying themselves to hundreds of research projects simultaneously. These projects had to be woven into a fabric of good will; field station faculty members ingratiated themselves with local politicians, academicians, and the public at seminars and social gatherings, both formal and informal. At the center of some debate was the field station's tennis court: upkeep was expensive but deemed necessary as a way of putting up a good public front. Monthly reports to Ann Arbor, now on file at the Bentley Historical Library, took the form of long letters that mixed academic, financial, housekeeping, and personal moments in a jumble of conventional and unconventional education.
In addition to the research, the field-station team purchased tens of thousands of books for the Asia Library. At 239,000 volumes, this library is now the second-largest such collection in the U.S. Interest in the field station brought attention to the Center in Ann Arbor. The Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. cut the ribbon to open the Asia library, and in 1953, nineteen-year-old Crown Prince Akihito, now emperor, came to Ann Arbor to tour the Center and meet its scholars.
The original four-year plan for Okayama lasted more than five years, with the field station finally closing, despite the pleas of local and national news media and politicians, on June 28, 1955. The last cable from Ann Arbor captured the mood in necessarily succinct tones: "WELL DONE SORROW AND GRATITUDE MINGLED".
The end of Okayama was the beginning of an ever-expanding number of projects. By the early 1950s, the Center was no longer training primarily former soldiers and was preparing undergraduate students for admission. The research carried out at Okayama led to dozens of publications, including the seminal work Village Japan (1959). The University's Center for Japanese Studies thus developed a course of area studies nearly a decade ahead of subsequent programs. Since 1947, more than 500 M.A. degrees have been awarded to either Center or departmental students, and over 200 Ph.D. degrees have been awarded in Japan-related disciplines. Today the Center supports over two dozen Japan area specialists, all of whom have lived and studied in Japan. Center faculty lecture, write extensively for both scholarly journals and popular media, serve as consultants to industry and government, and otherwise respond to and foster American interest in Japan.
Brett Johnson is Arts Director at the Center for Japanese Studies and a doctoral candidate in Theatre Arts at the University of Minnesota.