The Fight for the Humanities in Japanese Universities

Playing Defense: The Fight for the Humanities in Japanese Universities

As reported by both the Guardian Newspaper and Time magazine in July of this past year, more than 50 Japanese Universities will “reduce or altogether eliminate” their humanities programs in response to a government dictum encouraging universities to”‘focus on disciplines that better meet society’s needs'” (Time).  The move is the result of the larger project of Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to “reassert Japan’s economic and political stature” (Time).  In pursuit of this goal, the government is encouraging students to pursue STEM disciplines, as President Abe suggested in a speech last year: “rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.” In response, these universities will either stop recruitment to their humanities programs, eliminate elective courses in the humanities (including disciplines like Law and Economics), or shut down their programs in the arts and social sciences entirely.

It is worth noting that Japan’s top universities at Tokyo and Kyoto (the only two Japanese school to rank within the world’s top two-hundred universities) have refused to comply with the government’s dictum.  Moreover, the Science Council of Japan, in a July 23 statement, responded,

Academics contribute to the creation of an intellectually and culturally enriched society…We see it as our duty to produce, enhance, and transfer in-depth and balanced accounts of knowledge about nature, the human beings, and society…Thus, the [humanities and social sciences] make an essential contribution to academic knowledge as a whole.

Most importantly, the statement points out that the study of the sciences and the study of the humanities have the same end: in attempting to create a”balanced” account of “knowledge about nature, human beings, and society”, academics in both the humanities and the sciences have the same goal, and therefore deserve equal support from the government.  While it is unfortunate that the sciences must come to the defense of the humanities when they are under attack, such a statement from the Science Council does counter the “unproductive opposition between the humanities and sciences”, says Sophie Colombeau, a lecturer at Cardiff University.  According to Colombeau, the move of the Japanese universities to close programs in the humanities is the result of “lazy generalizations” about the study of the humanities, which then “translate into government policy” (Guardian).  Hopefully, international outcry from academics and supporters of the arts will place pressure on the Japanese government to rethink its policies and to confine its use of the word “utilitarian” to highway planning and public transportation.

Read the full articles here

Katherine Horgan

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