'Cool Japan' suffers from cruel cuts
Nicola Liscutin, a lecturer in Japanese studies, is in no doubt as to why the subject is one of the fastest growing in the UK: it is the lure of "cool Japan".
Today's students have grown up on Japanese cultural products - graphic novels, manga comics, anime, design and fashion - which made them eager to study Japanese, she said. However, her course was about unpicking the stereotypes, she added.
Mark Williams, professor of Japanese studies at Leeds University and president of the British Association for Japanese Studies, agrees that culture has made Japan popular but thinks there is also a savvy contingent of students tapping into excellent job prospects. "It is the world's second-largest economy. The need for specialists in Japanese is always going to be there."
There is no shortage of willing students - about 10,000 are taking the language at school level - and the subject recorded the second-highest jump in university applications in 2007, up 40.9 per cent on 2006, to 1,126.
But Japanese studies is in trouble on another front, according to a private charity that promotes Japan-UK relations, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.
The problem, the foundation said, was that a wave of closures and cuts in centres and departments of Japanese studies and Japanese-language teaching over the past decade was taking the UK's pool of expertise to the brink.
The foundation this week announced a cash injection into universities in the form of 13 new academic posts to help address the problem.
"There is a funding crisis of grave proportions within Japanese studies," said George Windsor, the Earl of St Andrews and chairman of the Sasakawa Foundation. This was a "situation... that, if not addressed, could have far reaching repercussions for relations between our two countries".
Five university departments have been closed or earmarked for closure in the past decade, said Stephen McEnally, director of the Sasakawa Foundation. Ulster University stopped provision in the 1990s, Sussex University halted it in 1998 and Essex in 2003. Stirling University began a staged withdrawal in 2002, and Durham University took the controversial decision in 2003 to close its whole East Asian studies department - a process now nearly complete. Edinburgh and Birmingham universities have also cut back severely. The subject required intensive - and therefore expensive - teaching, and it did not attract the revenue the universities were chasing, Mr Windsor explained.
The result is that that as demand for courses has risen, the remaining centres have had to "mop up".
"We are at over-capacity [at Leeds]," Professor Williams said. "There are more students than we can cope with. We are turning away excellent students."
Recognising the extent of closures, in 2005 the Higher Education Funding Council for England placed Japanese, along with Chinese and other East Asian languages, on its list of "strategically important and vulnerable subjects". It ploughed in extra funding to establish the National Institute of Japanese Studies, which is run by Leeds and Sheffield universities. However, the foundation said that, while a centre of excellence was a good start, there had been nothing for the remaining cash-strapped departments.
"We need to stop the rot where posts are being cut," Mr McEnally said of the decision to create the 13 new posts, which are aimed at early-career experts.
"We are losing our experts - people who are fluent not only in the language but have a very deep knowledge of the culture of Japan, which is important for our trade and investment and our relationship with the country."
The teaching and research posts, which will be funded with £2.5 million over five years, will benefit some 12 established and emerging Japanese language centres - at Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities and the School of Oriental and African Studies, Birkbeck, University of London, and the University of East Anglia. Universities will cover the indirect costs.
Whether the new posts will mean that more students can take courses remains to be seen. "We will see if there is scope for more, but there is no firm decision on whether we will increase our quota," Professor Williams said.
Mr McEnally also stressed that the initiative was not just about freeing up places to fuel the "cool Japan" boom: "We are trying to create - or recreate - the depth."