Students celebrate new Japanese studies degree in first cohort of graduating majors

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Julia Wright ’20 remembers her two semesters studying abroad in Japan fondly, recalling her daily commute to Tokyo and the rush she would feel each morning as she boarded a packed, high-speed train travelling to Keio University.

Now, Wright, along with Margot Baden ’20, Alison Bolton ’20 and Sarah Wilkowskie ’20, will be the first cohort of students to graduate from the College of William and Mary with a degree in Japanese studies, inaugurating the new major. Japanese Studies professor Michael Cronin said he was excited that these graduating students were able to receive a degree that sufficiently reflected their extensive coursework with the country’s language, culture and history.

“It’s been really exciting to have our first cohort of majors right in the first year of the major,” Cronin said. “These are students who were really eagerly waiting for the major to be officially established.”

Wright’s journey to her Japanese studies major began during her freshman year at the College. Although she’d developed interest in Japanese in high school, her school did not offer any  Japanese courses out of a lack of widespread interest.

Regardless, Wright fell in love with Japan’s language and culture and spent her time at the College building up her skills. Wright decided by her junior year that she wanted to spend two semesters immersed in the Japanese culture, ultimately spending her time studying at Keio University in the country’s capital.

Looking back on her time in Japan, Wright said that it was an important informative and educational experience but specifically remembered the food she enjoyed there — specifically, the sushi.

“Conveyor-belt sushi is the world’s greatest invention,” Wright said. “Legitimately, I think I waited in hour-long lines, and it was worth every minute.”

In her first year at the College, Wright took advantage of Japanese courses open to her through the modern languages and literatures department. However, since there was no undergraduate Japanese studies major available at that time, Wright was left to navigate courses on her own.

She first took Japanese 101 with professor Aiko Kitamura in fall 2016, and then complemented to that experience in spring 2017, opting to take a COLL 100 taught by Cronin called “Anime Explores the Posthuman.”

Originally, Wright took Japanese classes as a means of pursuing her high school interests and of taking her mind off of other classes, but she soon found herself drawn to the program.

“I was originally going into William and Mary as a computer science major. Japanese Studies was a support system … You could vent in Japanese.”

“I was originally going into William and Mary as a computer science major,” Wright said. “Japanese Studies was a support system … You could vent in Japanese.”

Wright said she found a tight-knit group of professors and students pursuing Japanese studies at the College, which helped her feel comfortable in the program and allowed her to get more involved in the community. She chose to live in the Japanese House during her sophomore year, and also became a member of the Japanese Cultural Association in her freshman year, ultimately serving as the organization’s the following year.

By her senior year, Wright had spent her time at the College dedicated to Japanese studies. For her final capstone project, Wright researched the issue of Korean minorities (known as “Zainichi Koreans”) living in Japan. Her project was titled “Systems of Oppression through the Korean Body.”

With its new Japanese studies major, the College is the only public university in Virginia that offers a bachelor’s degree in the field. The Board of Visitors approved the creation of the new degree Sept. 28, 2018, and Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education approved the decision July 16, 2019.

Before the creation of the new Japanese studies major, students could declare a minor or create their own major through the Roy R. Charles Center. As one of the architects of the new major, Cronin helped develop the major and push it through its four stages of approval. First, he garnered the support of the modern languages department and obtained approval from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, before ultimately presenting the major to the Board of Visitors and the state.

While Japanese Studies Program Director Tomoyuki Sasaki represents the program in the Modern Languages Department and also oversees the College’s two official study abroad programs in Japan, Cronin advises Japanese studies majors and helps draw in prospective students with his COLL 100 class.

Since he saw a steady growth of students interested in Japanese at the College, Cronin put out a survey in spring 2017 asking if his students would be interested if a new major in Japanese studies was created. The survey came back overwhelmingly positive, according to Cronin, so he and his colleagues in Japanese studies began putting together their proposal for the multistage approval process.

Among those students that eagerly responded was Baden, who will be graduating in Japanese studies this year.

“I came in with the intention of doing an international relations major,” Baden said. “And then, Japanese Studies was just sort of a way for me to continue being involved with the culture and the country. So I intended to do a minor, but then I get remember getting this email from Professor Cronin … asking if everyone interested in Japanese Studies could fill out a survey to see if there’s demand for a Japanese major, and I filled it out so quickly.”

Baden said her interest in Japanese studies began in high school, when she took part in a program called High School Diplomats. The program paired 40 Japanese students and 40 American students over the summer at Princeton University, and it allowed her to travel to Japan during her junior year of high school. In the summer of that year, the program sent her to the city of Beppu on Kyushu, the southernmost and westernmost of Japan’s five main islands.

In Beppu, Baden experienced Japan for the first time as a student and discovered her love of hot springs, which she was able to research for her senior capstone project at the College. Her senior capstone project was called “‘Wasted Effort’ — Representations of the Onsen through the Commercialization of Leisure in 1930s Japan.”

Once she enrolled at the College as a freshman, Baden planned to major in international relations while still pursuing her high school interest in Japanese studies. Like Wright, she took the COLL 100 with Cronin, she joined JCA and she studied abroad at Keio University her junior year.

“It was really cool to be able to take classes in Japan, about Japan, from international scholars and Japanese professors,” Baden said. “It was a really cool hands-on experience, and I’m really fortunate that we have these exchange programs with Japanese universities that give our students opportunities.”

“It was a really cool hands-on experience, and I’m really fortunate that we have these exchange programs with Japanese universities that give our students opportunities.”

Outside of her classes in Tokyo, Baden took part in unique extracurricular activities.

“I was able to join a traditional Japanese dance club, which is something you’d never find at William and Mary,” Baden said. “It was really awesome being able to make friends with Japanese students my age and to also immerse myself in the language.”

Now a double major in Japanese studies and international relations, Baden plans to work for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme after graduation. Sponsored by the Japanese government, the JET Programme looks to bring in English-speaking university graduates to serve as assistant language teachers.

Assuming all goes well with the program in the uncertain age of COVID-19, Baden hopes to be placed back in Beppu to help teach English in September. Unfortunately, she said that the program may not proceed as planned, and if it does, she could be assigned anywhere.

Cronin said that despite uncertainties created by COVID-19, he is hopeful that the new major will continue to attract new students.

“We’re looking forward to growth in the major,” Cronin said. “Next year, I think everybody agrees, is pretty unpredictable what the entering class will be like. But we talked to several prospective students on Admitted Students Day who had already heard of the major and were interested in it, so we’re very optimistic.”