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The Japanese government recently announced gifts of $5 million each to support the study of contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at Columbia and Georgetown Universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The gifts, formally announced during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s April 26-May 3 visit to the United States, will support endowed professorships in contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at the three universities. All three universities said the Japanese government will not have any input on the selection of the professors.

“This is not totally new to Japan,” the Japanese embassy in Washington said in a statement. “Since [the] 1970s, Japan has a long history of supporting foreign institutions with Japan studies programs and foreign Japan scholars in the U.S. and other countries including the U.K., France, Canada and Germany.”

The Japanese government provided $10 million for Japanese studies at American universities in the early 1970s under then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. The Japan Foundation, established in 1972, funds cultural exchange programs and promotes Japanese studies and language education overseas. “Given that some universities in the U.S. and other countries are facing difficulties in continuing their Japan studies programs, Japan decided to enhance its support,” said the embassy's statement, which also stated that the Japanese government “will consider the possibility of additional contributions in the U.S. and other countries in the future.”

“I think they saw it as a way to make a high-impact move that shows that there is an interest in growing the field of Japan studies in the United States,” said Victor Cha, a political scientist and the director of the Asian studies program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he holds the D.S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair.

The Korea Foundation has been active in funding professorships in Korean studies at overseas universities, while Japan’s other main geopolitical competitor in the region, China, has over the past 10 years established Confucius Institutes, centers for Chinese language and culture study, at universities around the globe, including nearly 100 institutions in the U.S. (The latter have been controversial principally because of the control the Chinese government can exert in approving the Confucius Institutes’ annual budgets, in supplying curricular materials and in hiring visiting language instructors who staff the institutes.)

The Japanese government's new gifts to American universities come at a time when Prime Minister Abe’s right-wing government has been accused of seeking to whitewash Japan's wartime history, including in regards to the experience of the euphemistically named “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese military during World War II. Disputes over accounts in Japanese school textbooks have spilled over in the U.S.: as The New York Times and other media outlets have reported, Japanese diplomats in December sought revisions to a description of comfort women included in an American high school textbook published by McGraw-Hill (the publisher declined to make any changes).

More than 180 historians in the U.S. recently wrote an open letter criticizing efforts to deny or trivialize the experience of comfort women: noting that some historians dispute the degree to which the Japanese military was involved or whether comfort women were coerced, the letter states nonetheless that “the evidence makes clear that large numbers of women were held against their will and subjected to horrific brutality.” The letter supports the right of Japanese colleagues to engage in historical inquiry “free from government manipulation, censorship and private intimidation.”

Jordan Sand, a professor of Japanese history at Georgetown who helped organize the writing of the letter, said he was not worried about potential Japanese government interference as a result of the $5 million gift to his university. Sand said he was satisfied with Georgetown officials’ assurances that the Japanese government will have no say over the hiring of the professor who holds the new chair.

“This is a part of what people refer to as soft power competition, which goes on in every direction all the time, which is what sustains all kinds of international and area studies programs in lots of ways,” Sand said. “But it only goes as far as the door to the development office and if it goes into the hiring process or anything else then that’s a breach of our academic integrity and we won’t tolerate it.”

“Once you have an endowment, it’s arm’s length and the role of the donor ceases with the delivery of the gift,” said Richard Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for International Studies at MIT. “We're very grateful, we thank the donor every chance we get, but it does not in any way, will not in any way and cannot in any way compromise the integrity of the institution.”

At MIT, the donation will initially be used to support research on Japan and East Asian security in the Center for International Studies before being transferred to the department of political science to fund an endowed professorship when Samuels -- an expert on Japan -- retires. “The point was, the next person through should also be someone who the bulk of his or her work is in Japanese politics or diplomacy,” said Samuels, who has no immediate retirement plans.

Samuels said he hopes the endowment will help to counter what he describes as a movement away from hiring faculty with an area studies focus in political science departments. “An endowed chair like this ensures that a department can continue to evolve without sacrificing area expertise,” he said.

Cha, of Georgetown, made a similar point. “In political science, the field is moving into the direction of more quantitative and rational choice work. Area studies expertise is not necessarily seen as being valued or needed, yet there’s a world out there where people have to know other countries' languages and know something about their history, and not all that is easily quantifiable. I think chairs like this help to maintain that more traditional side of the discipline.”

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