The first Japanese classes were taught at Ghent University in the academic year 1960/61, but in fact, the history of Japanology in Ghent began earlier.
The first steps toward Japanese Studies at Ghent University took off when Indologist Louis de la Vallée Poussin first taught an optional Sanskrit course in the faculty of “Arts and Philosophy” in 1892. Even though there was no mention yet of Japan Studies at that time, the start of the first Eastern Language classes at RUG was an essential moment in our founding history. The Sanskrit course, later taught by Professor Adriaan Scharpé, remained an elective until the year 1957 when several other Eastern languages were introduced to the curriculum and a new academic institute was established.
In the academic year, 1958-1959 the Institute for Oriental, East European and African Linguistics and History was founded. In 1959, Professor Dr Daniel Ellegiers was given the course assignment for the subjects: ‘Thorough Study of an Ancient Oriental Language, Classical Chinese’; ‘Thorough Study of an Important Modern Oriental Language, Chinese’ and ‘Thorough Study of an Important Modern Oriental Language, Japanese’. From the academic year 1960-1961 onwards, Professor Ellegiers was listed for the first time in the General Programme of Courses as a lecturer in Chinese and Japanese.
In the coming decades, Japanese and Japanese culture will be a part of the overarching East Asia studies or Oriental Linguistics, but it will be some time before there is mention of a separate branch of Japanology.
Until 1969, Professor Ellegiers held the only chair in Chinese and Japanese studies, but in the year before that, a second chair was established at his request: Cultural History of East Asia. Professor William Acker was appointed in November ’69 to fill this position. He took on the subjects of ‘Classical Chinese’, ‘Cultural History of East Asia’ and ‘Society of East Asia’ until his health failed in 1973 when, as an assistant at the time, dr. Charles Willemen took over his courses for the 1973-1974 academic year.
From October 1974 all teaching assignments for Classical Chinese and Modern Chinese went permanently to Professor Charles Willemen. Professor Ellegiers remained responsible for the Japanese lessons until 1984. Daniël Ellegiers retired in ’84 and devoted himself completely to his passion for woodworking and The Flemish Guild of Woodturners, where he is still remembered with much fondness.
In 1986 Professor Charles Willemen became the next head of Eastern Linguistics after Professor Ellegiers. Soon after, a new assistant entered the department, Pol Vanden Broucke, who was working on his doctorate in the field of Japanese studies. Pol Vanden Broucke was successful in his endeavour to translate an important Buddhist text from Classical Japanese to Dutch (Yugikyō : de schriftuur van alle yoga’s en yogī’s van het paviljoen met vajra-top) and delivered his PhD in 1990.
A few years after Professor Vanden Broucke’s promotion he became the first full-time lecturer on “Japanese Language and Culture” and Japanology would get its own chair!
Professor Van Goethem: “The appointment of Pol Vanden Broucke in the department was actually quite unexpected, also for him. The fact that he had never planned to start an academic career was evident in his teaching style; he could be described as a casual teacher and did not put pressure on publishing research. I can still remember that next to the door of his office, there was a little card, torn from a magazine, which said ‘Teaching is a bit like acting’. I don’t know if many students saw this, but that was Pol’s vision.”
Besides the form of the course, the research focus and curriculum of Japanology changed over the years; Prof. Vanden Broucke focused on the study of Buddhism through the history of Japan and later Korea. During the 1990s, the curriculum did not yet include many courses specifically aimed at the study of Japan, only the Japanese Language and a limited History of Japan course were available.
All these classes, spread over four years (candidature and licence), were taught by Professor Vanden Broucke and his assistant Ellen Van Goethem. Only later was Mrs Yuko Hamamoto brought in as a language teacher. In the licence, it was possible to include Korean as a third language (in addition to the obligatory two Classical Chinese and Modern Japanese).
Ellen Van Goethem, then a PhD student, became assistant to Professor Vanden Broucke in 1999 and taught several of the courses on Japan alongside him. In addition to teaching, she was also tasked to further expand the History of Japan course and she worked on the reform of the old candidature-and-licence system to the bachelor-and-master structure according to the Bologna Declaration. Professor Van Goethem was appointed associate professor at the Department of Philosophy of the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy at Kyushu University in 2011.
Under the umbrella of “Language, text and context: Classical languages of East Asia”, two working groups for classical languages were created, one of which, Classical Japanese, was specifically for Japanology students – back then only taught in the third bachelor and master years (later expanded to a subject for all years). During this period, there was an evolution in the material taught, from Linguistics in function of Buddhist studies, the focus shifted to Area Studies.
In the early 2000s, the wheels were set in motion for the appointment of a second professor of Japanology, which was of course a long-drawn-out task, but in 2004 the time finally came: Professor Andreas Niehaus was welcomed into the Oriental Languages and Cultures. However, Professor Pol Vanden Broucke died prematurely in 2004 and Professor Niehaus was appointed as the new head of Japanology, but it was not until 2007 that Professor Christian Uhl was appointed as the second professor in the field of Japanese Language and Culture.
Professor Heirman: “Professor Niehaus’ enthusiastic approach was needed. It is sad to say but in 2004 Japanology was dying. The new professors breathed life into it again and now our Japanology has the highest number of students of the Oriental.”
With the new academic staff came a change in research focus; Professor Niehaus’ research focuses on body culture and sport in early modern and modern Japan, and Professor Uhl examines, among other things, philosophy and the contemporary history of Japan from a Marxist perspective.
The curriculum was also gradually revised with a doubling of weekly language classes, new historical-cultural subjects with a focus on Japan and more international interaction. Since the 2017-2018 academic year, the Japanese Studies programme includes a two-year master’s degree (previously one-year) and students can now spend a full year studying in Japan and/or do an internship to gain additional experience in the work field.
In line with the growing body of students, the number of teaching assistants also grew and today, in addition to an assistantship, Japanese Studies also counts five teaching assistants for the subjects Modern and Classical Japanese and Japanese Literature.
Aside from the changes in the academic field, an additional social factor came into play. In the early 2000s, the demand and interest in participating in cultural activities increased, and in 2008 Japanology was able to establish its own student association, Tomo no kai. The new association contributed greatly to the social life of Japanology. It was founded on the initiative of a group of students in cooperation with Professor Niehaus.
Besides the usual student activities, Tomo no Kai also organised many cultural and academic activities. A number of important achievements included the organisation of several study trips to Japan (these took place in 2009, 2012 and 2017) and in 2018, a Matsuri (Japanese-style festival) in collaboration with the city of Ghent.
Probably the most important evolution after 2004 is the number of international agreements with Japanese universities that the department was able to obtain. Up until 2004, the only possibility for Japanology students to study in Japan was through government scholarships (Monbukagakusho – MEXT). After intensive negotiations with various universities all over Japan, more and more places are available at Japanese – and even Korean – universities for Japanology students. Today, Japanology students can choose from as many as 19 Japanese and 4 Korean partner universities;
When the exchanges first started in the year 2010-2011, there were only two places available but now more than 50 students per semester can continue their studies at a university in Japan (or South Korea).
The department also continued to expand in terms of staff and this resulted in the appointment of additional professors: Dr Luc Van Haute, Japanologist and literary translator, as visiting professor for the subjects of Japanese literature and the Master’s course in Modern Japanese (literary translation). Finally, with Prof. Dr. Anna Andreeva, a third full-time ZAP position within Japanology could be welcomed in 2021. With the appointment of Prof. Andreeva, not only was the research area of body culture with a focus on gender and medical history strengthened but the research direction of Buddhism within the field of Japanology was also revived. Her research project Buddhism, Medicine, and Gender in Premodern Japan was able to recruit PhD student Elias Bouckaert.
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