I first came to Japan’s former capital way back in 1974. Since the mid-1990s, when I met my wife—a Kyoto native—I’ve made this city my second home. After retiring last year from the University of Victoria, where for thirty-two years I taught a range of courses on Japan, I’ve been spending more time in Japan than back in Canada, and most of that in Kyoto.
In July last year I was appointed resident director of the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies (KCJS). This organization has thirteen member universities from the United States—Boston, Brown, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Emory, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Stanford, Virginia, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale—and is run by Columbia. We’re located on the grounds of Doshisha University’s Imadegawa campus. Consortium members as well as several nonmember universities send their undergraduate students to our program for a semester or two of intensive classes in intermediate and advanced Japanese language and an array of topical courses on Japan, taught in English or Japanese and with a particular focus on Kyoto. Students also engage in a community involvement project in which they meet, work and play with locals in a wide range of fields, from science labs to kindergartens to nonprofit organizations and school clubs. KCJS also runs intensive modern and classical Japanese courses during the summer.
In early 2020, Japan closed its doors to practically everyone but its citizens and foreign residents who were already here, effectively shutting down KCJS except for a couple of summer sessions held online in 2021 and 2022. In late August of 2022, however, students returned to Kyoto—twenty-nine to KCJS and forty-one for the spring semester in 2023.
COVID-19 has made returning to the pre-pandemic “normal” impossible for the time being, however. Some features of our program, such as homestays for all the students, have been put on hold until next fall. In their place, students have been billeted at dormitories and apartments. Masking protocols are still in place and some excursions are off the table.
That said, the transition back to face-to-face (mask-to-mask?) teaching has been remarkably smooth, and the students have been delighted to be in Japan, back in the classroom and not stuck on Zoom. Some even delayed graduating so they could come. For me, it’s been stimulating to be back among young people who are smart, enthusiastic, and eager to learn.
Besides KCJS, Doshisha hosts two other American study-abroad programs: the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP)—which is a consortium of small liberal arts colleges, like Amherst, Oberlin and Wesleyan—and Stanford in Kyoto, which is run on a quarter system. We share resources (and some students) with one another.
Shortly after I arrived I met the director of AKP, a professor from Bucknell, who bluntly asked me why KCJS had hired a Canadian to head up their consortium of American universities. “I don’t know. Maybe because they couldn’t find anybody better?” I suggested. Relevant to that, Stanford’s director in Kyoto is an Englishman educated at the University of London. Smart organizations get their talent where they can find it.
I’ve recently been offered a renewal of my contract, for three years, with the possibility of extending it to five. I love being a Canadian, and I love living in Kyoto and directing a program that attracts some of the best minds in America to learn about Japan.