The theme for the upcoming Spring 2025 issue of Mechademia: Second Arc will be “methodologies” – such as “theoretical frameworks” and “methods of analysis”. The Call for Papers for the issue lists several potential topics to consider and questions to ask in connection with this broad theme, and one of these questions is “What hampers the interrelation between English-language and Japanese-language scholarship (including publications by non-Japanese nationals in Japanese, and translations of popular or non-academic Japanese media criticism in English)?”
Asking this leads into another, related question. Is it essential or necessary for scholars working in a field like anime and manga studies, where the objects that the field is about are originally in a different language, to use scholarly materials in that language? And, if someone is not proficient in Japanese to the level where they can access untranslated Japanese books and essays, what kinds of options are available to them if they still want want to make a meaningful contribution to the study of Japanese animation, Japanese comics, and other related topics?
What hampers the interrelation between English-language and Japanese-language scholarship (including publications by non-Japanese nationals in Japanese, and translations of popular or non-academic Japanese media criticism in English)?
As it turns out, this specific question is actually related to a broader question of the role that the English language plays in global scholarly communication more generally. For example, in an innovative 2004 study on “global English in the humanities”, Charlene Kellsey and Jennifer E. Knievel demonstrated that for the fields of history, classics, linguistics, and philosophy, the average number of citations to non-English sources in issues of major journals has increased slightly between 1962 and 2002, while the average number of total cited sources has increased significantly, from 66.8 to 236. The vast majority of citations are to materials either originally published in English, or to translations into English. A similar study with a focus on the scholarly literature for the field of linguistics found that for a random sample of 479 sources used as citations in materials in the Language and Linguistics Behavior Abstracts database, an overwhelming majority – 93.5% – were in English. Additional recent studies on the topic include Can scholarly communication be multilingual? A glance at language use in US classical archaeology, Cross-lingual citations in English papers: a large-scale analysis of prevalence, usage, and impact, and, just recently – and with direct relevance to Japanese popular culture studies – Citing East Asia: A citation study on the use of East Asian materials in East Asian Studies dissertations. For that matter, in my own study of sources cited in the first 10 volumes of Mechademia, I found that out of 2,187 sources that authors cited, 68.22% were originally published in English, and another 7.27% were translated into English from other languages. Materials in Japanese made up 22.54%, and the small remainder was divided between a few items in French, German, Korean, Chinese, Italian, and Spanish.
On average, each dissertation had 44 percent of its citations to East Asian materials. However, the individual dissertations varied greatly in terms of percentage of East Asian citations
– Xiang Li, Citing East Asia
These studies then demonstrate both that scholars in different fields in the humanities that may involve using sources in languages other than English both do and do not actually use non-English sources, and the extent that they do varies widely between fields. So, conceptually, scholarship in the humanities that focuses on literature and media that is originally produced in a language other than English, and does not necessarily refer to sources in that language is possible and accepted. But, the question remains – how do you “do” anime and manga studies without being able to directly access materials written in Japanese?
And, to answer the question, I would point at least four possible approaches. Each of them comes with their own caveats and limitations, but, taken together, these approaches definitely offer some ways to resolve the basic challenge.
1. Consider translations of Japanese scholarly work
The most straight-forward approach simply involves asking the question to what extent is Japanese writing on anime/manga available in English translation? The answer to this question is – somewhat. English translations are available for two foundational Japanese texts in anime studies – Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals and Beautiful Fighting Girl, but in the first case, the original book was published in 2001, and the translation is from 2009; in the second, the book is from 2000, and updated in 2006, and the translation is dated 2011. So, neither can represent the “current” state of anime studies, either in Japanese or in English. And this is essentially also the case with the volume that was published in 2021 with the title Erotic Comics in Japan: An Introduction to Eromanga – the original Japanese edition is dated 2014, and the direct translation of the original title is Eromanga Studies, Expanded Edition: An Introduction to Manga as a “Pleasure Apparatus”.