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Cartoon Cultural Phenomena Help Drive Interest in UW Japanese Programs

November 26, 2013
Woman standing near a castle
University of Wyoming student Elizabeth Marnell poses in front of Osaka Castle during a trip to Japan in 2012. Marnell is part of a surge of students enrolling in Japanese language and culture classes at UW.

Growing up in Casper, Elizabeth Marnell, like millions of other children, enjoyed watching cartoons on television. She particularly was enamored with the cartoons that originated in Japan, a genre known both in that country and the U.S. as anime.

“I appreciated the complexity of the stories -- more than American cartoons,” she says. “And once I found manga (Japanese comic books), that was it.”

Marnell’s fascination with Japanese cartoons and animation led her to take Japanese language classes at Kelly Walsh High School, the only high school in Wyoming that offers the courses. And it brought her to the University of Wyoming, where she is enrolled in the post-bachelor’s teaching program and is in her fourth year of college-level Japanese language study.

Marnell also has taken courses in Japanese culture, history and literature at UW, and she has visited Japan three times. She is part of a surge of students enrolling in Japanese courses at UW, where the difficult language has long been offered -- but where the level of interest in those subjects likely never has been as strong as it is now.

The number of students enrolled in UW’s Japanese classes has doubled in the last two years and is expected to reach 125 next year. When sections are added, they fill up quickly. UW offers a minor in Japanese, and the number of students pursuing it is growing significantly. The university has active anime and Japanese language student clubs.

“The Japanese program is just going great guns,” says Kevin Larsen, head of UW’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages. “We’ve found the money to try to meet the demand, and we have great people there.”

It’s safe to say that quality of instruction has something to do with the enrollment growth, but instructor Noah Miles recognizes it’s driven to a large extent by the popularity of anime and manga in America.

“Everybody has seen it. It has infiltrated American culture in large ways and become part of our pop culture,” Miles says. “My whole job here is because of these anime people.”

Capitalizing on the interest in the art and entertainment form, Miles this semester is teaching UW’s first course on anime, exploring Japanese history and culture through the lens of animated cartoons. For example, he has taught about the history of samurai, robots, World War II, and women in Japanese society by analyzing anime. In its first semester since being approved by UW’s Curriculum Committee, the course has proven popular, with the maximum of 32 students enrolled.

“It has been great. It’s a really fun class,” says Miles, who also is working to develop a course on manga. “Some of the students know a lot about anime; others are just curious.”

Marnell, who’s enrolled in the anime class, says she’s interested to see how many of the students will use it as a bridge to study Japanese language and culture. For her, UW’s Japanese culture class “solidified my interest in Japan,” and her interests have evolved from anime and manga to Japanese food, literature and cinema.

For classmate Ashley Hartz of Cheyenne, a senior in psychology, her coursework in Japanese language and culture has provided a window to unique aspects of Japanese society. She’s particularly interested in the phenomenon of hikikomori, which refers to reclusive Japanese adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life and seek extreme degrees of isolation and confinement.

Hartz, who also has visited Japan, is doing a research project on hikikomori and would like to study the issue further. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work but hasn’t decided on a specific career path.

Marnell, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UW, says Japanese remains an attractive foreign language course for students in engineering, business and international studies to improve career opportunities. Because the difficulty of the language “tends to weed out the people who aren’t as serious,” those enrolled in upper-level courses “tend to take it all the way.”

In addition to the Japanese culture and anime courses, Miles teaches the lower-level language courses, while native speaker Manabu “Manny” Noguchi, a member of the coaching staff for UW’s swimming and diving team, handles the upper-level classes.

At one time, American interest in Japanese language instruction stemmed from the pull of U.S.-Japanese business relationships, Miles says. Today, the “cultural pull” is the biggest factor. Regardless, Miles, who taught at the University of Texas-Tyler and Tyler Junior College before coming to UW, is happy to see the program’s growth.

“UW has given me every opportunity to do what I want to do,” says Miles, who leads UW’s World Languages Day observance Feb. 28-March 1, 2014, when high school and middle school foreign language students from around Wyoming will come to campus for a variety of activities. He would like to expand UW’s relationships with the three Japanese universities and colleges with which it has exchange agreements.

Larsen says he’s not sure if the Japanese program will continue to see the rate of growth it has experienced in recent years, and that further expansion will depend upon the resources available. But he’s excited to see Japanese studies flourish along with the seven other languages his department offers.

Marnell, who says she would have attended the University of Colorado if not for UW’s Japanese offerings, believes the interest is there for more students to pursue Japanese studies -- whether attracted by the cultural phenomena of anime and manga, or for other reasons.

“It has been great seeing the program grow here, and I think it has the potential to grow more,” she says.

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