The undergraduate course in Japanese Studies follows the Cambridge Tripos system. Tripos refers both to the course of study as a whole – such as History Tripos and Natural Sciences Tripos - and the individual examinations that form part of each course of study. Students of Japanese do the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Tripos, taking Part IA at the end of their first year, Part IB at the end of their second, and Part II in the final year of the four-year course.
Here are answers to some questions you might have if you are thinking of studying Japanese at Cambridge. Click on the questions to reveal the answers.
Japanese at Cambridge is taught from scratch so you don’t need to have any prior knowledge of the language. You need to be able to demonstrate that you have good language aptitude, and for that an A-level in any language is recommended. You do not need to have a GCSE, AS or A2 in Japanese: if you are doing one, it is certainly a good sign of your motivation and will encourage admissions officers to think that you are committed to the subject, but it does not give you any particular advantage in terms of admission. This is because the course consists of a wide range of cultural, historical, and literary papers that require analytical skills beyond basic language training. If you are taking Japanese at A-level we suggest you do so only as one out of four A-level subjects.
Please note that before you come up to Cambridge you will be expected to have already mastered both the hiragana and the katakana writing systems.
Before your interview you definitely need to do some exploratory reading about China/Japan/Korea and to be prepared to talk about your reading in the interview. This can include general histories, literature in translation and other reading that relates to your main interest in Japan. Wikipedia and other internet sources alone are not good enough!
In your College you will have a Director of Studies who will be responsible for your academic welfare and for your progress; in other subjects your Director of Studies also arranges your supervisions but in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies supervisions are arranged by your teachers in the Faculty. Students studying Japanese and wondering which college to apply to should be aware that members of staff teaching on East Asia are fellows of the following colleges. In most cases they also act as Director of Studies for all students reading Chinese or Japanese. In other colleges your Director of Studies is likely to be a specialist in Middle Eastern or South Asian studies.
Much of the first year is taken up with a detailed study of modern spoken and written Japanese, and the attention paid to language study continues throughout your four years. The learning-curve here is steep and we deliberately set a fast pace. However, by the end of your first year you will be able to read some short stories in Japanese: these will be read in the third term and you will be surprised then by how much you have learned! And by the end of your four years you will have the satisfaction of being able to manage an impressive range of tasks in Japanese - including reading novels and newspaper editorials, holding conversations on both everyday and specialised topics, as well as writing your own compositions in Japanese and, for those who choose to study classical Japanese, reading literary and classical Japanese texts.
In addition to the intensive language work you follow a course which gives you an introduction to the history of East Asia. This course is taken by all first-year students studying Japanese and Chinese together and covers the history of China, Japan and Korea. This course will give you both a far-ranging historical overview as well as a broadly defined cultural framework intended to give you a foretaste of the more methodologically distinct approaches that we introduce in the second year. The course consists of lectures, seminars, workshop sessions and visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Needham Research Centre.
In the second year, you have the flexibility to focus your studies in a particular direction, when you select two out of four specialised courses: the options are chosen from courses in politics, sociology, literature and culture, classical Japanese and the cinema of East Asia. Language training continues throughout this year, but at a less intensive level than in the first year. You will also be reading Japanese texts and raising your level of reading ability as well as following a course on the modern history of Japan.
The third year is spent in Japan, usually at Doshisha University in Kyoto. The Faculty makes the arrangements for this. Students who wish to make their own arrangements will need to ensure that there is a structured language-learning component and will need to get Faculty Board approval for their plans. The object of this year abroad is to increase fluency and understanding of the language, and to provide the opportunity to start work on a dissertation, which must show evidence of a substantial use of Japanese language sources, be they oral or textual.
The final year involves further advanced-level language work, two special papers in fields of your interest, and the writing of a dissertation in close consultation with your supervisor. The range of special papers available varies from year to year, but they usually include options in the modern politics and international relations of East Asia, Korean language, and Japanese society.
For full details of the examination papers and regulations, which change from year to year, please see the Undergraduate Handbook.
Dann Anscombe (now in his 3rd year) writes:
My first 3 years of Japanese Studies at Cambridge have been a fantastic experience. Straight from the word go, we were plunged in to Kanji learning, and the language learning curve in the first year was quite steep, so it is not a course for the faint hearted! But through the great teaching of the language instructors Mrs Laurie and Mrs Boulding, I was astounded by what we had achieved by the end of just one year, having used what we had learnt to translate short stories and several chapters of a full length novel. This rapid progress in language continued in Year 2, with more advanced grammar and more challenging translations including non-fictional texts. All this prepared me very well for where I currently am - my year abroad at Doshisha University in Kyoto, which is as much a great learning opportunity as it is an adventure!
But the course is much more than just language. The East Asian Studies course in Year 1 is brilliantly organised and was enjoyed by all, and gives a really solid base for further study in to Japanese, Chinese and/or Korean history. The second year course in Modern Japanese History is very demanding, and gives you a much deeper understanding of Japan’s recent past. The second year options I chose to study were Classical Japanese and Japanese Society, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and gained a great deal from. The former is very challenging, but a fascinating look in to the language and literature of the past. The latter looks at trends in Japanese society, mainly focussing on current themes such as gender, education and family issues.
Japanese Studies is a course which does not leave you short on choices, and you can tailor your studies to your interests. It is a very challenging, but therefore rewarding course. The class is generally very small - ten to fifteen people on average – which gives you closer contact with your instructors to help your study, and with each other, resulting in a very tight knit group, and faculty in general. I can’t recommend the course highly enough!
One of the distinctive strengths of the Cambridge teaching system is the close, one-to-one supervision system in which you have the opportunity to test out your ideas with the academic staff. We see this as a critical part of the pedagogical process and we expect you to participate in a genuine dialogue in which you should feel free to challenge us as much as we, inevitably, will challenge you. In the first year you will have supervisions for language and for history, usually in pairs or small groups.
It is possible to combine the study of Japanese and Chinese in the Tripos, but please note that this can not be done at the same time. Those who take this option will not have a year abroad but instead will spend their third year studying basic Chinese. Applicants are advised to put only one language as the subject in their application form irrespective of whether they plan to do the combination in their third and fourth year in Cambridge. As one might expect, mastering two demanding Asian languages is no small achievement and we generally recommend this option only for students with particularly strong linguistic aptitude or those who may have had extensive prior exposure to one of the two languages before arriving at Cambridge. Students interested in Korean can take a paper in Korean in their fourth year.