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Success stories: Richard Bowring

Richard Bowring, Emeritus Professor of Japanese Studies, University of Cambridge

Graduated 1968

Richard Bowring


To gain some idea of what it was like studying Japanese at Cambridge in the late 1960s you can do no better than read ‘Fifty Years of Japanese at Cambridge’, which can be found somewhere else on this website. Japan was still so far away (a week on the trans-Siberian), there was no access to contemporary material, and no way of copying anything. There were zero students ahead of us and zero behind, so we felt like lonely pioneers. Still, I count myself fortunate in my wild choice (for it was considered close to madness at the time), because the study of the language and culture has absorbed my energies for a lifetime.

After graduation, I tried airline management with Cathay Pacific for two years and quickly realised that I was not cut out for business. Back to Cambridge for a three-year PhD on Mori Ōgai (I was the only graduate student), and Tokyo University (another lonely place!) followed by my first academic job at Monash University in Melbourne, another world altogether where Japanese was already being taught to large classes at Junior School level. From there I went to Columbia, then Princeton, and then finally back to Cambridge in 1985, where there was a big job to do, putting the subject back on its feet after a series of savage cuts. Believe it or not, there was serious talk of closing Japanese Studies down completely in the mid 1980s.

Not many students want to go into academia these days. I am not sure why, but I hope it is not that we have been bad role models. It is not for everyone, of course, but I would still recommend it for the few who are brave enough, or perhaps foolhardy enough, to trust that a job might possibly be forthcoming after years struggling through all that barbed wire, as someone once said to me, trying to describe what Japanese looked like to the uninitiated.

March 2017