Early beginnings

Japanese instruction at the University of Melbourne began in the early years of the 20th century. In 1917, Japanese interest and investment in Australia was hitting its stride. The Reverend Thomas Jollie Smith joined a deputation urging the Minister for Home and Territories to consider the desirability of teaching Japanese and Pacific Islander languages in Australia. That same year, Senkichi 'Moshi' Inagaki, who arrived in Australia from Japan in 1897, began taking private students, among them Major Edmund Leolin Piesse, then Director of Military Intelligence. By 1918, the Reverend Smith was teaching classes in Japanese on an unofficial basis, and in 1919 was recognised as instructor in Japanese at the University of Melbourne, with Inagaki as his assistant.

Cover of Senkichi 'Moshi' Inagakis book
Cover of a book published by Moshi

The classicist tradition railed against the teaching of anything other than Latin and Ancient Greek and together, Smith and Inagaki bucked this trend. The importance of a native-speaking language teacher was understood, and Inagaki's ability in the language complemented Smith's experience in teaching. In 1920 the Mollison Scholarship was extended to Japanese, and in 1922 with a strong recommendation from his former student Major Piesse, Inagaki became the sole instructor in Japanese at the University.

The impact of the Second World War

WWII gravely harmed the relationship between Australia and Japan, and halted the teaching of Japanese at the University. In 1941, while Australia was at war with Germany and as trade negotiations collapsed between the United States and Japan, in the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbour. Within 24 hours, Mr Inagaki and 15 other Japanese nationals living in Victoria were arrested; by 1942 Mr Inagaki was placed in an internment camp and the University of Melbourne had no option but to discontinue its teaching of Japanese. Mr Inagaki's wife Rose passed away while he was in internment, and following his release in 1946 he returned to Japan and sadly he is not known to have ever visited Australia again.

The internment of Japanese nationals during the war and restrictions on Japanese migration to Australia meant that, despite the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Australia and Japan in 1952, there was an acute shortage of native speakers of Japanese. However, the War had provided a major stimulus to the teaching of Japanese for military purposes, and so when the new Department of Oriental Studies was created in 1961 under the leadership of the late Professor Harry Felix Simon, the recommencement of Japanese Studies depended initially on teachers who had studied it during the War.

In 1965, the Department appointed Mr William (Bill) Braithwaite Eggington as Senior Lecturer in Japanese. Mr Eggington, initially an Indonesia specialist, had studied Japanese at London University during the war and served with British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) at Kure in Japan. Coincidentally, one of the Department's first students of Chinese, Mr Leslie Russell Oates, had also served as a military interpreter of Japanese with the Australian Army during the war, and afterwards, at Kure. Mr Oates' extraordinary knowledge of Japanese language and literature, his respect for, and understanding of Japanese Buddhism, led to his appointment as Lecturer in Japanese in 1966. Japanese teaching in these early post-war years was further supported by the appointment of Mrs Chizuru Katayama (Pat Sherriff) as tutor; she had also worked with BCOF in Japan. These three dedicated teachers rebuilt the teaching of Japanese at the University of Melbourne through the 1960s until they retired, one by one, in the 1980s and 1990s and were replaced by lecturers trained in Japan.

The growth of Australia-Japan relations

As Japanese teaching returned to the University, its presence was also returning to the wider society. Along with state-level Australia-Japan societies, organisations such as Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Melbourne (JCCiM), Japanese Society of Melbourne (JSM) and Australia Japan Society Victoria began to appear in the 1960s. The Japan Foundation opened its Sydney branch in 1978, and the The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme reached Australia in 1987. Engagement between Australia and Japan only continued to grow, and at the University a new era of Asian Studies scholarship and engagement with Asia was about to begin.

In 1990, the Australian Government's Commission for the Future together with the Myer Foundation established the think-tank Asialink with the goal of promoting understanding of Asia, and the role Australia can take in the region. In 1998, the Melbourne Institute of Asian Languages and Societies was opened, and in the same year Asialink was made a non-academic department of the University of Melbourne. In 2001, the Sidney Myer Asia Centre was built with a grant from the Sidney Myer Centenary Celebration, and in 2006 the Asia Institute was formed.

Japanese language at the University today

Excerpt page from Senkichi 'Moshi' Inagakis book
Excerpt page from a book published by Moshi

Today, over 1600 students are currently studying Japanese at the University (as of February 2017), and it remains to be the most popular LOTE subject in the University. The history of Japanese at the University is characterised by a deep and abiding commitment to peace and mutual understanding between the two nations. The current increasing popularity of Japanese language in the university means its increasing educational values and responsibility. Japanese language education creates a space where local and international students meet on a large scale, and they explore, imagine and co-construct a new reality and identity through intercultural learning using Japanese as a medium. The role of Japanese language education changes, reflecting the global as well as the local contexts, and it will continue to evolve in order to educate young talents who will champion humanistic values across the cultural boarders. "Importantly, Japan and Australia, two great powers in Asia Pacific, have in common society's most important values. These are democracy and peace. Teaching and learning Japanese is a way to uphold and reinforce these shared values," says Akihiro Ogawa, Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Melbourne.