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New center brings Japan closer to Kalamazoo

Sept. 7, 2006

KALAMAZOO--Western Michigan University has opened a new academic center to strengthen Japan-related study, research and relationships.

The Michitoshi Soga Japan Center will serve as a community resource as well as a venue for coalescing research and scholarly activity at WMU that focuses on Japanese language and culture. Many of WMU's Japanese alumni helped launch the center, which is housed in the Haenicke Institute for Global Education and reflects the University's longstanding ties to Japan.

Those ties date back to 1955 when WMU graduated its first Japanese student and grew significantly in 1961. That was the year Keio University sent a group of 66 students and three professors to campus for a summer institute, beginning WMU's first academic linkage with a Japanese school.

The Japan Center is named for Dr. Michitoshi Soga, WMU professor emeritus of physics. Soga joined the faculty in 1968 and retired from teaching in 1993, then served nearly a decade as an administrative officer for the Office of International Affairs.

He worked tirelessly for decades to build the University's Japanese studies offerings, establish programs with Japanese universities and build a Japanese alumni network. Over the years, he also played host to hundreds of Japanese students attending WMU and Japanese businesspersons and academics visiting the western Michigan region.

"My fondest wish is that the founding of the Japan Center will lead, some day, to the establishment of a Japanese studies major at WMU," Soga says. "The Japan Center will provide an umbrella for activities relating to Japan, including the interaction of Japanese and American students in the Japan Club."

The center's multi-faceted mission includes supporting students interested in pursuing Japanese studies at WMU and in Japan, stimulating creative curricular development and extra-curricular activities that enrich students' understanding of Japan, and bringing the Japanese student community together with non-Japanese students interested in learning more about the island nation.

The center will also promote and disseminate research on Japan, serve as the nexus between WMU and western Michigan's Japan-related business community, build relationships with area schools and community centers, and deepen ties with WMU alumni groups and partner institutions in Japan as well as other relevant Japanese communities, notably in the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek area.

"Japan is very important to Michigan's economy and has been for a long time, especially in western Michigan," says Dr. Stephen Covell, assistant professor of comparative religion and Soga Center director. "Developing the University's Japanese studies opportunities is critical. Part of our mission at the center is to bring people from America and Japan on board to satisfy demand for increased international study and the recruiting of Japanese students to raise all students' global awareness. The center is a natural fit for that. Many of our Japanese graduates are now presidents and vice presidents in major Japanese corporations."

WMU's Department of Foreign Languages offers a minor in Japanese but currently does not offer a major. About 80 students are enrolled in the minor program, and each fall and spring semester, an average of 200 students enroll in Japanese studies courses.

"At WMU, there is strong interest in Japanese studies," Covell says. "The study of the language is second only to French, despite the program having a much smaller staff. To accommodate demand for a major, our students may now, in consultation with faculty, design a self-driven major."

More than 15 WMU students study in Japan each academic year. They benefit from the University's close relationship with Keio University, one of Japan's most prestigious universities, and exchange agreements with six other Japanese universities: Daito Bunka, Nihon and Rikkyo universities in Tokyo; Otaru University of Commerce in Hokkaido, Nagoya Gakuin University in Nagoya; and soon Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

WMU hosts several study abroad programs that enhance students' learning of Japanese language and culture, and scholarships are available to help qualified students cover the much of the cost of overseas study.

Covell, who leads a 10-day study abroad program each June, notes that many of those programs offer advanced students a behind-the-scenes look at Japanese life and culture.

"My Japanese Religion and Culture program includes a dinner for our students with Japanese WMU alumni," he says. "The alumni really like it because they get to meet American students who are interested in Japan and they are impressed with WMU students' investment of their time and financial resources to learn more about their country."

In addition to a director and associate director, the Japan center's leadership includes an advisory committee. The committee is made up of faculty who have research interests in Japan and represent a broad range of disciplines, such as business, aviation, and health and human services.

For more information, visit the Web at www.wmich.edu/sogajapancenter or contact Stephen Covell by at s.covell@wmich.edu or (269) 387-4365. Details about WMU's Japanese language program are available at www.wmich.edu/languages.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, (269) 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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