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Morgan Pitelka with students in Japan in 2015.
Morgan Pitelka with students in Japan in 2015.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is deepening its connections with Japan and building on relationships more than a century in the making. Carolina’s first international student is believed to be Shinzaburo Mogi from Tokyo, who attended the University for the 1893-1894 academic year. Five decades later in 1951, the University sent books to the Hiroshima University library after the atomic bombing that led to the end of World War II. Ever since, UNC-Chapel Hill has been making Japan an important partner through research, education and cultural exchanges.

Roof tiles with scorched surfaces due to the 5,000°C heat rays from the atomic bomb were recovered from riverbeds throughout Hiroshima. In 2011, these tiles were given as a token of remembrance and gratitude to Carolina for sending books to help restore Hiroshima University’s bomb-damaged library.
Roof tiles with scorched surfaces due to the 5,000°C heat rays from the atomic bomb were recovered from riverbeds throughout Hiroshima. In 2011, these tiles were given as a token of remembrance and gratitude to Carolina for sending books to help restore Hiroshima University’s bomb-damaged library.

Asia is a key area of focus in UNC-Chapel Hill’s current strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, which emphasizes deepening Carolina connections with the world for shared learning, problem solving and discovery. Strengthening institutional partnerships and collaborations with Japan in particular is a top priority.

Among the initiatives currently in the works is a virtual speaker series called “Blackness in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.” As part of this series, Paige Cottingham-Streater, executive director of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, will speak on Jan. 21, 2021, about her experience as an African American woman working in Japan and Japanese-U.S. relations. She will also meet with Carolina faculty to strategize about building on existing relationships between UNC-Chapel Hill and Japanese institutions.

“Japan is one of the United States’ most important allies in Asia,” said Morgan Pitelka, chair of the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Japan also is the third-largest market economy in the world. It’s hugely influential in all of our lives when we look around at the products and services we use.”

That influence is evident in North Carolina, where, according to Pitelka, many businesses have thriving relationships with Japan. Japan is a major economic partner of North Carolina’s and, as reported by the East-West Center, there are 79 Japanese-majority owned companies that provide more than 25,000 jobs across the state. Japanese-owned Honda has an aeronautics factory near Greensboro, and a Morinaga candy factory recently opened in Mebane. “It’s a part of North Carolina’s economy that matters a lot to the state,” Pitelka said.


For four decades, Carolina students have been increasingly able to learn about Japanese culture without even leaving campus. There are at least six Carolina student organizations related to Japanese language or culture; the Ackland Art Museum has the Southeast’s largest collection of Japanese art; and units such as the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and the Carolina Asia Center offer academic and cultural programming opportunities for the Carolina community, including lectures and film nights.

There are also plenty of opportunities for students to study Japanese culture and language within the classroom. Undergraduate students can major and minor in Japanese, and graduate students can become involved in the Triangle Center for Japanese Studies (TCJS), an inter-institutional initiative that includes research groups and monthly forums. “Students are just so excited about Japan,” Pitelka said. “There’s a latent interest among American young people in Japanese culture that helps us a lot with recruiting students into our classes.”


“Our ability to conduct research and provide our students with a transformative global education relies on the strength of our partnerships,” said Barbara Stephenson, vice provost for global affairs and chief global officer at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I am thrilled to see that the interest in engaging with Japanese universities and organizations is pan-university and garnering institutional support.”

Since 2014, UNC-Chapel Hill departments, including history, mathematics, biomedical engineering and medicine, have received more than $350,000 for sponsored research related to Japan. Currently, more than 50 faculty members across campus are doing research related to Japan in fields ranging from economics to biology to medicine to art.

Furthermore, University units including the School of Nursing, the UNC/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Eshelman School of Pharmacy have either signed or are in the process of developing 21 agreements with 12 Japanese universities. These connections are creating new pathways for greater campus-wide collaboration.


Through partnerships with Japanese institutions, Carolina is able to offer an even wider menu of global education opportunities for all Carolina students:

The Connecting Carolina Classrooms with the World (CCCW) initiative allows faculty across the University to continue to build virtual connections in Japan:

  • Sharon Cannon, clinical professor of management and corporate communication in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, received funding from the American Council on Education (ACE) to participate in the Rapid Response Virtual Exchange/COIL Transformation Lab to teach a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) course in partnership with a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo during the Spring 2021 semester. During the course, students from both universities will spend two to three weeks working together on a project, much like they would in a workplace setting.
  • Marc Callahan, professor of opera in the Department of Music, received funding from the Carolina Asia Center to participate in Connecting Carolina Classrooms with the World to enhance virtual global collaboration during the Fall 2020 semester. His students in MUSC 212 “UNC Opera” and IDST 195 “Opera Meets Animation” engaged in three online mentoring sessions with EightBit Animation Studios in Japan. Carolina students will use the techniques they learned from Japanese anime to turn their recording of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges into a feature-length animated opera during the Spring 2021 semester.

In-person exchange through the Study Abroad Office: 

  • Participation by Carolina students in study abroad programs in Japan has grown by 90 percent over the past decade. The Study Abroad Office offers exchanges with seven Japanese universities, as well as a summer program to Tokyo led by Yuki Aratake since 2006, who has been teaching Japanese at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1994. Aratake said that her program gives students with majors like computer science or chemistry an opportunity to study abroad in a country known for technological and scientific innovation.

Students in Carolina’s professional schools also engage in study and research in Japan: 

  • UNC Kenan-Flagler offers the Global Immersion Elective for undergraduate students in Tokyo, and MBA students can study on exchange with the International University of Japan and Keio University through the Partnership in International Management (PIM) Consortium. Students in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy participating in the Global Pharmacy Scholars program can spend time at Keio University for clinical observation and research, and in return, Carolina hosts students from Keio each summer. 

In addressing the world’s most pressing issues in the coming years, Pitelka said that Japan is an important example to follow. “When we look at some of the major social, economic, and environmental problems facing the United States in the next two decades, Japan has lessons to offer the U.S.” Japan’s elderly population has been growing while the birth rate has been falling, and Japan has already had to recover from more severe natural disasters brought about by climate change. “Looking at how they’re handling that and what they’re doing well and what they’re doing badly is really important for Americans to understand and chart a course for,” Pitelka said. 

For more information on Carolina’s activity with Japanese institutions, please visit the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and the Carolina Asia Center websites. 

By Katie King ’15, UNC Global

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