The Newsletter 91 Spring 2022

Japanese Studies at Tallinn University

Rein RaudMaret NukkeAlari Allik

Although there have been many notable scholars working on various aspects of Asian Studies in Estonia since the 19th century, the discipline was first established as an academic programme only relatively late, when the hold of the Soviet regime on intellectual activity began to relax and the Estonian Institute of Humanities, the first officially recognized independent (non-state and non-church) university, was established in 1988. One of the Institute’s founders, Professor Rein Raud, had a degree in Japanese Studies from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) University and began to develop the discipline in Estonia as well. Thus, Japanese Studies became the core to which specializations in other regions of Asia and the Middle East were added in due course.

Japan had a particular allure among the Estonian reading public. Several translators, notably Agu Sisask and Ülle Udam, had translated works by Kawabata Yasunari, Abe Kōbō, and even Mishima Yukio into Estonian, to great popular acclaim. There was also a boom of haiku poetry, and although no reliable translations of Japanese authors had been published to date, many Estonian poets began to experiment with the genre on their own. Another sphere of interest was classical aesthetics, and several people had studied the art of flower arrangement on their own. However, as there were virtually no opportunities to travel to Japan at the time, most of this interest was not backed up with serious study.

In 1989, a Japanese Studies programme was thus set up for the first time in Estonia at the newly established Estonian Institute of Humanities, and a small group of students began to study the language, history, literature, and religions of Japan. The Japanese language curriculum was developed in 1996, and courses in Japanese theatre, arts, society, folklore, and politics started to be taught in 1998. The beginnings were difficult, as there were virtually no study materials or dictionaries, and nearly all teaching had to rely on Rein Raud alone. However, through his Finnish contacts, in the period between 1989-1996, he managed to invite several qualified native speakers from the University of Helsinki to teach courses. He also secured donations of second-hand dictionaries and study materials. The discipline began to grow and eventually reached the level to qualify for Japan Foundation support. Many among the students from the first cohorts have by now become the pillars of the discipline, which has been prospering especially after the Estonian Institute of Humanities merged with several other universities and research institutions into Tallinn University in 2005. When that occurred, the programme in Japanese Studies became part of the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Finally, in 2009, the M.A. programme in Japanese Studies was established with 12 enrolled students.

During its early years, the Institute of Humanities was known for its theoretical outlook and its effort to import into the country new forms of cultural theory and methods of research that had been banned under the Soviet regime. This meant that all teaching and research in regional studies had a strong theoretical orientation. Raud’s own work is an example: in the early 1990s, he started using deconstructionist and Foucauldian methods on classical Japanese poetry, which was something not normally done anywhere else in the world at the time. His students followed suit – the problematizing of self-writing in Dr. Alari Allik’s work on Heian (794-1185) recluse literature deserves special mention. Allik works on Japanese Medieval writings, and his research focuses especially on how translators have constructed the image of authors through commentaries and rhetorical stylistic devices. He has also produced several Estonian translations of Japanese texts, spanning from the Heian period to contemporary times. This includes his two latest publications, a translation of Sei Shōnagon's Pillow Book and of Yōko Ogawa´s Memory police, both released in December 2021. He has also been especially active in the field of translation studies and is currently a team member working on the prestigious interdisciplinary research project “Translation in History – Estonia 1850–2010: Texts, Agents, Institutions and Practices,” 1  sponsored by the Estonian Research Council.

Another fundamental figure of the department – and a former student of Raud who has been a part of the team since its beginning – is Dr. Maret Nukke, Associate Professor of Japanese Studies. Nukke gives lectures on Japanese culture, society, and politics. She was the coordinator of the Japanese language program in the years 1996-2017, and she has been teaching Japanese language at the university since 1994. Her research interests involve new developments in Japanese classical theatre, especially contemporary plays (shinsaku) as adaptations that expand the traditional canon of the art. Since 2000, the Department avails itself also of the linguistic competence and expertise of Akiko Masaki-Kadarik, who is Lecturer in Japanese Language.  

The input of the department into the development of the image of Japan in Estonia, as well as for the development of the discipline in the country and the region, has been considerable. Many of the department’s graduates now work in various areas, from foreign relations to private business. Quite a few have made a name for themselves as translators of Japanese literature: thanks to their efforts, Japanese literature remains one of the best-covered non-Western literatures in the Estonian cultural scene. Several of the department’s graduates have even advanced to academic positions in Japan. In 2011, the European Association of Japanese Studies held its triennial meeting in Tallinn University, and Rein Raud was elected the president of the association for the following three-year period. He has also been awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, for his research and work in promoting Japanese culture in Europe.


Rein Raud, Tallinn University, Estonia,
Maret Nukke, Tallinn University, Estonia,
Alari Allik, Tallinn University, Estonia,