Symposium Report on 16th International Conference of the European Association for Japanese Studies

EAJS Conference, 24-28 August 2021

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“How have you been in this pandemic?” So, the historical sociologist Professor Oguma Eiji of the Keio University opened the keynote lecture at this year’s EAJS at the end of August. The European Association for Japanese Studies (EAJS) is the largest association of scholars and researchers from around the world, all focusing on Japan. Due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, its 16th International Conference took place online after a year of postponement and relocation from Ghent, Belgium. More than ever, the implication of “how have you been?” – the phrase for rejoice and care at reunion – carried collective consciousness of the global challenge that manifests in diverse local experience. Today, we the scholars of Japan are inclined to ask as he continued: “How can Japanese Studies contribute to the world in this situation?”

While the answer may vary, Prof Oguma’s suggestion to interrogate universal issues in Japanese context resonated deeply among participants. Re-examining the universal from diverse localities illuminates a greater nuanced picture of the global community we take part. Indeed, the universal issue we face is not only the pandemic; the heightened anxiety and precarity endured through compression of the everyday time and space brought existing issues into the limelight. As Prof Oguma went on to deliver the lecture A Reflection on the History of Racial and Ethnic Identities in Japan in this framework, racism, gender and class inequality, and the climate crisis are some of these major predicaments.

What, how and why we should cultivate Japanese Studies in the present global circumstance that entails nuanced complexities also ran the heart of discussions at the EAJS special panel, The Future of Japanese Studies, organised jointly by the Toshiba International Foundation (TIFO). The roundtable consisted of four Early Career Scholars who received prizes at the TIFO’s 30th anniversary essay contest on the future agenda of Japanese Studies in 2019. Ioannis Gaitanidis (Chiba University), Aya Hino (Ca’Foscari University of Venice/Heidelberg University), Aike Rots (University of Oslo) and myself (SISJAC) convened to discuss what the greatest challenges to studying Japan are today and what future role and form Japanese Studies could assume. Chaired by Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott (Freie Universität Berlin), our thoughts and ideas on the topic formed a mutually resonating confluence.

As Aya Hino pointed out, there is a fundamental need to address what makes something universal and shape the relationship between different disciplines even within Japanese Studies. This is, Aya and I discussed, the universalised epistemology of the modern West. Epistemology refers to the way in which one comes to know the world. Humans’ ways of knowing are inescapable from cultural conditions. As I elaborated in my presentation, Japan as a culture of knowledge has carried roughly two kinds of undercurrents. One is the epistemology of the modern West that determined the divisions and hierarchies among disciplines at modern universities – the intellectual sphere within which most of us received training in how to think.  Another is a local and ‘indigenous’ epistemology that negotiated its place within the societies while the ‘universal’ language dominates the public discourse.

Illuminating the diverse epistemologies in their localities on the universal issues are crucial in undoing the established methods and language with which we scholars yield knowledge. Thus, we need train our students to question, as Ioannis articulated, which dots they connect to weave a narrative of research. Aike argued that discerning the methodological nationalism and ideological nationalism becomes acute in this practice. The centralised episteme of the nation can simultaneously elucidate and overshadow the local knowledge that may not possess dominant platforms to claim their voices – perhaps unless if we, as scholars, investigate the politics of knowledge surrounding the dynamic.

One of the fields of study that calls for urgent, greater attention are, Aike and I argued, the Environmental Humanities. What are the localised impacts of the climate crisis? Are there indigenous knowledges that may be able to cast light on novel ideas and methodologies? These are some of the significant enquiries that emerges from the Environmental Humanities. It returns to the core discussion of the roundtable I organised for the SISJAC public summer school, Pluralising the Sources of Knowledge about the Climate Crisis: Insights from Japan. As the historian Nadine Willems (University of East Anglia) remarked at this event, the advantage of researchers resides in our abilities to study the local in conjunction with the global.

Yet, the practical challenges remain. As Aike observed, students’ enrolment to Japanese Studies would only be feasible if they can actually go to Japan. The sense of place, being there, feeling, talking with people are imperative to the process of coming to know the world. While accelerating digitisation of sources facilitate the study and research from afar, these experiences are irreplaceable. Smaller archives in the meantime often lack the financial resources to follow the steps of larger depositories. These are some but not all of our concerns. How can we navigate the crossroads of our time, collectively in an affirmative manner? The question remains. Just like our academic research, however, asking the right question opens the possibilities for the paths we may not even know ourselves.

Dr. Eiko Honda
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow

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