CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


The View from Japan | China Heritage Quarterly

Scholarly Perspectives on China:
The View from Japan

Kyoto University
12-13 November 2011

David Brophy & Nathan Woolley
The Australian National University

One of the goals that the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) sets for itself is to engage with Sinology as an international and multilingual discipline, both as a means to broaden Australia's inherited Anglophone perspective on China, and as a way to better grasp the peculiarities of that Anglophone approach. Outside China, Japan is an important centre for the production of research and ideas on the Chinese world. In recognition of this, a workshop was held in Kyoto on November 12–13 on the theme of 'Scholarly Perspectives on China: The View from Japan'. The meeting was held at Kyoto University's Institute for Research on the Humanities (Jinbun kagaku kenkyūjo 人文科学研究所), and was co-convened by that institution, represented by Professor Tanaka Masakazu, and CIW, by the Deputy Director Dr Benjamin Penny, as well as the Italian School for East Asian Studies and the École Française d'Extrême-Orient, represented by directors Silvio Vita and Benoît Jaquet respectively. A reception held on Saturday evening was attended by a representative of the Australian Embassy in Tokyo, along with the Director of the Institute for Research in the Humanities, Iwai Shigeki, and Kyoto University's Executive Vice-President for Student Affairs, Akamatsu Akihiko. Over the two days a group of young Japanese and Chinese scholars working in Japan were invited to present research in English, and participants explored the possibility for future collaborations on individual and institutional levels.

Fig.1 A scene at the Hakusa Sonso Hashimoto Kansetsu Garden and Museum 白沙山荘橋本関雪記念館, Kyoto. (Photograph: GRB, November 2011)

The motivations for the event were elaborated on in two keynote addresses focusing on either side of the China-Japan intellectual relationship. Opening the workshop, Geremie Barmé introduced the Australian Centre on China in the World and its goals. His lecture called attention to the need for scholarship on China that remains in conversation with official and unofficial definitions of Chinese history and culture emanating from the Chinese-speaking world. He touched on subtle yet crucial distinctions between recent Taiwanese and PRC statements on culture and the link between notions of Zhonghua 中華 and wenhua 文化. On Sunday, Joshua Fogel of York University, Toronto, spoke from his considerable personal experience on the Japanese tradition of Sinology, reflecting on both intellectual foundations of that study in the twentieth century and its institutional support, in the form of the research group (kenkyūkai 研究会) system (his presentation will appear in the March 2012 issue of China Heritage Quarterly). The latter topic provoked discussion on both the merits of the kenkyūkai and the conditions specific to Japan that allow it to succeed there but not elsewhere.

The presentations by young Japan-based scholars introduced research in a number of fields. Foci included modern history, contemporary religion, policy and development, ethnic minorities, and regional flows of people, goods and ideas. Of particular note was the interest in liminal aspects and marginal groups, and issues relating to geographic, social or historical peripheries. The presentations constituted a multifaceted look at both China and current research interests in Japan. Institutions represented by the presenters included Kyoto University, Osaka University, Ritsumeikan University, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Toin University, the National Museum of Ethnology, and the Institute of Developing Economies, Tokyo.

Discussion during the conference emphasized that a broad engagement with China requires an understanding of the views on China held by scholars in various countries working in different academic traditions. While it was noted that recent developments in communication technology allow more rapid exchanges, scholarship in any sphere other than one's own is difficult to appreciate fully due to the scope of knowledge required. Japan in the past has played an important role in mediating and informing views on China in the West, especially prior to China's reform era. However, now that Western researchers are more freely able to conduct research in the People's Republic, fewer commit substantial time to Japanese scholarship on China. This is at a time when Japanese assessments are undergoing significant developments due to the nation's proximity to a rapidly changing China. Similarly, there is opportunity for greater Japanese consideration of Western scholarship. It was also noted that the research focus of Chinese scholars based in Japan offers a unique perspective that does not always garner proper attention in Japan, China or the Anglophone world. Comments by the participants pointed to the fact that the development of a model for collaboration across different academic traditions must include the identification of joint projects that engage with debate in various spheres. This understanding also recognizes that research on China is more valuable when China is considered as part of the wider world and experiences in China as part of human experience more generally.

The workshop programme and abstracts may be seen here.