From “Far East” to “East Asia” – Public lecture at Trinity Asian Studies Centre 6th November 2017

From “Far East” to “East Asia” in Global English Academic and Societal Discourse: German and Japanese “hidden sources”

 Public lecture at Trinity Asian Studies Centre, Dublin 6th November 2017


The dominant use in English of the words “East Asia” as a collective designation for Greater China, the two Koreas, Japan, and sometimes Vietnam is a relatively recent outgrowth of cold war era US scholarship. The previously dominant term “Far East” reflects a Eurocentric worldview, which was politically problematic in Japan and expedient for lesser 19th century European powers and post-war America to avoid. Through the influence of Karl Ritter, the German-speaking world and Scandinavia, like Japan, tended to conceive of the region as “East Asia”, whereas Britain and France thought, spoke and wrote in terms of “Far East”. “East Asia” was thus a counter-hegemonic concept developed on the margins of the colonial world order, which arguably entered post-war Anglograph scholarship through Japanese. Just as Heidegger hinted that his philosophy had Japanese “hidden sources”, the proliferating East Asia discourses today conceptually originated as part of Japan’s modernisation process and rise as the first non-Western great power. It was a disruptive resignification attaching new and positive meanings to the European idea of Asia, rejecting the externally ascribed and objectivating identity of “Far East”, asserting subjectivity and agency. This presentation traces the genealogy of the contemporary idea of East Asia through Karl Ritter’s Ost-Asien, his student Élisée Reclus’ politicised use of Asie orientale, the migration of the Japanese ideas of East Asia (Tō-A 東亜 from the 1880s and Higashi Ajia 東アジア after 1945) from meteorology and geography to political discourse, and from there to the dreaming spires of Harvard.

Yijiang Zhong on the “underside of Japan”: Public lecture at Trinity Centre for Asian Studies, 18th September 2017

My good friend and colleague from Tokyo, the historian Yijiang Zhong, gave a fascinating presentation of his current book project on “Capitalism, Empire, and the Production of Space in Modern East Asia”.

He was the first speaker in this academic year’s Asian studies lecture series, the turnout in the Long Room Hub was great, and the topic was highly relevant for my developing interest in the modern geo-spatial-political imagination in Japan. Our converging interests ensure that Yijiang and I will not run out of conversation topics the next few years!

The lecture traced the development of the now outdated designation of the Sea of Japan coastal areas as ura-Nihon 裏日本 and the Pacific coast as omote-Nihon 表日本, from descriptive geographical terms to a politically loaded oppositional pairing. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the “underside” of Japan “came to be identified, in spatial proximity and ideological association with the Asian continent, as bleak, stagnant, and backward in contradistinction to the bright and progressing Upper-side, the embodiment of Japan’s modernity.” Ura-Nihon thus came to stand for tradition, backwardness, and the Asian past, but ambiguously also for authenticity, populist resentment against the urban and internationalised elites, and as a “lake” uniting the Japanese islands with the continent and an essential element in continental imperial expansion.

This was a very successful presentation, addressing important historical and conceptual questions about “the historical experience of Japan as both a nation-state and an empire, and as both an Asian and a Western(ized) country.”

I am happy to have facilitated Yijiang’s visit to Dublin, which I hope will be the first of many.

Language as Thought: New book by Nakajima Takahiro

A new and very interesting book by Nakajima Takahiro of the University of Tokyo Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia has just come out from Iwanami. It deals with philosophy of language in Japan from Kūkai (774–835) to Izutsu Toshihiko (1914-1993). I look forward to reading it when it arrives in the post.

As the announcement from IASA says, “From Kukai to Izutsu Toshihiko, this book runs through the philosophy of language with reference to Japan in a single volume. It sheds light on its subject matter by drawing on Chinese and Western philosophy of language.”

The table of contents, in my translation, looks as follows:

Part 1: Language as thought in Japan
Chapter 1 Kūkai’s philosophy of language
Chapter 2 The “Anthology of ancient and modern Japanese poetry” (Kokin Waka) and the language of the master/s
Chapter 3 The difference between Motoori Norinaga and Natsume Sōseki

Part 2: Language as thought in modern times (1)
Chapter 4 What it takes to draw a line in time
Chapter 5 Japanese Christianity and universality

Part 3: Language as thought in modern times (2)
Chapter 6 Local spirituality and modernity
Chapter 7 On mystery


Further details can be obtained from the publisher’s website (in Japanese).

For those interested in Izutsu, Jean Connell Hoff’s translation of Wakamatsu Eisuki’s Toshihiko Izutsu and the Philosophy of Word: In Search of the Spiritual Orient was published by International House of Japan in 2014.


Meiji Japan in Global History

During a stopover in London on the way back to Dublin from Tokyo, I had the opportunity to sit in on a BAJS workshop on Meiji Japan in Global History held at the School of Oriental and African Studies on the 8th September 2017. Being back in Bloomsbury at my alma mater was a nostalgic feeling, and the event was interesting.

There were papers on Islam in Meiji Japan, female medical education, the adventures of Kawata Masazō, the role of China in the development of Japanese nationality law, historical tourism around the figure of Sakamoto Ryōma in Kyoto, and the fiscal policies of Matsukata Masayoshi. The quality and state of completion of the papers varied, but I did learn a lot both from the presenters and the comments by Barak Kushner and Janet Hunter.


Tokyo workshop on Japanese political thought

The workshop on Japanese political thought I organised with Yijiang Zhong and Nakajima Takahiro went well.

On the 2nd September 2017, we had an enjoyable and stimulating rainy Saturday of discussions on the third floor of the University of Tokyo Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, with a delicious meal at a nearby restaurant. It was an honour and pleasure to have as eminent scholars as Watanabe Hiroshi and David Williams present to discuss ideas with.

The papers ranged from history, philosophy, international relations to political theory, all related to various aspects of political thought in 20th and 21st century Japan. The programme is available on the institute’s website. The plan is to produce an edited volume with the papers presented on the day and more.

As no such forum exists, we may initiate an annual or biannual meeting of scholars with interests in modern Japanese political thought.

Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy is out

After some delay due to change of address and being out of the country, I just received my author’s copy of the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy. It went to University College Cork by mistake, then An Post tried to deliver it to my home address while I was in Japan before it eventually arrived to the School of Philosophy at UCD. I think it was worth the wait and the chapters I have so far found most interesting are Nakajima Takahiro’s on Confucianism in modern Japan, Steve Bein’s on Watsuji Tetsujirō’s “accidental Buddhism”, and Erin McCarthy’s on Japanese and Western feminisms.

My chapter on “The Political Thought of the Kyoto School” reviews the often fruitless debate between philosophers of religion and historians that James Heisig called “side-steppers and side-swipers” and argues that for Kyoto School political studies to progress requires situating it in new disciplinary fields.Media of The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy

For the Kyoto School to be taken seriously as political philosophy/theory means that disciplinary specialists in (history of) political thought must join the debate. Although much remains to be done, there are encouraging signs in the general intellectual climate in Japan and abroad and within the political studies subdisciplines, such as the surge of interest in comparative political thought and non-Western IR studies.

To read more about the book and order it, please visit Bloomsbury’s website.