English Subtitles for NHK programme on Miki Kiyoshi’s Notes on Life, Episode 1: What is True Happiness

This is the first of three episodes of the NHK’s A Masterpiece in 100 Minutes programme (100分で名著), where one great book or idea is discussed and broadcast over the course of a month. The work of the month in April 2017 was Miki Kiyoshi’s Notes on Life 人生論のーと. The remaining two episodes will be uploaded in due course as I find time to subtitle them.

While the discussion may not satisfy specialists, it will hopefully be helpful for students and others developing an interest in Miki’s life and philosophy, in this episode his philosophy of life in particular.


Carter Page’s PhD and the silence of SOAS

Kenn Nakata Steffensen

The Guardian reports that Donald Trump’s former foreign policy advisor, Carter Page, “failed” his PhD viva twice at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. As the degree was eventually awarded, Page did not fail as such, but was given two more chances to bring his work up to a passable standard. The two examiners acted correctly and with professional integrity by resigning when Page accused them of bias. The emphasis in the Guardian article is on how the examiners found Page’s work to be intellectually sub-standard. The awarding institution’s statement to The Guardian and the sparse information publicly available about the award of the doctorate, however, raises questions about the quality and transparency of supervision and examination at the university. According to The Guardian:

Soas refuses to identify the academics who eventually passed Page’s PhD thesis, citing data protection rules.

In a statement, Soas said it had “proper and robust procedures for the award of PhDs”. It added: “All theses are examined by international experts in their field and are passed only where they meet appropriate high academic standards.”

In normal circumstances, all parties involved in the supervision and examination of a thesis would be happy, even proud, for their role to be publicly acknowledged. But the circumstances surrounding Page’s PhD and the secrecy about his eventual examiners is somewhat unusual.

Page’s thesis, The influence of semiperipheral powers on the balance between capitalism and socialism in Central Asia: an analysis of Russia’s impact on governance and the regional energy sector 1987-2007, is held by the SOAS library and recorded by the British Library, as is common practice. Access is restricted, there is no abstract, and no supervisor is named. The original examiners were the sociologist Gregory Andrusz and the political scientist Peter Duncan. Both Professor Andrusz and Dr Duncan have the disciplinary and regional expertise one would expect for a thesis such as Dr Page’s. Whether this is also the case for the scholars who eventually awarded the degree is unknown. SOAS’s refusal to disclose their identities makes it impossible to judge who well qualified they were.

Page first submitted his thesis for examination on an unspecified date in 2008. It “failed to meet the criteria required for a PhD” and he was given 18 months to bring it up to an acceptable standard. He resubmitted in November 2010, but the improved thesis “still didn’t merit a PhD”. He finally succeeded on an unspecified date in 2011, with new examiners. Assuming that the first attempt was as late as possible in 2008, which is to say in December of that year, it took Page at least 23 months rather than the 18 months required to resubmit.

Given its subject matter, the immediate assumption would be that Dr Page’s research was carried out in the Department of Political and International Studies, which has a specialist on Eurasian politics. But it appears from the 2011 Annual Report of the London Middle East Institute that the research took place in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies. The regional focus of Page’s work does not strictly fall under the areas covered by the department he worked in, which does not currently employ any expert on Central Asia.

To make matters even more mysterious, the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies is a humanities department with a research and teaching focus on “languages, literatures, film and cultures”. It has no disciplinary expertise in international relations and political economy, which is the subject matter of Page’s thesis. There is a loosely affiliated scholar with expertise in Russia, Central Asia, political studies, and the energy sector. But the nature of her affiliation means that she could not have acted as PhD supervisor at the time of the second and third examinations. Dr Shirin Akiner was a lecturer in Central Asian studies at SOAS until 2008 and Page contributed to a book edited by her in 2004. Dr Akiner’s professional biography reads as follows:

Dr Shirin Akiner has long firsthand experience of Central Asia and has authored seven monographs and over 75 scholarly articles on such topics as Islam, ethnicity, political change and security challenges in Central Asia. In 2006 she was awarded the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs for her contribution to Asian studies. In December 2008 she was awarded Honorary Fellowship of Ancien Association of NATO Defense College. Since 2010, she has been Special Advisor to UK Parliamentary Groups on Central Asian States. She has held research and teaching posts at the University of London, 1974-2008, and visiting professorships in a number of universities in different countries. Since 2008, she has been a Senior Fellow of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum, University of Cambridge, and Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She was Rapporteur to the major UNESCO project ‘Integral Study of the Silk Roads’ (1988-97) and has acted as consultant for several award-winning radio and television documentaries on Central Asia. She is a frequent contributor to international media networks (https://www.facebook.com/events/267826706717780/).

Shirin Akiner’s employment with SOAS seems to have come to an end in 2008 when she reached the retirement age of 65. In the same year she took on her current role as research associate in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. Holders of this honorary status “are not expected, or permitted, to teach whilst at SOAS, although pro-bono contributions to teaching and research are encouraged where appropriate”. Since Dr Akiner seems to be the person connected with the awarding department whose expertise most closely matches that of Carter Page’s research, it would be natural and permissible for her to have been involved in his research, but presumably not formally as his supervisor after 2008. On the face of it, SOAS regulations would have required another member of academic staff to have taken over supervision when Akiner’s status changed from employed lecturer to affiliated research associate. Good academic practice would require the new supervisor to have regional expertise in Central Asia and disciplinary expertise in politics. As far as can be established, there has been no such person employed by the awarding department since 2008.

Page’s home department thus seems to have had no expert suitably qualified and formally authorised to supervise his project, only an honorary affiliate. Her right to supervise research ended when her employment came to an end in the year of the first unsuccessful viva. The Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies is an improbable location within SOAS’s institutional structure to conduct social science research on Russian-Central Asian relations. There may be legitimate reasons why a political science thesis was written in a language department that does not cover the part of the world researched by Dr Page, but these are not immediately apparent. SOAS ought therefore, to dispel any doubts about its “proper and robust procedures for the award of PhDs”, disclose who supervised the thesis in its final form, who examined it the third and final time, and why it seems that revision took longer than the permitted maximum of 18 months.

More generally, SOAS and other British universities ought to move towards greater transparency surrounding the supervision, examination and award of doctorates, as is common in many other countries. Just stating that their procedures are “proper and robust” while refusing to substantiate the claim by naming the “international experts” who examined a thesis does not instill confidence.

From “Far East” to “East Asia” lecture at Trinity College Dublin

For a few photos from the public lecture on 6th November, please visit Trinity Centre For Asian Studies on Facebook. The slides have been uploaded to academia.edu and a podcast of the lecture should become available to listen to soon. A link to it will be posted here and on academia.edu. In the meantime, this is a brief account by the Trinity Centre for Asian Studies:


Our thanks to this evening’s guest lecturer, philosopher Dr Kenn Nakata Steffensen from UCD, for an informative and wide-ranging talk on historical usage and translations of the terms Far East and East Asia in the context of Japan and Europe. This event formed part of a series of activities taking place in Trinity College Dublin in 2017 celebrating 60 years of Japan-Ireland diplomatic relations. We are grateful to the Embassy of Japan in Ireland for their endorsement of this evening’s lecture.

I will be back at TCD on the 1st December to speak about Japanese-English translation of philosophy at the international symposium on Japanese Studies in a Global Context. I will address the same theme, with slightly different emphases, at the “Frontiers of Phenomenology” conference at University College Dublin on the 14th December.

Uchimura Kanzō: “A Story of Denmark” / “Historien om landet Danmark”

Follow this link to read a translation of Uchimura Kanzō’s 1911 lecture/article “A Story of Denmark” デンマルク国の話. The Japanese text and its English translation are on pages 1-19. Pages 20 to 25 are a Danish introduction and commentary followed by a Danish translation on pages 26 to 33.

Klik her for at læse en indledning og kommentar efterfulgt af en dansk oversættelse af Uchimura Kanzōs forelæsning/artikel “Historien om landet Danmark”, som afholdtes i oktober 1911.

Trailer for NHK programme on Miki Kiyoshi’s Notes on Life

April 2017 was dedicated to Miki Kiyoshi’s Notes on Life 人生論ノート on the NHK’s excellent “A Masterpiece in 100 minutes” 100分で名著 series. Each month, a major work by one thinker or an idea, such as pacifism or happiness, is examined by the two studio hosts and an invited specialist. Every episode since 2011 is available to view on NHK On Demand.

While Notes on Life may not be Miki’s philosophically most significant work, it is by far the most read. It was written for non-specialists during Showa Japan’s “dark valley” of war and repression. As of this year, it has been reprinted 108 times. And – as is pointed out in the programme – interest in it has increased in recent years.

I will eventually subtitle all four episodes, but for now the trailer will give you a foretaste of what is to come:


The Jesuits and the Universal Empire: New book by Nii Yōko

An interesting work of intellectual history by NII Yōko 新居 洋子 of the University of Tokyo has just been published by Nagoya University Press. Its title is The Jesuits and the Universal Empire: The Translation of Civilisation by Missionaries in China. イエズス会士と普遍の帝国 – 在華宣教師による文明の翻訳. In my translation, Dr. Nii’s presentation of her book on the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia website reads:Nii_Yoko_Book

“There was an exchange of ideas between China and Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. In this period, it was Jesuit missionaries working in China who took on the role of translators between the two sides. This book focuses on the latter half of the 18th century, which was the last stage of the Jesuit mission in China and the time when Sinology began to be established as a formal field of study in Europe. It does so by examining the Jesuit Jean Joseph Amiot, who served the Qianlong Emperor. Amiot took on the challenge of translating the enormous Chinese civilisation, not only from his own observations but by consulting the length and breadth of a variety of both European and Chinese intellectual sources. The Chine that emerges from his translations was in itself a product constructed from 18th century intellectual interaction between East and West.”

Missionary scholarship, especially by members of the Society of Jesus, has been tremendously important in the historical reception of East Asian thought in the West. To this day, Christian missionaries are among the most influential transmitters and interpreters of East Asian thought and research on Japanese philosophy, for instance, is more often than not .carried out in religious studies departments and in church-affiliated universities rather than in philosophy departments. And as this book shows, the first sustained intellectual engagement and attempts to think by drawing on both the East Asian and European traditions were by missionaries like Amiot. For better and worse, this historical legacy continues to influence the way Western scholars approach East Asia and its intellectual traditions. Studying the origins of what today travels under the name of comparative philosophy, as Dr Nii has done with this book, is therefore important and she has to be congratulated on her achievement.

For more details, including a table of contents, please visit University of Nagoya Press.

How to Serve a Sacred Cow: Talk at Japanese studies symposium, Dublin 2nd December 2017

How to Serve a Sacred Cow: Reflections on Japanese-English Philosophical Translation in an “Anglobalising” World

 International Japanese Studies Symposium. Trinity College Dublin, 2nd December 2017



James Heisig has argued for “desacralizing” translation, against “perfect translation” and for “thick translation”. He advocates “a radical liberalization of the standards of philosophical translation” where translators of philosophical texts are “set free to err on the side of creativity and rhetorical elegance”. Heisig prioritizes broad appeal and readability over accuracy, bringing the translated philosopher into the reader’s space and facilitating an encounter on the latter’s terms by slaughtering “the sacred cow of fidelity to the original text”. In this presentation, I discuss Heisig’s programmatic statements on translation strategy in the context of the global dominance of English, declining language capabilities and unequal distribution of translation capabilities among Anglophone philosophers, the tendentially conservative and “domesticating” Anglospheric regime of translation, and the “foreignizing” alternatives found in Japanese translation history, in Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and more recent translation theorists. I suggest that learning from professional practices in the translation industry could help translating philosophers strike a suitable balance between domestication and foreignization and that the latter is the ethically and intellectually sounder strategy. If some degree of butchery is inevitable, the question becomes one of how to serve the meat – as a thickly cut, well-done steak or as thinly sliced beef sashimi.