Podcast of “Bullshit Journalism and Japan” – 6th Mutual Images Workshop, Cardiff 1st May 2018

I spoke at the 6th Mutual Images workshop on “Mediatised Images of Japan in Europe” at Cardiff University on the 1st May. The working title of the paper is “Bullshit journalism and Japan: English-language news media, Japanese higher education policy, and Frankfurt’s theory of ‘bullshit’”. It takes a look at a symptomatic case of English-language “bullshit journalism”: The improbable reports in the last half of September 2015 insinuating that the humanities and social sciences would virtually be abolished in Japan. It will be written up and submitted for puFrankfurtVsMediablication soon. In the meantime, the draft is available on www.academia.edu. Click on the image or follow this link to listen to a podcast of the presentation in Cardiff.

The abstract is as follows:

The last sentence in Andersen’s fairytale There is no doubt about it reads: “It got into the papers, it was printed; and there is no doubt about it, one little feather may easily grow into five hens.” In September 2015 a process very similar to the rumour-mill in Andersen’s satire swept across the internet. An inaccurate – and on inspection highly implausible – report was picked up and amplified by several British and US news organisations. Thus an improbable claim about the Japanese government’s decision to effectively abolish the social sciences and humanities quickly became established as a morally reprehensible truth. Once the “facts” of the matter were reported by authoritative English-language media organisations, the outrage spread to other languages, and an online petition was launched to make the government “reconsider” a decision it had not taken. In light of the “misunderstandings” that had circulated in the foreign press, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology eventually felt compelled to issue a statement, in English, to clarify that it had no intention of closing social science and humanities faculties.
What transpired in these transactions between Times Higher Education, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, Time, the Guardian and other news outlets is of more than passing anecdotal interest. Consideration of the case offers insights into the dominant role of the English-using media in constituting Asia as an object of Western knowledge and of the part played in this by what Harry Frankfurt (2005) theorised as the sociolinguistic phenomenon of ‘bullshit’. The Times Higher Education article and the ones that followed were all examples of the ‘bullshit’ that arguably increasingly proliferates in both journalistic and academic discourse, especially when ‘circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about’ (Frankfurt 2005: 63).
The presentation will take the case of the purported existential threat to the social science and humanities in Japan to discuss wider arguments about the role of ‘bullshit’ in journalistic and academic knowledge production and dissemination about the non-Western world. ‘Bullshit’ is ‘produced without concern with the truth’, but ‘it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong’ (Frankfurt 2005: 47-48).

Pasts Entangled: East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia

The 18th April 2018 was an enjoyable day spent in excellent company at a seminar on “East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia” at the Centre for East Asian Studies at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. The three other speakers, the audience, and the welcoming hosts made it a pleasantly memorable visit.

I was invited to speak on Uchimura Kanzō’s 1911 lecture/article “A Story of Denmark: A Story of how Faith and Forestry Saved a Country”, which I argue was – in Karl Mannheim’s sense of these words – an originally utopian tract, which later became a defining text of postwar ideology and which has lately come to be reinterpreted in utopian ways.Pasts Entangled: East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia

The story has been an enduring source of the generally favourable, albeit stereotypical, Japanese image of Denmark and the wider Nordic region. Its original purpose, however, was to construct an idealized image of Denmark in order to criticize certain aspects of the political reality of Meiji Japan and to suggest that following the Danish rather than the British example was more appropriate for Japan and all modern states. Denmark, as imagined by Uchimura, thus became a Christian, pacifist and liberal utopia with universally applicable lessons in normative political theory and public policy to teach the world. This notion that Denmark after 1864 offered an alternative to Anglo-American militarism and imperialism that could turn Japan into a truly great global power with a spiritual world-historical mission was an idea that stuck in Uchimura’s mind. As he would go on to argue some years later, in 1924:

Denmark by reducing her armament to the strength (or rather weakness) of mere police never thinks to have put herself in danger of losing her independence. Denmark in her martial weakness and rural strength is now per capita the richest country in the world, and essentially the strongest…

Now is the time for Japan to awake from sleep. This Western civilization with its big budget for fighting machinery is to be completely disowned. She is to start a new civilization, a civilization which is civilization indeed, a warless civilization, Denmark on a bigger scale, an army and navy on police-standing, an empire founded on the goodwill of the world, a secure, industrious, peaceful nation, the leader of “Christian” Europe and America, in the divine policy announced by God’s prophet, twenty-six centuries ago” (Uchimura 1932 [1924]: 572-573).

The text uses the story of the war veteran and engineer, botanist and patriot Enrico Dalgas’ lead role in the afforestation and regeneration of the depleted heathlands in the Jutland Peninsula to argue for faith-based ethical politics, freedom of religion, ecologically sustainable capitalist modernisation, pacifism, anti-colonialism, international trade based on comparative advantage, and a conception of citizenship that includes religious and ethnic minorities as full members of the polis. This, he believed, had all been achieved in Denmark in a mere four decades, and his wish was for Meiji Japan’s “frivolous and flippant statesmen” to change course and turn the country into a “Denmark on a bigger scale”. Following the British example, Uchimura warned prophetically, would only lead to disaster.

Uchimura’s warning fell on deaf ears, and it would take years of war and devastating military defeat for Japan to abandon the militarism, imperialism and great power ambitions it had pursued since the Meiji Restoration. Japan in August 1945 found itself in the same state as Denmark after the Second Schleswig War – defeated, demoralised, impoverished and territorially reduced to a small nation state. And it was in the post-war context that “A Story of Denmark” began to be read again as a prescient warning that had not been heeded, but which could now guide a new Japan to become a pacifist, religiously tolerant country that would pick itself up by its bootstraps as the Danes had done. The new Japan would base its security and prosperity on human development, peaceful relations with the outside world and international trade in the sectors in which it excelled. Because the text spoke to the concerns of the post-war era, it quickly re-emerged from obscurity and became established as a classic studied by generations of middle school pupils. In this sense, it became one of the ideological pillars of the post-1945 trading and developmental state.

“A Story of Denmark” has been reprinted on average every three and a half years since 1946 and seems to enjoy renewed popularity after the 2011 seismic and nuclear disasters. And now, at the close of the Heisei era, it is arguably being read for purposes of utopian critique, particularly with regard to energy and security policy. The aspects that are seized upon today are thus its spiritual, ecological and pacifist arguments. From the vantage point of post-Fukushima Japan, the text and Denmark’s later development illustrate that it is possible and desirable to power an advanced economy without nuclear energy. And with some disregard to post-cold war Denmark’s participation in US and NATO-led military operations, the pacifist ideals of the text rather than actual Danish history are tools with which to argue against remilitarisation and revision of the constitution.

The political reception history of this text, or what in German is called its Wirkungsgeschichte (“history of effects”), is a fascinating example of how ideas thought and written in a particular historical context acquire a life of their own and in ways neither imagined nor intended by the author. What is also curiously interesting is the way in which Uchimura’s arguments here prefigure Francis Fukuyama’s idea of “getting to Denmark”, which was published a century later in his 2011 book on The Origins of Political Order. Both conceive of “Denmark” as “the logical endpoint of social development” and “Denmarkness” (“stable, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and honest societies”) as something to strive for.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to discuss this with such an engaged and insightful group of scholars and students as I had in Madrid.

 

Modern Politics and East Asian Thought Symposium in Dublin on 3rd April 2018

Graham Parkes, David Williams, and Ouyang Xiao will be visiting Dublin and spending the afternoon of Tuesday 3rd April presenting and discussing their work on various aspects of Chinese and Japanese political thought.

A poster and programme with biographies and abstracts is available to download here.

 

Please register on Eventbrite, and if you require further information, please email me.

If you are in Dublin on the day, you are welcome to attend in Room B154A on the first floor of Science Centre West:

 

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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:

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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: