The Joy of Substance — Reflections on the Asian Studies Japan Conference, Tokyo, 2012

This weekend Ruth and I were in Ikebukuro, on the other side of Tokyo from where we live in Yokohama, attending the Asian Studies Japan Conference (ASJC). It was the first time for this conference in several years, so impressions were fresh and lively. What follows is a reflection on why I enjoyed the conference so much, for reasons summed up in my title "The Joy of Substance."

I attended sessions on
  1. Technologies of Japanese Empire: Aesthetics, Planning and Ideology
  2. Treaty Port Yokohama Reconstructed: Accounts, Images, Injustice and Bloody Murder, 1859-1899
  3. Serious Games Amidst Casual Chats: The Social Uses of Poetry in Song Dynasty Miscellanies
  4. Individual Paper on Premodern Literature, Poetry and Theater, and
  5. Coping with Disaster: Field Reports from Tohoku
Choosing 1 and 2 was motivated by long-standing interests in Japanese imperialism, aesthetics, ideology, city planning and the City of Yokohama in which I have lived for the last 32 years.  I was lured into 3 by a lobby chat with the organizer, Benjamin Ridgeway from Valparaiso University (in Indiana, USA) and enjoyed it so much that I chose 4 to hear more talk about premodern poetry. 5 was inevitable, given that the aftereffects of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan are still very much on the minds of people in Japan and, a bit of serendipity, our having recently translated a volume of photographs assembled by the Japan Professional Photographers Society (JPPS) for an exhibition a year after the disaster, titled Ikiru "We Survive." I was also privileged to hear the keynote address "The Girl Who Burned the Banknotes: Gender, Memory, and Rural China's Collective Past" by historian and past president of the Association of Asian Studies Gail Hershatter, a series of reflections on her more than twenty years of, with a Chinese colleague, interviewing Chinese women who were coming of age and politically active in the 1950s, the years immediately after Liberation in 1949.
But the criss-crossing web of interests that led me to these particular sessions and formed my impression of the conference are not what I want to focus on here. It is, instead, something that all of these sessions and lectures, regardless of topic, shared—In each and every case, the focus was on the substance of what was being discussed. Theory was not neglected. Indeed, most speakers were careful to articulate the assumptions and methods that they brought to their topics. But the focus was not the theory but the substance of the topic under discussion, typically represented by a particular text or image or a first-hand report of what had been seen, heard and felt by the researcher.
Thus, just for a few especially memorable examples.
From 1: In  "Constructing the Continent: Japanese Urban Planning Technology and the Case of 'Pan-Asian'  Beijing," Aaron Moore (Arizona State University) discussed plans drawn up under the auspices of the Japanese Army in North China for the reconstruction of Beijing, a plan inspired by British ideas about "garden cities," in which the area to the West of the old, walled city would be transformed into an exemplary case of urban planning in which residences, businesses, and parks and recreational areas would all be located close to each other within easy distance of trunk highways and railroad lines and both the new city and old surrounded by a green belt  to contain further development. Moore noted that, given the exigencies of a war that Japan was losing before the plan could be implemented, its results are visible today only in the major trunk highways and the location of railroad lines and stations that shape the modern Beijing landscape (both were of vital interest to military planners and the superiors to whom they reported).
From 2: In "Pioneer in Old Yokohama: Insights through the Adventures of C.T. Assendelft de Coningh," Martha Chaikin (University of Pittsburgh), a new angle was brought to the history of the opening of the port, dominated by accounts in English or Japanese, by the voluminous writings in Dutch of a seaman and then sea captain and merchant, who, writing in Dutch, was not constrained by the need to be polite about the ruffians and scalawags that made up the bulk of the eighty or so individuals who made up the foreign population of the new port in its early years. 
From 3: In "The 'Poelitics' of a Drinking Game: Jia Sidao and Southern Song Politics in the Anecdotes if Qiantang," Gang Liu (Carnegie-Mellon University) discussed an incident in which Jia Sidao, infamous as one of the Southern Song Dynasty's 'Bad Ministers,' exchanged poems with two of his chief rivals, who would later be forced to retire from the Imperial bureaucracy. The series begins with a poem in which Jia describes himself as a hermit emerging from his cave to do battle—one who has never lost a fight. The first response invokes the image of fishing and basically says, "I'm not taking that bait." The third says only, "Do leave us a bit of land." The basic thrust of the banter is clear, but its meaning is enriched when we understand that the first poem is of Daoist, the second of Buddhist origin, and the period in question is one in which Buddhism was displacing Daoism as the major intellectual alternative to Confucian orthodoxy. The third poem's "Do leave us a bit of land" alludes to the Mongol threat that would shortly end the Southern Song, an outcome blamed, at least in part, on Jia Sidao's preoccupation with personal advancement and court politics instead of national security. 
From 4: I was delighted by "Scenarios of Agricultural Performance: Commoner Crowds and Elite Identification in Dengaku," in which Ashton Lazarus (Yale University) skillfully deployed ideas about symbolic inversion and liminality to discuss how a mass dance movement that arose among commoners disturbed by famine and plague was co-opted by imperial court aristocrats and became the subject of debates about high and low art, cultural purity and the threat of cultural "sickness" brought on by an epidemic of chaotic "low" behavior—the stances in question being not all that different from those of today's defenders of high culture against, for example, hip-hop. I was only displeased because the ideas about symbolic and liminality were attributed to two literary scholars writing in the 1980s instead of British (Manchester) anthropologists writing in the 1960s and 70s, my guru Victor Turner, in particular.
From 5: A presentation by Charles McJilton, founder of Second Harvest Japan, about the difficulties his organization encountered in trying to work with Japanese government bureaucrats to deliver food supplies to the Tohoku—in particular their bureaucratic refusal to accept anything that was not presented as exactly the right number of perfectly uniform packages, anything else being a violation of their insistence that aid be distributed on a basis of absolute equality to people bound to complain if they felt slighted—set off a vigorous and productive discussion about the political assumptions of aid efforts and the need to take into account local sensibilities, but also about the situation of local officials, themselves victims, overwhelmed by the disaster and burned out by endless days and sleepless nights, and the logistical realities of local consultation in the midst of an on-going disaster. 
The absence of "meta" discussions, of the "why are we doing this" kind to which I myself too often contribute, was, I believe, a major factor in the satisfaction I felt as the conference ended. The substance on which the discussions had focused left me with plenty of new material to think about. The "Where's the beef?" question, and that hungry, empty feeling that is all that is left after too many online discussions, simply didn't arise. The intellectual banquet had been a very satisfying one.

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