Africa Forum

African Studies in Japan

John Edward Philips
Department of International Society
Hirosaki University

14 August 2001

(N.B.: AFRICA FORUM is a regular H-Africa column that features essays by, and interviews with, notable Africanists around the world. This is the fourth in the sub-series 'African Studies in ..."--P.L.).

The increasingly important role of Japan in international affairs and international bodies, especially UNESCO, as well as the longstanding importance of UNESCO for Africa and African studies, make Japan's perceptions of Africa important to all of us in African studies, whether we interact directly with Japanese scholars or not. Japan's important role as a supplier of development assistance to Africa, although decreasing due to the problems of the Japanese economy, also makes Japanese perceptions of Africa important to Africans themselves. Thus, despite the tendency of many Japanese in Africa to keep to themselves, and the tendency of Japanese scholars to publish primarily in their own language, Japanese perceptions of Africa are very powerful ideas that can impact on Africans and Africanists without our necessarily being aware of that impact.

African studies in Japan date largely to the period after the end of the Second World War, but the Japan Association for African Studies (Nihon Afurika Gakkai or JAAS) was only founded in 1964, and is still much smaller than its U.S. counterpart. The annual conference is usually held in late May, at sites that vary from year to year. While the number of attendees and papers presented is not large by the standards of the African Studies Association in the U.S., the size of the meetings probably compares more favorably with those of African studies associations in major European countries. Japan is smaller than the U.S. but larger than most European countries.

There are also disciplines in the Japan Association for African Studies which are not found in the American association, especially the natural sciences and medicine. Although this ensures a broader range of disciplines within African studies in Japan, it also contributes to making even relatively well represented fields in the social sciences and humanities smaller in absolute size than they are in the U.S. However, given the importance ofthe natural environment in Africa, and the importance of climate and disease for development, the JAAS does well to include experts on such matters as malaria (http://malaria.himeji-du.ac.jp/) in its ranks. Other national associations of African studies would do well to imitate Japan's incorporation of scientists into their organizations.

At the end of the academic year 2000 (end of March 2001, because the Japanese academic year begins in April), the total membership of the JAAS included 700 ordinary members, 24 group members, 40 foreign members (including Japanese resident overseas), 13 bookshops, 7 donating members, 3 emeritus members, 2 journal subscribers, and 8 sponsoring members, which add up to a total of 797 members. Although the numbers have been growing in the past few years it may be not so much because the absolute number of Africanists in Japan is growing, but because more graduate students are increasingly likely to join the JAAS. Some disciplines do show growth, however, growth which is largely offset by declines in the numbers of members from other disciplines, especially in the natural sciences. Thus African studies in Japan are changing, but not growing much overall. This lack of growth is particularly surprising in light of Japan's professed concern for Africa and known desire to play a more important role in international affairs. It contrasts with the much more steady and noticeable growth in Middle Eastern and Central Asian studies.

The JAAS publishes Afurika Kenkyuu (Journal of African Studies) and a newsletter. The former includes a table of contents in English and occasional abstracts in English (or French) but the latter is entirely in Japanese. The January and March 2001 issues of Afurika Kenkyuu featured articles about African studies in the 21st century. Articles in the January issue addressed the topics of international relations (Mitsugi Endo), linguistics (Shigeki Kaji), literature (Yukitoshi Sunano), economics (Motoki Takahashi), health and medicine (Kan Toriyama), paleo-anthropology (Masato Nakatsukasa), cultural and social anthropology (Ichiro Majima), physical geography (Kazuharu Mizuno), and gender studies (Ritsuko Miyamoto). Topics covered in the March issue included human geography (Gen Ueda), ecological anthropology (Kaori Kawai), earth science in the east African rift system (Yoshihiro Sawada, Kurkura Kabeto and Katsuhiro Nakayama), agriculture and peasant studies (Tatsuro Suehara), political science (Makiko Toda), primatology (Juichi Yamagiwa), and history (Tsuneo Yoshikuni, formerly of the University of Zimbabwe Department of Economic History).

Among the disciplines which show the most growth in Japanese African studies today are economics and political science. Economics has long been one of the most important disciplines in Japan, but the growth in political science seems to be related to recent concern with understanding conflict (Japanese "funso") in Africa. Despite the recent growth in their numbers, political scientists are still fewer in number than anthropologists in Japanese African studies, and many of the studies of modern conflict are carried out by anthropologists rather than by political scientists.

Africanist Anthropology in Japan seems to be neither growing nor declining but rather holding its own. It remains one of the dominant fields in Japanese African studies, with many different types of anthropology represented, as shown by anthropology's description in several articles in Afurika Kenkyuu (see above), despite the fact that neither linguistics nor archaeology is considered part of anthropology in Japan. Kyoto University's African Studies Center, for example, consists of three departments of ecological anthropology. These departments contain no linguists, political scientists, or economists, although scholars from those disciplines are well-represented at other institutions. The Laboratory for Human Evolution Studies is under the Zoology Department and has trained many important Japanese Africanists. More information about the Kyoto University Center for African Studies can be found at its website, http://www.africa.kyoto-u.ac.jp/.

Kyoto University is also famous for primatology, the study of African great apes: chimpanzees, bononos and gorillas. Social behavior and organization as well as the use made of the environment by various species of primates are fields particularly studied there. The close proximity of social and ecological anthropologists to primatologists fosters close interactions between them and is of great benefit to the disciplines involved.

Although Kyoto University's Center for African Studies is the only institution devoted solely to the study of Africa in Japan, several other universities and research centers are also important as centers of Africanist activity.

The Institute for Developing Economies, or "Ajia Keizai Kenkyuujo" as it is referred to in Japanese, is Japan's major center for the study of Third World economies. As the Japanese name implies, it is far more concerned with Asia than with Africa, but it has recently increased its Africanist staff to nine full-time researchers. These researchers have organized group research activities together with some university professors and aid agency staff members, and the research results have been published by the institute and distributed widely.

The Institute for the Study of the Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa (ILCAA) at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies is one of the most important centers in Japan for linguistic and cultural anthropological research. It is home to the AFLANG project headed by Professor Shuji Matsushita, a specialist on Hausa and other Chadic languages who is one of the most websavvy scholars in Japanese African Studies. The ILCAA's website is at http://www.aa.tufs.ac.jp/ while the AFLANG site can be viewed at http://www3.aa.tufs.ac.jp/~P_aflang/aflang.html. Other scholars at the ILCAA or elsewhere in the university work on various other languages, including Bantu, Swahili, Khoisan, and various west African languages.

Osaka is Japan's "second city" and the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies's counterpart in the Osaka area is the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. In addition to two departments of Asian studies, this university also has a mixed department of Asian and African studies. This department has produced important work on African literature and Swahili.

Other centers of African studies in Japan include the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Meiji Gakuin University, Chubu University, Kyoto Bunkyo University, Ryukoku University, and Ritsumeikan University. But the growth of African studies at some universities is offset by the decline in others. With the reorganization of my own university, Hirosaki, there has come a decline in the numbers of Africanists in what was once an important regional center of African studies, and which still harbors a sizable community of Africanists in various disciplines.

General Reflections

The lack of growth of African studies in Japan seems surprising in light of the expansion of Japan's international profile in recent years, including in Africa. While there has been some expansion and reform in area studies in general it has not been to the extent that would be expected in an aspiring great power. When the U.S. agreed to host the United Nations and to take an increasing role in world affairs the government created such educational and research initiatives as the Fulbright program, the National Defense Education Act with its network of Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) centers, and many other programs to provide the knowledge necessary for the U.S. to play a role in international affairs commensurate with its size and importance. Foundations also contributed to funding for international and area studies. Top scholars were brought from around the world to bolster research and education in international affairs.

Japan has approximately half the economy and half the population of the U.S. It does not have half the area studies, and there is no Japanese equivalent of the Fulbright or the NDEA Title VI programs. A Japan Center for Area Studies (JCAS - http://www.minpaku.ac.jp/english/jcas/) was recently set up in the National Museum of Ethnology ( http://www.minpaku.ac.jp/), and important work has been carried out there, especially in Islamic studies and American studies, but what has been done is largely a result of robbing Peter to pay Paul, rather than of overall growth in foreign language and area studies in Japan.

This lack of growth is particularly surprising in view of the fact that Japan must make a greater effort to interact with the outside world, since its language is barely spoken outside of Japan. Unless Japanese tax law is changed to favor the creation of large, tax-exempt foundations on the scale found in the U.S. the major impetus for an increase in area studies in Japan will have to come from the Japanese government, at a time when the continuing economic crisis suggests that funding may have to be cut back. Perhaps this is not the best time for Japan to try for a permanent UN Security Council seat.

The little growth which has occurred in area studies in Japan has not involved African studies. For example, of the two recently established centers of area studies, the Japan Center for Area Studies (above) has no Africanists on its staff, while the Graduate School of International Cultural Studies (at Tohoku University - http://www.intcul.tohoku.ac.jp/) has one Africanist in the department of Comparative Cultural Studies, who specializes in the study of whites and Indians in south and east Africa. If Japan is serious about playing an greater role in world affairs it needs to greatly expand area studies, including African studies, beyond what it has today. It also needs to improve the quality of area studies in general and African studies in particular. In many areas it even needs to catch up with the postwar revolution in African studies, instead of recycling discarded colonialist propaganda, such as the idea that historians are not capable of studying the African past.

A serious problem for the improvement of African studies in Japan is the hostility of certain powerful Japanese Africanist anthropologists to history. Symptomatic of Japan's intellectual isolation from the rest of the world, (2) arguments which were used in the 1950s against the emergence of African history as a field of research are still influential in Japan. I have actually been informed by a Japanese anthropologist who has worked extensively on Islamic societies in Africa that historians should not study such societies because there are no written documents in them! This was in spite of the fact that archaeologists are classified as historians in Japan. The insistence of powerful Africanists that historians (other than economic historians) should not study Africa has left Japanese Africanists woefully unprepared to participate in such important Japanese research projects as the Islamic Area Studies Project, http://www.l.u-tokyo.ac.jp/IAS/home.html

It should be remembered, however, that the field of economic history is an exception to the absence of African history in Japan. Economic history in Japan is structurally part of economics, rather than of history, but is considered a separate specialization within economics. Therefore economic historians generally have good training in both economics and history, something often lacking in economic historians in North America, who tend to have been trained either as economists or as historians, but rarely as both. Perhaps more importantly, economics is a field which Japan does not slight, and which is meant for serious study rather than nationalist propaganda. The removal of economic history from history to economics in Japan has been good for the study of economic history. There have been several important studies of African economic history published in Japanese which should be made available to scholars overseas through translation.

Another potential strength of area studies in Japan is the lack of a bureaucratic tradition of erecting strict barriers between areas, but rather a tendency on the part of at least some scholars to define the area by the problem to be studied, rather than vice versa. Thus in the past several years a Japan Association of Nile-Ethiopian Studies has been able to attract both Africanists working in east Africa and Middle Eastern specialists working on Egypt and the Sudan. If Japan does decide to create a network of foreign language and area studies centers equivalent to the American Title VI centers, this suggests that they may be able to avoid the rigid divisions between areas that has hampered attempts to study phenomena that cross the artificial regional boundaries between, e.g., Africa and the Middle East.

Japanese universities are under great pressure and are undergoing great changes. Positions are opening up for foreign scholars, the notorious "gakubatsu" system of academic cliques is breaking down (at least at some schools,) and national universities have been promised some unspecified form of autonomy by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. This same Ministry is also threatening to abolish tenure, giving rise to suspicions about the nature of the autonomy which will be granted. How these changes will affect African studies remains to be seen.


(1) This description of African studies in Japan is intended as an update and supplement to my article "African Studies in Japan" (African Studies Review, December 1997, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 161-180). I wish to thank all those who helped by providing information and comments, especially Professor Emeritus Merrick Posnansky of the University California Los Angeles, and Professor Masao Yoshida of Chubu University, who is perhaps unique in the extent of his determination to forge links between Japanese African studies and African studies elsewhere on earth. They and the others who have contributed to my understanding of African studies in Japan are in no way responsible for any errors I may have included in this article.

(2) For more detail on the structures which keep Japanese intellectually isolated from the outside world, see Ivan Hall, Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

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First Online Edition: 14 August 2001
Last Revised: 24 August 2001

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