Monday, July 02, 2012

Asian Studies Conference 2012

Like many, I have been teaching for many years now and the teaching seminars and lectures often offer a few interesting gems, but there is rarely anything groundbreaking happening at JALT and other ELT conferences in Japan. Then I heard about the Asian studies conference in Tokyo at the end of June and I was intrigued.

Rikkyo University, Ikebukuro (Tokyo) 
Although not a scholar of Asian studies myself, I was intrigued by the many topics looking closely at Art, Gender, Nutrition, Environment, History and Society in Japan and Asia. So I made my way to the beautiful campus of Rikkyo university in Ikebukuro, Tokyo early on a Saturday morning. I am often nervous heading through the labyrinth of shoots and tunnels big stations in Tokyo seem to excel in creating, but I was lucky to have many helpful people point me in the right direction. I took the first Shinkansen from Hiroshima (6am- is early, but at least Doutor coffee shop was open in the station) and arrived to Tokyo station just after 10am, transferred to the super-clean and efficient Yamanote-line and arrived at the Ikebukuro campus of Rikkyo University by 10:30. When I registered, I was impressed with the bargain price. This 2 day conference- hosting presentations from academics from across the globe only cost 5,000 yen for non-member registration on the day. (Compare this to JALT's PanSig 2 day at Hirodai for 10,000 at site, or JALT national conference's 20,000yen for a 2 day conference for members who pre-register)

The presentations were very interesting despite many presenters simply reading out their presentations from a sheet of paper without the benefit of any images or photos of reference for the audience. By the way, if any readers are interested in presenting well, Garr Reynolds is a guru of the perfect Presentation model, his website easily presents the good and bad of power-point and other presentation aspects. Unfortunately, although Garr is based in Japan, he was presenting at the TEDxTokyo conference on the same day.
However, I digress, despite the lack of bells and whistles, the research and information of the papers were still very interesting, informative and overall quite inspiring. The audience was also quite impressive, coming up with new anecdotes and other related research to add or contrast with ideas presented during the discussion period at the end of a session.

The full list of presentation topics and presenter's names and affiliations can be seen on the ASCJ website.

Gender, Family and Nutrition
Some of most impressive ideas that stayed with me were about Shokuiku and the female focused nutrition education of mothers in Japan to encourage family eating time and healthy, Japanese food choices. It seems, like many other aspects of family and child-raising in Japan to be another way to guilt women, especially working women, about not being perfect mothers. The presenters were doing PhD thesis' on the topic from the different angles, comparison of "family eating time" importance between Japan, Korea and Australia revealed a few interesting differences in attitude toward eating alone (Wakako Takeda, ANU). The next presenter built on the ideas that Takeda had presented, but added her research in supermarkets in Japan where she found that despite women not recognizing the term Shokuiku, they were already doing the practices recommended by the "experts" like Mr.Shokuiku, Hattori- author of the best-selling Japanese book [食いくのすすめ」"Recommendations for Nutritional education". However, his teachings are seriously biased as advice and criticisms are limited to women, mothers, wives and grandmothers without ever even mentioning men, fathers, husbands or grandfathers in the book. (Aiko Kojima, UofChicago).

There were another couple of interesting presentations on Gender and Media as two of the researchers had interviewed and observed popular Japanese talk shows. Typically a researcher of a Asa-bangumi found women to appear nameless on screen and treated with a lack of respect off screen, and hired for their ability to act (show expression) more than speak (Elizabeth Rodwell Marks, Rice University). In the Wide Show study women were often berated as horrid, jealous and emotionally out of control perpetrators of crime. And when when they were victims of crime, they were blamed and berated for being too weak or stupid to avoid the problem. (Michelle Hui Shan Ho, Tokyo university).

There were a few related themes to nutrition and social eating in Japan happening in other sessions. One presenter talked of the politics of "meat" in the missionary communities in Nagasaki. There was a lot of political propaganda surrounding the ousting of the Portuguese missionaries by portraying them as cannibals who ate the body parts of Lepers they took care of. He also discussed how the missionaries would also get locals to join their church by drawing them in with tales of eating "healthy" meat. Reminded me of the stories in the historically derived book about Nagasaki in those days written by David Mitchell. (Andres Perez Riobo, Ritsumeikan University).

Then a presenter doing her PhD at Harvard promoted the positive aspects of "Gakushoku" which included social bonding and maintaining of Japanese culture through shared school lunches. This presentation was frustrating because it never once mentioned any problems with this system. Of course there are good points to the system, but it is also very political and flawed when adjusting to change or individual need. After Fukushima, school-children in the area were still forced to eat the school lunch even if their parents wanted to send a bento for fear of food safety. Of course, some schools were testing food for safety of their own initiative, but not others. In my own personal interactions with the inflexible school lunch, we have battled with "untraditional" dishes like kitsune udon (usually vegetarian) with the unnecessary (and unconventional addition of meat) since our kids are vegetarians. We have also had to go back and forth with the teacher, and board of education that oversees school meals, over the school milk mandate post-Fukushima. I was also appalled when they insisted on serving whale to all students in Hiroshima public schools 6 mos after Fukushima without any indication of the whale meat's safety. It seemed like nothing other than a propaganda strategy to get kids to support a dying and unnecessary industry. Many public school policies, which function in the status quo, do not adjust well to change no matter how necessary. 

Modern Art in Japan & Japanese Art Abroad
I was impressed by the passion for art with this panel, there was a lively discussion about the legitimacy of all aspects of modern art including the controversial "Bye Bye Kitty" project to other Japanese artists who are becoming increasingly popular abroad in the "Japanica" boom. One artist that was often mentioned is Tabaimo as her work is creating quite a stir in Japan and abroad as she depicts Japanese cultural and traditional themes in dark and surreal ways. There was some discussion about reviewing what was legitimate art, the consensus being that judging modern art is very subject and attaching value extremely difficult since it is closely related to fashion, music and almost anything in modern culture. But keeping an eye on what the public is intrigued by is important for art reviewers, museum 'gate-keepers' and others in the art world to keep in mind.

Can I eat that? Attitudes toward food safety in Japan after Fukushima
On the last day, I made it in time for an interesting discussion on the safety issues of food in Japan post-Fukushima. There were three Anthropologists who had done interviews and research in the Tohoku areas since the disaster and were presenting their findings. A researcher from Princeton reflected on her experiences working with people in the fishing industry who did not want to leave the area despite the hardships and lack of public support in their products even when they were testing and found the contamination to be at safe levels. (Satsuki Takahashi, Princeton).
Another researcher told of his talks with people who had been organic farmers before the accident in the area. He also relayed experiences with those working in contaminated areas who were vigilant in  testing the safety of food and drink, but who were worried about other areas further away who were not being as serious about testing for food safety- despite having had significant exposure to radiation. (Nicolas Sternsdorff, Harvard).
In the discussion, a worried audience member who says she herself is from Fukushima was asking questions about the safety of eating contaminated food everyday and what exactly would happen. The panelists couldn't really answer her with any authority and we could all sympathize with her plight as there is so much misinformation and a basic lack of medical research in this area despite the history of nuclear accidents worldwide.

I noted that experts in Hiroshima, like Bo Jacobs, have argued from early on that consumers should not feel obliged to eat contaminated foods, nor should producers feel forced to stay and work in dangerous conditions. Indeed the government should offer a fair deal of compensation for residents, fisherpeople, farmers and others to be able to move and set-up their lives in safer parts of the country. A member of the audience who identified herself as a Biological anthropologist said she recently revisited Fukushima with her family and went armed with a geiger counter and was surprised at how low the readings were in the parks and areas she visited. Sternsdorff then commented on the radiation cleaning methods he saw in use on farms by blasting trees, building and anywhere affected with high powered water hoses.
Also, the issue was raised of external and internal exposure to radiation and the added danger for children to be exposed as their cells multiply faster than adults. The recently highlighted attitude of the elderly in the area to take on more dangerous jobs cleaning up radiation, working in the Fukushima plant, farming or even eating contaminated products has been in the news recently. This amazing attitude of self-sacrifice to spare the younger generation is honorable and an amazing part of the Japanese community.
The Discussant mentioned that many people were equating whether or not to evacuate the affected areas around Fukushima with the debate after Katrina about whether or not to re-populate New Orleans. I would argue that unless New Orleans was dangerous to resettle in for the next 30 years, then there isn't much of a comparison.

I hope if any of you have the chance, you'll also choose to attend this worthwhile Asian Studies conference in Japan or another country someday.


  1. Tim Knight7/06/2012

    Thanks for your interesting post on a conference I knew little about. You've summarized several topics nicely and I hope to go in the future.
    I was particularly interested to read about the presentations on Shokuiku.

    1. thank you for commenting Tim, I agree the Shokuiku topic is very interesting on a social and cultural level here in Japan.

  2. that's fantastic information thanks for sharing


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