The Kyoto University Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies was established in April 1998, building on the preexisting Center for Southeast Asian Studies and Center for African Area Studies. 2018 is the 21st anniversary of the Graduate School. We offer five-year integrated programs in three Divisions: Southeast Asian Area Studies, African Area Studies, and Global Area Studies. Our name, the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies – which is so long that most of us prefer the abbreviation “ASAFAS” – indicates that we are engaged in Area Studies. The geographical scope which we specifically study includes Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and Africa.
Many people may be unfamiliar with the term “area studies”. It is sometimes confused with community studies, but is not the same thing. Needless to say, it is not enough to simply travel to Asia or Africa. We go out into the field and use all of our senses to the fullest, observing, listening, touching, smelling, and eating, all with the aim of understanding the local people and society in their entirety. Unilaterally applying one’s own values and standards – the so-called Procrustean Bed approach – is to be avoided at all costs, and it is crucial to develop an understanding of the local people’s way of thinking. To do so requires a grasp of aspects such as the natural environment, culture and history, politics and economics, and international relations. We must present the local people with our interpretations as observers and allow them to respond: this kind of two-way interaction fosters deeper understanding.
Language proficiency is important in this context. Not the language of the observer, but the language of those being observed. For example, even in the Philippines, one of the countries where English is most widely spoken in all of Asia, there appears to be a major difference in both the quantity and the quality of information researchers are able to gather in English as opposed to Tagalog. This is the same as in Japan, where Japanese is more effective than English for obtaining information from Japanese people. It goes without saying that not only spoken language but also written language is important.
To really get to know one’s field site, in addition to being linguistically proficient, one must borrow from a diverse variety of fields and domains of knowledge. As it demands a multifaceted appreciation of one’s research subjects, area studies is inherently interdisciplinary and is an integration of the arts and sciences. Faculty members of ASAFAS, for example, hold degrees from a great variety of faculties, including science, agriculture, medicine, engineering, fisheries, letters, law, economics, liberal arts, international relations, and foreign studies. Similar diversity exists among our current students. All aspiring area studies researchers need to break out of the shell of their own discipline and step forth beyond it. Professor Emeritus Yoshikazu Takaya called this “sailing for Mount Potalaka”. To understand things accurately and explain them clearly, we sometimes need to enlist the help of other disciplines.
Today, globalization and localization are progressing in parallel. Known as “glocalization”, this trend requires us to think globally, and act locally. Surely there are many people who think in abstract terms about things on a global scale, and others whose actions are firmly embedded in the locality in which they live. But there are probably not many who both think and act in the context of actual societies in Asia and Africa. Area studies fosters such individuals.
Students of area studies cannot afford to stay put in their libraries and research labs in Japan. Fieldwork is the lifeblood of area studies. To support students going out into the field, ASAFAS has established Center for On-Site Education and Research, and has worked to secure funding for students’ travel. We are currently implementing a program on “Fostering Personnel with Global Visions for the Future of Asian and African Areas through Strengthening Oversees Bases for Education and Research”. Faculty and students of ASAFAS will continue to work together to advance comprehensive area studies into the future.
Dean of the Graduate School