On Slavic and Eurasian Studies in Japan

Kimitaka Matsuzato is a Professor at the University of Tokyo specializing in the history and politics of post-socialist countries.

To read citations, view the article on the March 2020 Newsnet.

In contrast to similar associations in the US, Britain, Germany, and South Korea, the Japanese Council for Russian and East European Studies (JCREES) is not a unitary organization based on individual members, but an umbrella organization or a union of four disciplinary and one area study associations. Before the birth of JCREES, disciplinary Slavicist associations in Japan had developed in parallel since the 1950s. In search of a new identity for Slavic and Eurasian area studies after the collapse of socialist regimes and in order to have a legitimate representation in the International Council for Central and East European Studies (ICCEES), Japanese Slavicists decided to create JCREES in 1998. The Slavic Research Center (presently the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center) of Hokkaido University was assigned to serve as JCREES’s secretariat. After the establishment of JCREES, Hiroshi Kimura, who had been a de facto Japanese delegate in ICCEES since the 1970s, was elected as the official Japanese representative. This role was passed to Kimitaka Matsuzato in 2005 and from Matsuzato to Yoshiro Ikeda, professor of the University of Tokyo, in 2015.

JCREES holds executive meetings, attended by representatives of its member associations, twice a year. Activities of JCREES as an umbrella organization significantly differ from those of ASEEES, the German Association for East European Studies (DGO), and other monolithic national centers. It neither convenes conferences nor publishes journals, while its member associations continue to conduct these tasks (see Table 1). The member associations pay JCREES small contributions, 20,000- 30,000 yen per year, most of which is passed to ICCEES as a membership contribution (JCREES pays $1,000 to ICCEES each year). JCREES plays an important role when it hosts world and regional (East Asian) Slavicist conventions, including the 9th ICCEES World Congress in Makuhari in 2015, as well as the 1st (Sapporo), 5th (Osaka), and 10th (Tokyo) East Asian Conferences on Slavic Eurasian Studies. 

Disciplinary Proportion

If we sum up all members of the five associations, we arrive at about 1,400 people. Yet a significant number of Japanese Slavicists belong to more than one Slavicist association simultaneously. Dual membership between JAREES (area study organization) and one of the four disciplinary organizations is a widespread phenomenon, but even dual membership between disciplinary associations (for example, between the Russian history and Russian literature associations) is becoming all the more common in response to thriving interdisciplinary approaches. If we control for these overlapping memberships, perhaps 800-900 scholars are involved in Slavic Eurasian studies in Japan. By a similar rough calculation, this number seems 200-300 fewer than the number of specialists on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before 1991. This discrepancy looks modest if we consider that the Japanese academic world used to be comparatively leftoriented during the Cold War, when many university faculties of economics and pedagogy had professorial chairs of “socialist economy” and “socialist pedagogy.” After 1991, unsurprisingly, universities reorganized these chairs, for example, into chairs of comparative economics or just abolished them. With the exception of these natural streamlining procedures, Japanese Slavic and Eurasian studies did not encounter the drastic shrinking of the job market that our Western colleagues often suffered. If we did, this was caused by a general crisis of university education due to a decreasing youth population, not by the end of the Cold War. Japanese universities seem more inert and less efficiency-oriented than their Western counterparts.

The Japan Association for Comparative Economic Studies was reorganized from the Japan Association for the Study of Socialist Economies in 1993, so it includes specialists in Chinese, Vietnamese, Mongolian, Cuban, and other former and present socialist economies. Specialists in the economies of Slavic and Eurasian countries account for 70-80 percent of the association’s membership, or 160- 180 economists. This number shows a commitment by Japanese economists to specialize in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, especially if we consider the world-wide tendency of de-regionalization (mathematicization) of economic studies. An undisputable weakness of Slavic and Eurasian studies in Japan is the scarcity of political scientists and IR specialists involved in the area. Lacking their own disciplinary association, these specialists, as a rule, choose to enlist in JAREES. Based on the JAREES member list, I can identify only about 60 Japanese specialists in politics, IR, defense, and conflicts who are working on the former Soviet and East European countries—a dearth of scholars in this area that damages the whole academic community’s impact on Japanese society.

As a whole, in the Slavicist community in Japan, humanities specialists numerically predominate over social scientists. This proportion is similar to the American Slavicist community, in which historians and literature specialists are more numerous than social scientists. Symptomatically, in both Japan and the US, the Slavicist community is comparatively large. In contrast, in the British and South Korean Slavicist communities, we see a numerical parity between humanities specialists and social scientists, and the scale of their communities is relatively small, about 400 specialists in both countries. Humanities courses at universities seem to provide young Slavicists with more job opportunities.

Methodological Characterstics

How do Japanese specialists approach Slavic and Eurasian studies? As a political scientist and historian, I will limit my description to within my own disciplines. Japanese Soviet studies were significantly disadvantaged by the lack of chances for graduate students to study in the Soviet Union. Because of the territorial dispute between the USSR and Japan, there was no exchange of graduate students between them. Until the 1980s, Japanese graduate students wrote doctoral dissertations on Russian and Soviet history without reading archives. This deficit often determined the scholars’ research style till the end of their professional life. The situation changed when the Soviet and Japanese governments concluded an agreement on the exchange of graduate students in 1989. Fortunately, this was the time when Soviet local cities began to be opened to foreigners. Foreign graduate students suddenly enjoyed opportunities to work not only in Moscow and Leningrad archives, but also in local archives. Political scientists all at once obtained chances to interview politicians and political activists in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the forefront of fieldwork spread beyond the border of union and republican capitals to the countryside, even including the county level. Not only capital universities and Academy of Sciences institutions, but also local universities began to invite foreign scholars when they organized academic conferences. The de facto decentralization of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin provoked an unprecedented boom in studies in regional politics of Russia. These significant changes in research conditions equalized Japanese (disadvantaged until 1989) and EuroAmerican (relatively advantaged) specialists in the Soviet Union. We stood on the same start line and began to run.

Perhaps one of the most salient characteristics of Slavic and Eurasian studies in Japan is the low barrier between the humanities and social sciences. Even presently, a number of historians who have written their doctoral dissertations on Russian or Soviet history requalify to study postSoviet politics. Until the recent past, quantitative methods have not been influential in post-socialist political studies in Japan. I graduated from the Graduate School for Law and Politics of the University of Tokyo in the early 1990s, but statistics was not a part of my training. This is inconceivable in the US. Though the situation is changing now, our generation learnt political science via history studies. Due to the lack of statistical expertise, it is difficult for us to match American political scientists when we analyze elections and public opinion surveys. Yet we are sufficiently qualified when we analyze religious, ethnic, and language problems since we have a relatively strong humanitarian basis.

The second feature of Slavic and Eurasian specialists in Japan is their penchant for small units, regions, localities, peripheries, and small nations. For example, in Japan, there are at least five specialists studying Transnistria. I often ridicule the mentality of Japanese Slavicists by saying: “Ukraine is more interesting than Russia, Moldova is more interesting than Ukraine, and Transnistria is more interesting than Moldova.” The United States has various diaspora communities from all over the world, excellent language training systems at graduate schools, and a large-scale academic community, which allows narrow specialization of individual scholars. Japan lacks all these conditions. Nevertheless, Japanese Slavicists’ interest has been closer to the interest of their American colleagues than to the interest of their South Korean and Chinese colleagues, whose interest continues to be highly Russia-centric. In China and South Korea, even Ukraine specialists are very few. The reason for Japanese specialists’ indulgence in small objects and small issues is that, in my view, before 1991, Japanese intellectual youth became interested in Soviet studies because the Soviet Union was an important country politically, historically, and culturally. Currently, in contrast, Slavic and Eurasian territories attract the post-Cold War generation by their ethno-confessional and cultural variety. No doubt, this is an academic merit that makes Slavic and Eurasian studies in Japan competitive, but this same merit widens discrepancies between the academic community and public interest. Japanese mass media are interested in Kremlin politics and diagnosis of the next Russian elections, with which academics are not very familiar. Japanese mass media have lost interest even in the Ukrainian crisis because this has become an old issue. As a result, Japanese journalists hardly interview Slavic and Eurasian specialists when they wish to investigate the region.

Together with Asia

Until the beginning of this century, East Asia did not have a regional Slavicist community. Asian Slavicists were familiar with historiographies in their target countries (the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) and in North America and Europe, but hardly knew what their colleagues in the neighboring countries were doing. There was no intra-regional professional cooperation in East Asia that was comparable to the cooperation between North America, Britain, and Continental Europe. One may characterize this intellectual structure, which we have tried to overcome for the last 15 years, as colonial. In March 2008, the Slavicist associations in China, Japan, and Korea had a summit meeting in Seoul, which composed a protocol to hold a regional Slavicist conference each year, actively involve themselves in ICCEES activities, and invite the 2015 ICCEES World Congress to East Asia. We have realized all of these. Last June, the 10th East Asian Conference on Slavic Eurasian Studies was held at the University of Tokyo, in which about 250 Slavicists participated, not only from Asia, but also from North America, Europe, and former socialist countries. During the last decade, new national Slavicist associations have appeared in Mongolia and Kazakhstan that soon became full members of ICCEES. The young Mongolian association successfully hosted the 9th East Asian Conference on Slavic Eurasian Studies in Ulaanbaatar in 2018, and the Kazakhstan association is preparing for the East Asian conference in Nur-Sultan in 2021.

The most significant contribution made by the Japanese Slavicist community in the last decade was the 9th ICCEES World Congress held in Makuhari in August 2015. This was the first ICCEES world congress held outside North America and Europe, in which 1,300 Slavicists from the world participated. Remarkably, 426 Japanese Slavicists participated in the congress. This means that more than a half of Japanese Slavicists presented papers in English or Russian.

In my view, the next stage of intraregional cooperation of Asian Slavicists is to intensify our collaboration in undergraduate and graduate education. In this respect, the People’s Republic of China and Kazakhstan are playing a driving role. These two countries actively invite Asian professors for undergraduate and graduate education of young Slavicists. Intensifying intra-Asian collaboration enhances the exposure of Slavic and Eurasian studies in Asia to the world, particularly via English-language publications. When I published my first article in an English-language journal (The Russian Review), I was already 36 years old. My graduate students publish their first article in international Englishlanguage journals in their 20s. In recent years, several Japanese Slavicists have edited collections in English and published them via prestigious American and European publishers. On the other hand, English-language publications by Japanese Slavicists have been far too few, and only 20 to 30 scholars participate in ASEEES annual conventions. Japanese Slavicists should consider how to go further.