An Interview with Prof. Watanabe Hiroshi

Interviewer : Yijiang Zhong

As a member of the team responsible for building up the Global Japan Studies (GJS) network at the University of Tokyo (or Tōdai, as it is usually called), I conducted an interview with Prof. Watanabe Hiroshi of the Faculty of Law at Hōsei University in Tokyo on June 17. Prof. Watanabe is a prominent scholar in history of Japanese political thought and had taught for many years in the Faculty of Law at Tōdai before moving to Hōsei, so I looked forward to hearing his insights with regard to the situation of Japan Studies at Tōdai and his advice on constructing the GJS network that could only come from a scholar of rich research and education experience.

Prof. Watanabe did not disappoint me. From conceptual issues of how to define Japan Studies to concrete information of institutional arrangements of disciplines and faculties of Tōdai, Prof. Watanabe offered a wide range of information and advice in our one-hour-and-twenty-minute conversation that I, having the least experience at Tōdai among the members of the team, have found particularly instructive. Here I will recount several key points.

Among other things, Prof. Watanabe emphasized that to study Japan, a wide perspective is necessary. In making this point, he quoted the phrase taught him by his teacher Maruyama Masao, one of the most renowned scholars of postwar Japan, “He who knows only Japan does not know about Japan.” The wider perspective means to situate Japan in the historical context of Asia and the world and to look at Japan from both within Japan and from outside such as from Korea and China as well as the West.

At the same time, Prof Watanabe pointed out that at Tōdai the need for this kind of wide perspective is not widely shared among scholars. This is related to the fact that unlike area studies in the U.S., most people here do not explicitly identify themselves as researchers of Japan Studies but as specialists in specific disciplines such as political science, sociology, or education. As such, scholars do not have the motivation in joining a university-wide cross-disciplinary network of Japan specialists such as the Global Japan Studies network. The building up of the GJS network then starts from advocating a trans-national and interdisciplinary perspective for studies about Japan.

The most useful insight of Prof Watanabe for me is his calling into question of the very idea of Japan. He emphasizes the necessity to disrupt the boundaries with which Japan has been constructed, including boundaries of history, space, and of humans. What is known as the early modern period of Japan (kinsei), according to Prof Watanabe, is a world totally different from contemporary Japan rather than one stage in the teleological development of the national history of Japan. Similarly, various groups of people have been traversing the spaces of northeast Asia in exchange and in conflict for centuries. The notion of Japan as an ethnic nation inhabiting the archipelago is still strong but it is not only practically difficult to distinguish Japanese from non-Japanese but that the very distinction functions to produce discrimination and exclusion.

Interviewing Prof Watanabe is an eye-opening experience. His comments shed light on issues vital for constructing the GJS network. At the same time, being able to converse with such a prominent scholar is in itself learning from a rich and distinctive tradition of scholarship about Japan.