An Interview with Prof. Sato Hiroyuki of Faculty of Letters and Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo
Yijiang Zhong (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia)
Prof Sato, thank you for agreeing to have this interview. To start, could you briefly introduce your field of specialization?
My field is archaeology. Archaeology is of course a broad discipline and age. I do the earliest period called Paleolithic, the period from the beginning of human life to the start of agriculture roughly ten thousand years ago. Ten thousand years ago is for me the latest period. In broad terms, human started in Africa seven million years ago but it is not until 2.5 million years ago that we have archaeological artifacts. In this period there were not yet humans in Japan or East Asia. In the case of Japan, modern human emerged about 50 to 60 thousand years ago. My research focus is on the glacial era of several tens of thousands years ago. This is the era when the country of Japan did not yet exist and there was no national border. But the Japanese Archipelago existed so geographic delimiting is possible. In such a research context, our study in today’s sense is international as we work with colleagues in East Asia. Within the field of archaeology too, our research is relatively internationalized. We hold regular international conferences and give presentations in English. Younger scholars are also gradually becoming international. Actually, our discipline looks surprisingly international among humanities disciplines. For example, there is the Asian Paleolithic Association of which I am a member. Four countries of Russia, Korea, China and Japan take turns hosting annual meetings and conferences. We maintain mutual communication on a regular basis.
Right. There was no national frames such as that of Japan.
That’s right. There is no Japan in our research and it does not make sense to talk about the Japanese nation. Instead, you can think about our study as tackling the question of how humans on the Japanese archipelago formed the earliest culture.
I am completely ignorant of archaeology but I have read that as a branch of modern scholarship, archaeology played a role in the formation of the modern nation-state and national culture.
How do you think of archaeology at the University of Tokyo in this sense?
Right. Needless to say, archaeology is a modern science that started in the framework of the nation-state. This is the same in other countries. Archaeology was founded at the end of the 19th century but in case of the University of Tokyo that came a little later. The Department of archaeology here was created in the Taisho period (1911-1926) and student recruitment started right after the end of World War II. As in any other country, archaeology was assigned the role of tracing the origin of one’s nation back to before there were textual documents, and confirming the origin of the nation with physical artifacts. At the beginning stage that was certainly the case at the University of Tokyo although it is hard to say how much that still exists today. For us specialists of Paleolithic too, the field started with the idea of studying when the earliest humans and culture on the Japanese archipelago appeared.
From there perspectives expanded.
That’s right. As you know, in prewar years there were the Kojiki and Nihon shoki mythologies. So although there were remains of “aboriginals” (these were not regarded as Japanese because according to opinions of the time Japanese couldn’t be so barbarian, so these early humans were called “aboriginals”), these were study of “aboriginals”. The origin of Japanese culture, on the other hand, was thought to be in the Yayoi Period when agriculture started. In postwar years this interpretive framework was given up. Instead, recently the Jomon Era has come to be regarded by many as the original moment of Japanese culture. So periodization constantly changes. As much as it has changed, it does not go as far back as the Paleolithic. The Jomon Era is the recent boom. The origin of the Japanese nation and the origin of the Japanese culture remain issues of very strong concern. Another point about the University of Tokyo is that it is a national university that operates on tax paid by citizens, so it cannot conduct research without regard for the concerns of citizens. As a result, theories of Japanese culture remains an important topic.
So ways of thinking and perspectives of archaeology change with times.
Right. Methods change too.
Does conflict occur between different methods and perspectives?
Not so serious as to become conflict. These days the formation of the Japanese nation has been quite relativized. The nation came into being only after the Meiji period (1868-1911). With regard to earlier periods, archaeology is not very strong for relatively later periods such as the Edo period (1600-1867). It takes as its subject the period when there were no or limited amount of textual documents, or the time before the ancient period. It operates based on the rationale of assembling history from physical artifacts. As such, up to the Yayoi period, there were humans but no more than people lived in the Archipelago. Because there was no country of Japan, and the unit of state did not exist. Most likely there were only territorial groups for which there were strong men such as the chief and class distinctions. When it comes to the Jomon period, even these things did not exist. People settled down to form territorial groups but nothing more than that. In the Paleolithic era humans did not even settle down but led a mobile life.
While doing hunting.
Yes, doing hunting. They were called hunter-gatherers. Territoriality took place toward the end of the Paleolithic. Prior to that, all places in Japan had similar cultural content.
Now, let me ask a general question. How do you think of Japanese studies both in Japan and overseas in the context of ongoing globalization?
Leaving aside archaeology and speaking from the perspective of the Faculty of Letters, what’s called globalization is basically English-ization. Both the Faculty of Letters and the University of Tokyo emphasize the relation with the English-speaking countries and increase the presence of English here. But I think for Japanese studies it is almost meaningless if we don’t situate it in the East Asian context. Research in English is certainly important but we need do Japanese studies in multiple languages. In archaeology, we created the Asian Paleolithic Association to demonstrate our level of research to Europe and the U.S., where archaeology originated, and to raise objections to the definitions originally created in Europe while at the same time showing how Asia is different. In this sense, rather than competing to assimilate and digest the standards formulated originally in Europe and the U.S. by way of English globalization, it is important to make efforts to let people in the West realize and understand the particularities of Asia as Asia and of Japan as Japan. For that purpose, the Faculty of Letters adopts the multilingual approach. While urged to conduct teaching in English, we also think multilingual teaching important and have opened courses taught in French, Chinese and so on. The same goes for academic writing. Besides English, academic writing courses in French, Chinese and German are also offered. Without multiple languages, clashes of ideas, in a positive sense, in discussions and debates won’t happen. It is important although so far our efforts may not be progressing well.
It is important to relativize knowledge framework created in the West. This is also what the Global Japan Studies is considering to do.
This is probably what we expect from the Global Japan Studies. It sounds good to say “to relativize,” but as far as the Global Japan Studies is concerned, I think its vital mission is to disseminate the diverse knowledge of Japan and Asia. In case of archaeology, we conduct a lot of research overseas including excavations. Each country has its laws so we come across difficulties sometimes. The department of archaeology has been conducting research for twenty years in Russian Far East specifically the Sakhalin Island on the topic of the northern route. We wanted to focus on the culture brought to Japan from the north. While in other disciplines it is textual documents or fashion and the like that matter as subject materials, for archaeology it is life itself. Life tools, life styles. These things were of course also brought into Japan from the north but this has not received enough attention in study of Japanese history so far. So we want to be more focused on this.
Is that before the Jomon period?
That includes the Jomon period. During the Jomon period, culture came from the north as well. Not culture in its entirety but tools and subsistence. They had strong influence. For tracing this cultural influence, we look into cultural borders, which were no national borders – there were no national borders at the time although interestingly these cultural borders are very proximate to current national borders. It befits archaeology to pounder why this is the case. For example, the erstwhile national border between Japan and the former Soviet Union on the Sakhalin Island was roughly along the latitude of 50 degrees north. That is also where natural environment changes significantly. The aboriginals there were also different. These phenomena surprisingly correspond to each other.
Were there reasons for that?
Yes, there were reasons. Very likely habitat isolation in terms of culture and life style took place from the very beginning. National borders may have been drawn along those early formed cultural borders. Of course, the latitude of 50 degrees north was a cultural border not between the Japanese and the aboriginals but was between the Ainu and the aboriginal people to the north.
The Ainu people were already there during that time?
They were already in southern Sakhalin. Called Karafuto Ainu, they probably came from Hokkaido in the south at the beginning of the medieval period (1185-1600). They stopped at the latitude of 50 degrees north and did not go further north. Different aboriginal people lived further north and if the Karafuto Ainu had gone there they would have to change their life style even if they were accepted by local aboriginals. So it was difficult for them to go further north. The same goes for what is called the Four Northern Islands in Japan. The Four Northern Islands, up to southern Etorohu, were of Ainu culture.
Was the border also ecological?
I think so. The Four Northern Islands, among the Kurile Islands, belong to the ecological system of Hokkaido. Up to the Four Northern Islands from north there are many Ainu communities.
In prewar years there were a lot of research on the Mongols and the Tartars. Do archaeology today still have connections with these research?
I study the Izumo Shrine. In the Izumo region there were several major archaeological findings in the 1980s. It was not iron but bronze though. These findings gave rise to a lot of discussions about the possible existence of an ancient Izumo polity.
Bronze was at first weapons but then became completely ritual instruments. In Japan iron was an instrument rather than a weapon used to conquer. It was better to intimidate by displaying the large amount of one had. It was common to use bronze to send out the message that “Look, we have got so much of it so we are powerful. You’d better surrender.” I think this is because Japan was an island country.
This sounds like the sword in the Edo period.
That’s right. The sword won’t be drawn. It can’t be drawn because once it is drawn you have to enter a showdown. You’d better not to get into that.
You talked about multilingual education and diverse perspectives. What is your advice for the Global Japan Studies in terms of specific methods?
Multilingualism is important but that does not mean English is not necessary. English has become the international language especially in the world of scientific research. It has become the de facto lingua franca. We have to recognize that. The meetings of the Asia Paleolithic Association, mentioned a while ago, uses English too. Local languages won’t work and because all the four local languages are foreign languages just like English, we decided to use English. In this sense, English is indispensable as a means for research. The problem is whether it is necessary to follow all the framework and modes of knowledge developed in the English-speaking regions. This is entirely another question. This applies to archaeology as well as other disciplines. International journals are in general published in Europe and the U.S. We in East Asia can establish journals but looking at contributors Euro-American journals attract a lot more. It is ultimately about the quality of the journals and we need to work to improve our journal quality. I think the Global Japan Studies is a venue for demonstrating internationally creditable research outcome? It is indeed important to internationalize this venue. To move to something different, Japanese Archaeological Association (JAA) is the largest research association in Japan, with about 4300 specialists as its members. JAA established an English journal three years ago and we invited British and American scholars to sit on the editorial board. But we don’t have a lot of submissions. Partly because the journal title is “Japanese Journal of Archaeology,” European and American scholars choose not to submit their papers to us. But partly also because of the small number of researchers in the field. So even if we can create the venue for exchange, how we can bring it to be a top level journal is our urgent task.
My personal experience also tells there is a difference. The ways in which people talk are different.
Yes, there are differences depending on disciplines. In Japanese academia people read their draft papers at presentations. This is seldom the case outside Japan where it will be complete presentations. Japanese are not yet used to this style. Doing presentation without the draft paper for the Japanese as non-native speakers of English would lead to a drop in presentation quality. Asians are similar in this regard to the Japanese. In some cases, young scholars from Japan, China and so on study hard in the U.S. They have a high command of English and are very good at presentation, but sometimes their presentations actually lack content. It depends on how we look at it and how to change it. This is rather difficult. We can’t change the situation simply by establishing study-abroad programs. The issue of difference is also reflected in international conferences which we organize once every a few years. We send out invitations worldwide but people will come only when we provide travel expenses and accommodation. In the case of us going outside, however, this seldom happens. At best we get conference registration fee waived.
There is such a gap.
This is a gap, invisible gap. The question is how to fill the gap.
Maybe we need to build up an Asian community or framework that includes Japan?
That’s right. China is working hard now. I think Asia need to accumulate sufficient power and achievement so that we can convene conferences with a confidence like “we are organizing a conference. You can come if you are interested.” But we don’t know how long this will take.
That is certainly the case. As time is running out, I would like to close today’s interview. Prof. Sato, thank you very much.