An interview with Professor Iokibe Kaoru of the Faculty of Law and Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, the University of Tokyo

Interviewer : Yijiang Zhong (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia)

Iokibe Kaoru, Professor of Law and Graduate Schools for Law and Politics

Thank you for agreeing to the interview today, Prof. Iokibe. I would like to ask three main questions. First, could you introduce your field of research and then discuss the situation of Japanese Studies, broadly defined, at the University of Tokyo from the perspective of your research.

My field of specialization is Japanese political and diplomatic history, focusing on diplomacy and domestic politics of the Meiji period. My first book looked at how opposition parties capable of bringing about government change were organized in the Meiji and Taisho periods. The second book is a history of treaty revision which examines how the unequal treaties Japan signed at the end of the Tokugawa period were revised.
  I am also interested in several other topics. My current, most important project is the history of Japan-German relations. The Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo has collected a great number of Japan-related historical documents from Europe and the U.S., the collection of documents from erstwhile eastern Germany is not yet large. It is not only because of the Cold War, but also it took a lot of efforts to follow up which document was integrated to which archive after the end of the Cold War. I am now scanning documents there and make them publicly available in Japan.
  At the same time, I am interested in the history of villages in Japan. I am thinking about how to take up the political history of villages not as entities requesting government subsidy, given that interest politics are no longer functioning in Japan as it used to be, but as communities of real life. Intellectuals who served as mediation between actual village social life and politics such as Fukuchi Ouchi (1841-1906) are fascinating. I am also studying Yoshino Sakuzo.
  In terms of topics of Japanese studies in international context, Yosihno Sakuzo turned out to be a good starting point for me. Yoshino being the leader of Taisho Democracy understood that a plurality of factors were necessary to uphold democracy. For those factors to function, there needed a plurality of types of discussion.
  Most likely for Yoshino, those human experiences that serve as the basis for democratic discussions and give force to those discussions was after all political history and in particular political history of recent past. He put to maximum use the advantage of Japan. He studied advanced countries of Europe as well as China, Mexico and Russia which were in a more difficult condition. He also studied Japan which was between them. That is, he studied three very different types of society. He drew different lessons from these societies and then formulated his view of history. This historical view was connected to his understanding of democracy from which he developed a theory that tried to make a contradiction-ridden democracy function.
  Japan is a very good environment to study broadly the kind of vision such as Yoshino’s but it is an open question whether in reality this kind of study is happening.

I felt the same thing when reading your essay on Yoshino Sakuzo. It seems to me that you are conducting a reinterpretation of Yoshino Sakuzo in a wider historical context.

But the problem is whether this kind of research is being done at this university. This is related to an advantageous point and a disadvantageous point of the University of Tokyo.
  The disadvantage is that while there are many people studying Japan, they are dispersed in various faculties and institutes so they can’t get together to work on one project. In comparison to Japanese studies institutes overseas which can conduct large projects, this appears to be a disadvantage.
  Supervision of undergraduate and graduate students is also dispersed. So the Faculty of Law solely conducts education of Japanese political and diplomatic history while the Faculty of Letters solely conducts education of history of Japan. The same thing can be said about the Faculty of Economics. Such a dispersed situation is a disadvantage.
  But this is also an advantage. These faculties all have different stances and they have strong tendency to try to grasp history or Japan as a whole based on their individual methodology since there are only one or two persons anyway. As the strength of history lies in its ability to look at things comprehensively, the effort of the Faculties to be comprehensive sometimes bring about good results. It is a characteristic of these Faculties to make strenuous efforts, in separation from each other, to conduct comprehensive research. It’s very interesting to talk to them from time to time (laugh).

Next I would like to ask about your opinion on Japanese Studies in Japan. How do you look at the differences and similarities between Japanese Studies in Japan and that overseas?

From my point of view, diplomatic and political history is still flourishing in Japan. This seems to contradict with the comprehensive approach characteristic of the University of Tokyo Faculties but it doesn’t. That is, it remain a truth that driving the history of any particular time period is political and diplomatic power. Looking at the whole through grasping this part of history is still recognized as the key, correct method.
  While abroad, however, I strongly feel the weakening of diplomatic history. This is an outstanding feature. Instead of diplomatic history, there is global history. In my opinion, global history is good for exploring the multiplicity and multifaceted nature of history without being constrained by inter-state relations or formations of states.
  On the other hand, a major feature of modernity is maximum centralization of resource and power in the sovereign state. Any state which succeeded in this centralization tends to wield greater power and maintain its independence. As such, it is hard to deny the role of diplomatic and political history.
  This difference between Japan and overseas is likely related to institutional differences of universities. At the University of Tokyo as well as other Japanese universities, Japanese diplomatic and political history is studied at the faculty of law. Diplomatic and political history is then considered a part of political science which means this history is a part of science since political science is a science. Being science means that no matter how small a test tube is, when a new cell is discovered there, it counts as a scientific discovery, and if the cell is a lie, then the tube is a lie.
  How important the object of study called Japan is for the world is perhaps not a question of fundamental significance in Japan. Japan is, however small it may be, important as far as some new cause and effect is discovered in it. In contrast, for Japanese Studies overseas it is vital to show Japan is important so scholars study how to explore the multiple causal relationships that Japan exercised on the world in the framework of global history. There is no good or bad for these two approaches as long as we recognize the values of both and compete with each other.

Since the two approaches are two kinds of style, they may actually reinforce each other through competition.

Right. More and more excellent PhD dissertations on Japan in foreign languages are coming out including those on diplomatic and political history. We will soon be embarrassed if we still think only Japanese are reading a lot of primary sources and know a lot.

You look quite concerned.

Yes, very concerned. If you compare the speed in which they learn to read Japanese source materials with the speed in which we learn to read research materials in English, it is clear that they work harder. In Japan, there are still a lot of people who read Japanese source materials, read research on Japan and think in Japanese without reading materials from overseas. There are a lot of good research among them. It is a shame that they are not made known to showcase Japanese Studies in Japan.

Do you think it is necessary to change the research methods and style used in Japan so far?

Yes, we need be more global.

Talking about global, you may know the Global Japan Studies network established in 2014 at the University of Tokyo, the purpose of which is exactly as you said to connect Japanese Studies overseas with that in Japan and create dialogues between them. We invite senior professors from the University of Tokyo to give lectures and also provide a seminar platform for researchers overseas and junior scholars to present their research. With more funding in the future, we plan to organize large symposiums and conferences as well as publication. However as you also referred to, due to a variety of reasons, not everybody is necessarily interested in our events. Another big problem is that we cannot widely advertise our events because there is not a cross-university channel for us to do so. Each faculty of the University of Tokyo is a separate world and students in faculties and institutes other than our own don’t know about our events. There is no efficient method to publicize. This is becoming our bottleneck. In view of problems such as this, what advice and comments would you share with us for building up the Global Japan Studies network?

I learned a lot from your introduction of the Global Japan Studies project. While still not familiar with it, I think a general question is how to develop it. Are you planning symposiums that students can participate?

Our events are arranged as multiple in academic levels so as to enable participation by everybody including undergraduate students.

I see. Is English the working language?

For lectures which are given by professors of the University of Tokyo and from overseas, Japanese is often used during Q & A sessions. Seminar talks given by junior scholars are all in English. But we don’t stick to English. Japanese is fine as long as the content is of broad perspective. In other words, in terms of working language we are basically open.

I share your view. Eventually, language becomes the biggest barrier. Japanese are very serious people and they tend to think they need study English very hard and become able to conduct discussion in English. But the most important thing is to communicate, even in Japanese, with people from overseas and get used to the atmosphere in which people think and talk. The motivation to study English follows from that. In other words, no need to be overly idealistic.
  Thanks to the initiative of Prof. Hiroshi Mitani, I am currently working with Profs. Masashi Haneda of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia as well as Prof. Tanimoto Masayuki of the Faculty of Economics in planning international conferences on Meiji Restoration. The key point here is to always use perfect simultaneous interpretation service. People either find English or Japanese difficult, or are concerned that they can’t join regular discussion due to differences between languages even though they don’t find learning languages that difficult. With simultaneous interpretation, there will be no problem.
  So we try to gain people’s understanding and obtain funding in creating a space of stress-less international discussion. Looking forward at the 150 anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, we seek accumulation of exchanges on this historical event between Europe, U.S., and Japan. In any case, without so doing, it is extremely difficult to bring research expertise of Japanese Studies accumulated in Japan to overseas audience. We want to focus on this part in the coming 2-3 years.

Is this conference a series or a one-time event?

It is a series. Each conference a large project of 2-3 years and will be convened overseas and in Japan. In case of Japan, we are thinking of reviving the topos or geographical sense of the shift of the capital in the Meiji Restoration from Kyoto to Tokyo by moving the conference venue from Kyoto to Tokyo.

First in Kyoto and then in Tokyo.

That’s right. Many people from other non-English countries have difficulty with English so it is important to have discussions at a universal venue. In other words, linguistic expansion will bring about reduction of stress.

Right. To begin with, there is no need to consider English as a universal language.

You are right.

There are a lot of cases where English doesn’t have expressions for comparable Japanese.


You made many good points.

One good example is my recent research; I am working on another topic: political history of haiku.

That sounds very interesting. (Laugh)

But translation is extremely difficult. (Laugh)

If not impossible.

Almost impossible. So I am helped by a foreign scholar of Haiku. The translation is progressing little by little.

Haiku’s political history. Does the project fall into a particular time period?

It is after the Sino-Japanese War at the end of 19th century. That is the period when Masaoka Shiki and others tried to revive Haiku and Haikai. It is also the period when opposition party was being formed and started activity. There is a relationship between the creation of a spiritual basis for the continuous activity of a disadvantaged minority opposition party and the revival of Haiku. I want to look at that relationship.
  Scholars overseas will understand what I want to do but when talking to Japanese scholars, some of them show less interest as they tend to see the project as halfway between history of literature and political history, belonging to neither. As this Haiku project originated from my conversations with overseas scholars who think in the large framework of Japanese Studies, I keenly felt the merit of exchange.

Thank you for the valuable advice and observation. Be multi-lingual. I would like to think of Global Japan Studies as a multilingual institution.


We will adopt your advice in our future development of Global Japan Studies. Thank you very much for the interview today.

Prof. Iokibe Kaoru and interviewer(Yijiang Zhong)