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A Conversation with the Critical Asian Studies Collaborative, July 30, 2012

Conveners Hiromi Mizuno, Chris Isett, and Travis Workman

Hiromi Mizuno talks to Amir Hussain about the collaborative’s mission.

The Critical Asian Studies Collaborative, as its name implies, proposes to critically examine both popular conceptions of Asia along with dominant approaches to Asian Studies.

The Asia that Westerners typically imagine is the product of a long intellectual history of objectifying and exoticizing the continent—both its people and its practices. This history of “othering” was first defined by the scholar Edward Said in his landmark work “Orientalism,” a work that has greatly informed the field of postcolonial studies since its publication in 1978.

“This Orientialist perspective has really dominated the West’s way of knowing Asia for centuries, and it still affects us today in significant ways,” explains Hiromi Mizuno, Professor of History. “What is the Asia that Americans usually think of? What is the Asia that we have been taught? And how did we get to think of Asia in the way that we do?”

“Asia is in no way a definite entity. There is no fixed geographical region called Asia. In different time periods and to different people, Asia was defined differently. For some people, it included the Middle East; for others, it just meant East Asia. We still want to use the term ‘Asia,’ but with a more critical awareness that does not reinforce an exoticized imaginary,” says Mizuno.

A Center for Critical Asian Studies

Partly an intellectual investigation, and partly a program building effort, the Collaborative seeks to convene a range of faculty members and international scholars working in Asian Studies to redefine research approaches and at the same time to bolster these research approaches with curricular development aimed at creating and teaching new undergraduate and graduate coursework in Critical Asian Studies.

The conveners envision and expect to propose a Center for Critical Asian Studies that will act as a shared space for scholars of Asia to collaborate on projects, present new research models, and develop teaching curriculum that will contribute to critical examinations of Asia. Part of the vision for the Center is to bring scholars from Asia to the University of Minnesota, and also to send students to study abroad in Asian universities and colleges for short courses. The Center would also do outreach programs to reach K-12 education.

Intra-Asian Relations

One particular important point of emphasis for the Collaborative will be to encourage and support scholars specializing in Asia to look at “intra-Asian interactions and intra-Asia connections,” in addition to the standard look at West-Asia relations. The interactions between Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, for instance, are experiencing a “relatively new phenomenon” where Japanese popular media (television and music) is broadcast to Korean households, and Korean pop to Japanese.

“At the same time, Asian popular culture has really become popular globally…so that if you go to a Barnes & Noble in the United States today, you will see three to four shelves filled, from floor to ceiling, with translated Japanese graphic art,” says Mizuno.

Mizuno, who teaches Japanese history, and whose research looks at Asia during the Cold War period, would like to see Critical Asian Studies “re-examine the so-called ‘economic miracle of Asia.’” According to Mizuno, this “miracle” of economic productivity continues to mistake a cultural imaginary for historical reality:

“Popular discourse says that a Confucian work ethic, high rates of education, strong family ties, and disciplined workers are the reasons behind why many East Asian countries have economically succeeded. But this thinking ignores the 50 years of Cold War geopolitics that has helped Asia. Analyzing the flow of money and people within Cold War Asia (between and among Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia) in the context of cold war geopolitics and foreign policies would be one concrete way of doing Critical Asian Studies.”

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