Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Erased No Longer

Nakahama Manjirō (1827-1898), circa 1880, Millicent Library collection (public domain)

Since 1992, May has been officially celebrated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States, and with good cause. The choice of May reflects two historic events: 1) the arrival of the first known Japanese immigrant to the United States on May 7, 1843; and 2) the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869. The former of these dates is more symbolic than it is representative, since Nakahama Manjirō (“John Mung”), the young fisherman who arrived in the United States as a shipwrecked sailor, could not have foretold the waves of immigrants he has since been made to represent.

Although Manjirō’s place in history has been secured by the happenstance of his arrival and his subsequent actions as a liaison between Japan and the United States, just the opposite might be said of the group of laborers noted by the second date highlighted in May. The approximately 20,000 Chinese laborers upon whose physical sacrifices the historic Transcontinental Railroad was built are notable not only for their backbreaking labor, but for their erasure from the photos and celebrations of this historic feat. Hired to do much of the hazardous work often shunned by white laborers, the Chinese workers found themselves deliberately excluded from the highly public commemoration upon the railway’s completion. This, too, is part of the heritage of the month. Both of these events in May thus mark two symbolic aspects of Global Asias, the happenstance of shipwrecks and diplomacy, and public erasure. In fact, the designation of this month is meant to remind us of the significance of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders within the fabric of the United States—historically, culturally, politically, economically, and spiritually.

“Across the Continent. The snow sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From a sketch by Joesph Becker.” Originally printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Vol. 29, February 6, 1870 (public domain).

These aspects teach us of the importance of histories and heritage, not as fixed narratives, but as shifting resources in defining a group of people, both internally and externally. This is a turbulent history marked by racial violence, exclusionary legislation, wartime incarceration, and labor strife. This is a heritage suffused throughout the American landscape with food, music, art, media, and spiritual practices. Whether exoticized through orientalist tropes, erased through model minority stereotypes, or normalized through middle-class consumer culture, the heritage highlighted this month asks us to query what such recognition might mean.

The field of Asian Studies plays no small role in contributing to that recognition. This is especially true as Asian Studies embraces the diasporas within its realm—that is, Global Asias. Noting histories and cultures based in, but not limited to, origins in Asia makes the heritage celebrated in this AAPI month rich and dynamic and complex. This is heritage that queries race and its practices. This is heritage that includes the vulnerability and violence of systemic racism—from Yellow Peril to internment to anti-Asian pandemic-fueled scapegoating. And lastly, this is heritage that dots the American landscape, both contributing to regional richness, as well as partaking of different local iterations. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders take their place, erased no longer, seated at tables of their making. This AAPI Heritage Month celebrates the complexities of the Global Asias feast.

Pushed and Prodded to a Career Highlight

Christine R. Yano, AAS President (2020-21)

As I write this, the first virtual AAS Annual Conference is still going on. It has been a strangely floating experience for me, with heights of exhilaration (music!) as well as deep poignancy for the contact that cannot be. A big thank you to the AAS Secretariat staff, who pulled this off with energy, commitment, creativity, and sheer hard work.

In thinking through this past year as President of AAS, I am humbled, awed, and truly grateful for this opportunity. I am grateful to my immediate predecessors, especially Laurel Kendall, Katherine Bowie, Anne Feldhaus, and Prasenjit Duara. They set the bar high in their integrity and commitment. I think back to that phone call from Laurel way back in March of 2018, asking if I would consider running for Vice-Presidency of AAS. I was flabbergasted to be asked. My main question to Laurel was, “What is it really like?” Laurel’s response: “It was the highlight of my career.” Having come to the end of my term as President, I agree.

But I’d like to say something about what that highlight means. This year has given me the opportunity to put all of my values into action. And that includes some values that were really brought to the fore because of crises. The pandemic is what shuttered us all, including AAS, from the Boston meeting on. Shuttering meant that strange mix of life-in-place that kept evolving, living in fear and loss as we moved from novelty cleaning to stress eating to Zoom burnout. The pandemic under the past U.S. administration enabled not only physical fears, but emotional outrage as incidents of anti-Asian racism swept and continue to sweep the country. The racial incidents that provoked the Black Lives Matter movement gave rise to calls from membership for AAS to turn the mirror upon itself and consider how Black Lives Matter within the field of Asian Studies. It is a question that had never been asked of the Association, and for which there has been prompt and ongoing response, including a Digital Dialogues session and a plenary panel at this conference.

The highlight includes thinking through how an organization like this might best function and why. Going through the Governance Review (still underway) is a mind-cleansing process that makes us all think deeply about how values might be best put into effective action. The Strategic Planning process, under the leadership of incoming President Hy Luong and with your input, will continue this important conversation. I would like to thank Executive Director Hilary Finchum-Sung, who was able to look at AAS with fresh eyes and suggest that we strengthen our organizational practices and goals.

In sum, the highlight of my career means that I was pushed and prodded to the task. It meant that I was forced to enunciate publicly what I felt many of us were going through privately. Because of the intensity of the year, that highlight has been etched deeply with both challenges and rewards. The highlight burns brightly exactly because of the depth of its etching. Those rewards include new friendships and opportunities, with particular high regard for people who step up to the plate and come out swinging. That high regard intensifies, knowing that for many, the times are tough and the swinging is not easy.

In all, I thank you for this opportunity, for this year that has stunned me. There is more work to be done. Global Asias is just getting off the ground. You will read more in the November issue of the Journal of Asian Studies with a forum and presidential address. You will see and hear more in Honolulu next March, with speakers and in-person opportunities, thanks to the support from the Henry Luce Foundation. More importantly, I hope that the concept and framework of Global Asias might give many pause for thought in their research and experiences. We live Global Asias lives that might be made perhaps more legible by this pause.

The work will begin with a project on Oral Histories, whether embarked on during my time as an officer or not. The project that was supposed to begin with a soft opening during the Boston 2020 meeting may advance anew. But we needn’t wait for organizational structures. We can begin talking with one another, learning about the pasts that have brought us to this present. We can record and pass on these conversations to better understand the field that was undoubtedly built upon the shoulders of others, but must proceed with fresh aspirations and new questions.

Most importantly, the work will begin through leaderships large and small. The Hawaiian concept of kuleana can guide us, not only because of the responsibility that it invokes, but more importantly because of the community that acts as its overarching force. Your kuleana actions matter, from mentoring students and colleagues to agreeing to run for AAS councils to serving on book award committees. Kuleana means that AAS is truly yours by your actions, to be shaped by your own values and commitments and efforts.

I join you in this endeavor and thank you again for such a rich and challenging opportunity.

Christine R. Yano
AAS President, 2020-21

Charting Shared Futures

Picture of a compass
Image by Mario Aranda from Pixabay

Greetings from Honolulu where there have been recent snow sightings on the peaks of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Haleakala! For us, this calls for the annual donning of socks and sweatshirts, cherished because it is inevitably short-lived.

The AAS Board of Directors just completed its day-long retreat to tackle thorny issues of governance under the guidance of an external professional, and I must say that it was time and money well spent. Our goal: to rethink how we might serve and lead membership with purpose and transparency. The issues of governance include the infrastructure of the organization itself, from domains of authority and practices of decision-making, to lines of communication between membership, board, officers, and staff.

There are many and further steps to take in this process, but I appreciate the opportunity to take the time for a self study. All of us could use such pause for thought, as individuals, families, members of organizations, and institutions. At AAS, as elsewhere, we have done things out of habit based on past needs and social, political, and financial environments. All of these moving parts change, while our habits often remain the same.

Make no mistake, not all habits are bad. Many of these have given us stability, especially with the commitment of hard work and dedication by staff and Board members. We have weathered historic storms of pandemic and political turmoil and continue to tackle these issues head on. We are weathering further storms of staff changes and restructurings. We have our first attempt at a Virtual Annual Conference looming before us. In short, we face many challenges at this very moment. And yet, this is as good a time as any, and in many ways the perfect time to remove us from our frenetic pace to think through who, why, and how we are.

There may be some discomfort in this, especially as people are inevitably invested in who and how we were. But the questioning only reinforces the significance and constancy of the WHY. That is what holds us together—a commitment to research and personal investment in Asia, broadly defined. That is what compels us to move forward, perhaps extending our reach, broadening the invitation, making sure that we afford opportunities of inclusion. We may even broaden the WHY with new frameworks and questions. There is such great potential in being able to script our future by design, rather than happenstance, including aspects of the design that remain deliberately open-ended. This is what I find exciting about the governance review. It helps us identify what we do well, but perhaps even more importantly, how we can do better.

Reviewing our governance practices is the first step but certainly not the last. This review goes hand in hand with discussing the organization’s strategic mission and plan. We will embark upon this in the coming months and involve membership in the process. AAS is its membership, if nothing else. You can help by jumping the gun and asking, what does AAS mean to me? What do I want to get out of it? How can I help make this happen? Where would I like AAS to be in five years, ten years, or more?

I know, for many of us, AAS is not only a forum for intellectual exchange across national, institutional, and disciplinary boundaries, but also the opportunity to see old friends and make new ones. For many of us, the Annual Conference is often our only chance to see each other. As the years accrue, that commitment to friendships may forge into a commitment to the organization that helps create these ties. How might we extend those friendships and thereby extend the organization?

One way might be through what I have mentioned previously—Global Asias. By adopting a more fluid approach to Asia, I suggest embracing its diasporic expansions that have taken on a life of their own. That life includes central issues of race and ethnicity often inflected by empire, as well as settler colonialisms. By adopting a more dynamic approach across time and space, I suggest embracing the shifting movements that have occurred historically and transnationally. We have formed a subcommittee to discuss the many possibilities of Global Asias within the structures of AAS. I will be talking on the subject during my presidential address, “Global Asias: Building Bridges of Collaboration, Crisis, and Critique.” On Monday, March 22 from 3-4:30 EST there will also be a presidential panel on the topic, “Global Asias: Undisciplining as an Emergent Field,” with leading scholars, many of whom have never before presented at AAS. Please do come! And if you would like to be part of the planning of the future of Global Asias within AAS, please send me an email. I am all ears!

Another way of extending our scope is through the multi-pronged AAS Digital Dialogues (with many thanks to Maura Cunningham). This forum has provided a wonderful flex point in the organization, moving between the practical to the topical. Because of the relative ease and speed with which we are able to put together and electronically engage in an open forum, the Digital Dialogues series has allowed AAS to tackle issues of critical importance to the growing field. These include Asian Studies and Black Lives Matter (7/22/20), Promoting Gender Equity and Fair Practices in Asian Studies (10/14/20), Critical Muslim Studies (1/29/21 and 2/26/21), Black China Trailblazers (2/8/21), and the upcoming Queering Our Worlds: A Tribute to Mark McLelland (2/25/21). That is only a partial list, but gives a sense of the vibrancy with which the online potential for interaction, including its electronic shelf-life, is being realized. The growth and direction of that list is determined in part by you, with the invitation to propose future Digital Dialogues and steer our conversations.

Change is afoot, as is always and inevitably the case. But change need not be chaotic. The point of our thinking through governance, strategic planning, and initiatives such as Global Asias and Digital Dialogues is to guide that change to best serve members and the broader Association.

Let me close by asking your help, providing feedback, adopting leadership as your own, and thus shouldering the future of the Association for Asian Studies. We await your voice as we welcome your actions.

With warmest regards,

Christine R. Yano
AAS President, 2020-21

Creating New Hybrid Futures Together in 2021

Image of "Happy New Year" written in the sand

To all,

Shinnen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Happy Year of the Ox! I write this on New Year’s Day, although I know that it will not be posted until a few days later. In Honolulu, the weather is a cool 73 degrees, breezy, and a little rainy, which is good for washing away the red-paper remains of firecrackers. The city was once again awash in fireworks on New Year’s Eve, a good portion of it in defiance of state laws. (Note that these are private fireworks, not municipal or commercial displays.) The cacophony is less than it used to be, say, twenty years ago when the noise built up to a deafening crescendo at midnight and the air used to be murky with smoke for hours afterward. But it goes on nevertheless as a Chinese-qua-local cultural practice that has been impossible to squelch, no matter the laws and the pleas to regulate behavior. Some traditions die hard, even as they take on new meaning.

In past years, the cacophony felt celebratory and exhilarating. This year, of course, is different as the cloud of COVID shrouds our psyche. I am sure that some people celebrated, and with good cause, as I saw extended families gathered around tables set up in garages for meals, while others held Zoom parties (one inveterate party-host that I know held a 49th annual three-day New Year’s party, which is still going on as I write this). Ties of families and friends are always cause for celebration. But for me, this could not be a year of such breezy cheer. Instead, poignancy hangs in the air.

That poignancy builds upon the sheer gravity of the past year, in which too many people lost loved ones or suffered themselves. Indeed, as our pandemic drags on, reports about “long COVID” and viral mutations add new worries. The suspense of this long reveal is wearing me down. And I am still only talking about the disease itself, not the many social, psychological, and economic repercussions of our COVID era. I haven’t even mentioned the anti-Asian racism that accompanied the pandemic, nor the Black Lives Matter movement that begs us to pay attention and act.

This year I received a number of holiday cards to the tune of “Good riddance 2020.” I sympathize with that snap emotion. But that’s assuming that we could or would want to rid ourselves of the experience of 2020. I don’t think so. There is no business-as-usual future for ourselves, our families, our students, or our institutions, including AAS. We’ve been forced to grapple with new possibilities, to accelerate our embrace of technologically-driven interaction, to reassess just what we value and why. These are not bad things. What 2021 challenges us with is creating new hybrid futures— in different office configurations, meeting strategies, educational practices, and even research methods. The bits and parts of these were there previously, but many of us ignored them in favor of older methods that we assumed to be best.

Those assumptions can no longer be taken for granted. Now everything we do has to be stitched together from possibilities selected from a wider range of options. Putting a panel together for a conference may be a mind-boggling opportunity no longer limited by who is physically available at a particular point in time. Dream panel? No problem. We’ve become kids in a virtual candy shop of interaction and ideas. The AAS Digital Dialogues series is already opening up and making that possibility very real. If you leave physical limitations behind, you can cook up fertile juxtapositions made possible through virtual interaction. No, it’s not the same as face-to-face, but this new mode has its own virtues. Furthermore, we can extend this dream-making to conferences, both annual and regional, with audiences likewise expanded well beyond who might be able to be physically present. By this point in time you, like I, must have received notice of wonderful talks held elsewhere and suddenly realized—now I can actually attend! There is no “good riddance 2020” here.

We have expanded certain possibilities even as socially-distanced dicta have contracted others. The enforced bodilessness of masked interactions has muzzled some of our emotions and given rise to others, as we understand even better how expression and feelings remain inextricably intertwined. It’s like trying to touch the world, but with gloves on: protection, prophylactics, shields, sheaths. We retreat to our physical bubbles of safety, whether defined by our offices, households, or neighborhoods. At the same time, we reach beyond to connect electronically. I can personally vouch for a different kind of Presidency of AAS as a result of the pandemic. No flying thousands of miles from Hawai`i for keynote speeches. Instead, I participate in Zoom meetings with the Board, virtual conferences, and even old-fashioned phone calls. My carbon footprint thanks me for staying put. Yes, I would have truly loved to meet all of those people—you!—in person, but I also recognize the bodily wear and tear and the environmental impact of those many flights. With all of these lessons learned, there is no “good riddance 2020” here either.

In Hawai’i at this time of year we say, HAU’OLI MAKAHIKI HOU! Commonly translated as “Happy New Year,” this greeting marks not a day, but a season of rest, renewal, and feasting. I take it as a time set aside for contemplation and incorporation. Not “good riddance,” nor looking ahead to business-as-usual, but stepping back and allowing ourselves a rest-and-renewal period to more fully digest the tumult of the year’s experiences. All of us have experienced 2020 differently, from deaths, hardships, and deep anxiety to the quiet celebrations of new PhD’s, new publications, new births, and new relationships. Let us join together in 2021 by renewing our own commitment to integrity, scholarship, pedagogy, and friendships built in and through Asian Studies. We celebrate new beginnings, yes, but these beginnings build on both our losses and gains of the past year. These new beginnings of incorporation help us greet 2021 with eyes open and arms outstretched, even as our mouths remained masked.

See you around—in the disembodied world of electronic gatherings, whether in regional meetings or the AAS virtual Annual Conference or in Digital Dialogues. Or even through what is now old-fashioned email. Together we face the challenges of 2021 with measured optimism. Stay tuned.

Christine R. Yano
AAS President, 2020-21

Header image by Pixabay contributor Engin_Akyurt.

President’s Column: Reflections on Leadership and Compassion

Greetings to all from across the Pacific! Autumn is only a concept in Hawai`i, since our temperatures do not fall and neither do our leaves. We sweat through Halloween and keep our beach towels on the clothesline for ready use. This fall, however, was momentous because of the U.S. Presidential election. The many firsts of Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris are historic: Black-Asian American, multiracial, female, of immigrant parents (Jamaican father, Indian mother). Her words in a speech after the election was called for the Biden-Harris ticket on November 7—she may be the first, but she certainly won’t be the last—give hope for generations of leaders to come. Both the U.S. Presidential election and (on a much, much smaller scale) holding this position at the Association for Asian Studies make me think long and hard about leadership.

I’ve been reading 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, by Deng Ming-Dao, and was struck by a passage: “Those who follow Tao avoid . . . becoming the ruler, for such a position is fraught with danger, hypocrisy, and disappointment. . . . If they must rule, they use compassion as their standard” (p. 164). This struck me for two reasons: (1) the notion of a reluctant ruler; and (2) compassion as the standard bearer of leadership. I want to extend the second of these, because I feel that it can guide the moment for us.

Compassion is what binds us one to another. It is the fundamental tie that reaches out from the heart. Compassion calls us to action in ways that empathy does not. If you look up the word, you see how it is rooted in suffering and the strong desire to help another in need. The strength of compassion lies in the possibility that we are all sufferers of sorts. The word embeds “passion” within it, so that one who is compassionate is pulled by the heart. In fact, we are compelled by heart. Thus, if compassion becomes our standard bearer of leadership then we are active in reaching out and caring. We are actively kind. We don’t lead with compassion so much as follow compassion’s lead.

I want to suggest that through the pandemic, through the overturning of our lives, through the political turmoil not only of the past four years but of centuries of systemic, often racially based, violence, we need compassion. I don’t have the wisdom or strength to understand how to find compassion for the cruelest out there. I leave that to saints or angels, of which I am neither. But at the very least, we can hold on to compassion as our guide in taking steps within our control. We need to follow compassion’s lead in healing ourselves. We need to find the compassion to be kind to ourselves. There’s leadership in that.

There’s also leadership in taking compassion as a guide in how we deal with others. There’s leadership in holding a sharp tongue in check, in taking a deep breath and listening. There’s leadership in softening classroom demands when students are struggling. We are all struggling. There’s leadership in a smile. We are living through extraordinary challenges that require extraordinary means. My hope is that compassion can lead us all to better mental, social, and even professional health. I raise a glass to that!

I would be remiss if I did not convey some of the activities that are going on at AAS. As you know, the Annual Conference will be held virtually for the first time in March 2021. Conference Manager Robyn Jones and others at the Secretariat have been working tirelessly to ensure that this new mode of conferencing not only goes smoothly, but also productively. Undoubtedly, some version of online conferencing will be with us from now on—so I look forward to taking some lessons from this one in reducing our carbon footprint as we carry on the business that we so enjoy of socializing and sharing in the field of Asian Studies.

Changes are afoot as we launch our first ever formal governance review. As with many organizations, AAS has grown organically, which means that at times our practices have been ad hoc. We—the Board, the Executive Director, the staff—with the guidance of a professional governance consultant are all investing a considerable amount of time in developing regularized structures and modes of interaction that will help us best serve the goals of the AAS membership. Among other things, I’d like to develop stronger, more open feedback mechanisms so that members can communicate their thoughts and concerns directly to the Board. This is truly not an “us–them” structure so much as an “us–us” one. To that end, there will be town hall meetings at Annual Conferences, as well as communication channels for more immediate concerns (stay tuned for more details).

We might also consider Digital Dialogues as an appropriate venue for these communications to take place. This is already happening in terms of area councils (next up: Open House with the South Asia Council on November 13). This is one of the newfound benefits of our push to virtual interaction: it opens up possibilities that we hadn’t really considered before. And here is where we come back to the topic of leadership: I encourage you to engage actively in AAS by running for area council representative, attending Digital Open Houses as you see fit, becoming involved in AAS regional organizations, donating as you can and choose, communicating your concerns, sending ideas for future Digital Dialogues, and expressing gratitude where it is due. These are all forms of leadership.

Leadership takes work. It is the notion of shared leadership—that is, shared engagement, shared challenges, shared accomplishments, shared kuleana (Hawaiian for responsibility)—that broadens the base and makes our endeavors worthwhile. Thank you for all of your efforts. May we fully embrace compassion as our lead.

With aloha,

Christine Yano

The Campfire of Values

The 2020 meeting of AAS-in-Asia wrapped up in splendid fashion with a splashy media presentation and warm farewells. Many thanks to Joe Haldane and the IAFOR staff for stepping in and making the event possible with their can-do attitude and energetic efforts. It was my first full all-virtual conference and one could see very much our future. Granted, there were some technological glitches, not the least among academics like you and me who had not done this before. But my overall take-away was excitement over the possibilities of this future-in-the-present virtual meeting. Make no doubt about it, this is not the same as meeting face to face, and we all rue the loss of being able to socialize and reconnect that is such a valuable part of conferences. But there are valuable take-aways that we should focus upon, such as putting together panels without regard for physical distance, and doing so with minimal environmental impact.

The wrap-up of the conference, and for me its intellectual highlight, was the closing panel, “New Threats to Academic Freedom,” organized by Krisna Uk (AAS) and Dimitar Gueorguiev (Syracuse University), with speakers Jeff Kingston (Temple University in Japan), Zaharom Nain (University of Nottingham in Malaysia), Dede Oetomo (independent scholar, Indonesia), and Kimkong Heng (from Cambodia; graduate student at University of Queensland, Australia). With about seventy attendees, I found the diversity of experiences both moving and absolutely critical to the message. The panel sharply reminded me of some of the important and engaged work that can be done in the name of conferences—that is, to create a campfire of values around which we gather. Coming together amplifies those values, etches them ever more deeply through their repetition, and creates “solidarity through scholarship” (the theme of the 2020 AAS-in-Asia conference).

As each panelist described the situation in their own country, it reminded me of the ways in which we hold academic freedoms dear, as well as the costs to individuals and to institutions in doing so. Censorship—overt and covert, imposed from above, incorporated internally—looms large to silence individuals who espouse “inconvenient” topics and still their actions. The panelists presented a litany of very real threats that form an arsenal of academic silencing; these include instances of bodily harm, unexplained “disappearances,” surveillance, edited documents, erasures from official history, and denial of funding of particular scholars and projects. The benefit of the virtual format is that I could download comments from the chatroom. I include some here with editing to remove people’s identifiers:

I feel that I have more freedom in presenting my book abroad than within our own country. I feel that we have no freedom to express ourselves in the inter-faith discussion especially when we talk about religious intolerance of the majority religious group in our country, Indonesia.”

“Great panel on a very timely topic, which I hope AAS will continue covering. . . . Let’s talk  more about potential solutions & institutional allies that can help improve the current situation. So my question is: can international donors/ foundations—who fund research in countries with repressive regimes—become more aware and take some more active role to protect researchers? What about local or international media—who could expose abuses? What about local legislators—who could update laws that constrain freedom of expression?”

 “I’m just wondering about the strategies used to circumvent the silencing of critics, perhaps the role of satire and metaphor in these various contexts?”

The panelists provided some suggestions for reform and resistance, as quoted above, in some instances changing the system from within, creating strategies for intervention—in various ways living or talking through the balancing act of academic freedom in their particular home countries. This era of pandemic may provide its own unique challenges and opportunities for resistance. All of this comes at no small cost. And I thank the panelists and audience members for stepping up and sharing their experiences in this public forum. I also fully acknowledge those scholars who wanted to be a part of the panel, but could not for reasons directly shaped by censorship. (One of the issues with a virtual conference for those scholars who live under particular threat is the broader access to their words, especially with a broad span of ears listening.)

We in the United States do not typically face some of the more extreme forms of academic suppression detailed by the panelists, and for that I am extremely thankful. But we may live in our own illusion of academic freedom. We may steer students toward projects that are more likely to gain funding. We may steer ourselves away from controversy in the name of wanting to maintain access to research sites. Black scholars may confront racism and thus toe the line topically within the halls and processes of academia. Junior scholars may find it difficult to take on controversy as readily as might fully-tenured professors. Contingent faculty may, too, opt for safer topics amidst a long and continuing list of adjunct teaching obligations. The hierarchies of the profession shape our own experiences of academic freedom globally and affect our willingness to take on risk.

In the name of academic freedom, I call our collective attention to #ScholarStrike, which is set to run September 8-9 in the United States and September 9-10 in Canada. Organized by Professors Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon, the action calls for faculty to participate in a number of ways that express support for Black Lives Matter, and against police brutality, racialized violence, and systemic racism. #ScholarStrike is not a work stoppage, but it is a work pivot toward strategizing social justice.

Our campfire of values blazes ever more brightly as we live challenged by the political conditions in our midst. These political conditions go well beyond national boundaries to constitute global threats. The censorship suffered by one scholar threatens the academic freedom of us all. Listening to the dire conditions faced by some of our Asian brothers and sisters populating academic regimes elsewhere serves as a cautionary to hold these values dear and actionable. In short, this is a campfire whose embers need constant and active stoking in the name of responsible engagement. 

The campfire challenges us as it burns. It emblazons the message, “Asia at the Crossroads:  Solidarity through Scholarship.”

Convocation for a New School Year

I write this on the first day of classes at my university in our strange pandemic world of non-campuses and virtual classes. I mourn with the rest of you the losses incurred by the pandemic. We have lost lives and time and certain kinds of experiences. Few could have fathomed the degree to which we are all affected. We are ones who loved being students. We are ones who held dear so much about the privileges of the ivory tower: freshman year, dormitory living, picking classes like a kid in a candy shop, being surrounded by peers, meeting professors, even ceremonies such as convocations and graduations. So much of this has vanished in a flash.

However, if we take a step back, consider how we can take the pandemic as an opportunity to question the structures of that ivy tower. To what extent do those structures reinforce systemic violence and hierarchies? To what extent do they enable, as well as limit? How do we teach (and research) Asia to accommodate the flexibilities necessary to address our changing worlds?

Hierarchies are an interesting thing and I am not advocating for dismantling them completely. I acknowledge the role of hierarchies in addressing levels of achievement wrought by hard work (yes, achieved, not ascribed). I believe in the processes of review and assessment that are part of our hierarchically structured academic lives.

And yet, the power to exclude in the name of hierarchy is a sword that comes with deep responsibilities. For one, I feel that hierarchies need to be reimagined, made more flexible, or even questioned for their functionality. There is no longer a one-size-fits-all standard of achievement. In the same ways that we acknowledge different learning styles and different forms of intelligence (including social, emotional intelligence), so, too, might we work toward acknowledging different attributes of assessment that may go into building hierarchies. In the same ways that admissions offices may assess the “whole person” that includes scores, grades, essays, letters, family background, and extenuating circumstances, so, too, might we work toward acknowledging the multiple ways in which we as scholars may contribute to a field as broadly defined as Asian Studies. We fully acknowledge this need for flexibility at the lower levels (e.g., K-12 education, college admissions), but far less so at the higher levels of jobs and careers.

These thoughts have been very much on my mind as a colleague recently reminded me of the kinds of structural changes that are cause for concern. These have been intertwined with the pandemic, the radical rethinking forced upon us in the name of public health and slashed budgets giving college administrators greater license to enact changes that may have very well have been already in the works. Everyone, it seems, is running scared. My friend writes: “I am writing to you in a mood of desperation. Over the last week I have learned of two Japanese Studies scholars who have lost their jobs. One was an assistant professor on the tenure track; the other was a full professor with a long record of service to the field and to her school. Both are at small private liberal arts colleges. They lost their jobs through no fault of their own but only because their institutions—in the interest of financial feasibility—found their positions expendable.”

What to do?

Granted, this kind of “downsizing” or “reorganizing” is not new and has been going on for a number of years. I would like us to consider this on a number of fronts that have less to do with the specifics of this case: Japan Studies; small liberal-arts colleges. This is not a zero-sum game of competition for slots (e.g., Japan versus China). Rather, this situation is important for us to consider.

First of all, as institutions move away from areally focused programs and faculty hires, and toward the integration of area-based research as case studies for disciplinary issues, we have to retool, reframe, and perhaps retrain students for this reality. My hire, specifically as a Japan-focused anthropologist, will likely disappear after me. Even as we acknowledge this new reality, we need to continually make the case for the depth of our background knowledge (language, culture, history, etc.) in our specific areas, only gained through lengthy training, deep familiarity, and strong commitment. Furthermore, we need to not lose sight of what might be overlooked in a strictly disciplinary structure—that is, our strength in interdisciplinarity. This is what makes Asian Studies so valuable.

Secondly, we need to keep an eye on the importance of applied Asian Studies, including work in museums, organizations, businesses, private consultancies, and governmental agencies. We have to rethink these options as not mere Plan B careers, but newly configured Plan A’s. The kind of training that may be had through knowledge of Asia and its diasporas has vast implications for public life and policy. The challenge is to create these pathways, especially since our status quo training does little to prepare us for them. The boon is the opportunity to create a niche of one’s own, combining different skill sets and knowledge bases. AAS is trying to do its part in this regard through workshops on non-academic career paths at the Annual Conference. But even as I write this, I would like to move away from the negative implication in the term “non-academic” and toward “applied” or “engaged” Asian Studies.

Thirdly, we need to think through our research and teaching as Asian Studies scholars. The question is not so much, “What can we do to protect our fields?” As long as we remain in this mindset, we are limited by our own defensiveness. We have to go beyond and turn the questioning not only upon administrators and institutions, but most importantly on ourselves. The onus of responsibility should be on us to make sure that the field of Asian Studies itself has flexibility and therefore resilience. We need tensile strength in order to move forward. We have to make sure that what we teach may be esoteric, but also exoteric—that we stay connected, engaged, and relevant to the world around us. That world is rapidly changing; so, too, should be our approaches and teachings. If some of us are using lecture notes and materials from decades past, we should be rethinking their utility. I am not advocating newness for newness’ sake; rather, we have to critically examine our own embedded structures that include ideas, approaches, examples, and frameworks. Inertia has no place here, as our worlds swarm with crises, one after another. Our challenge is to respond creatively, critically, and productively. Indeed, we have to constantly hit the “refresh” button to remind ourselves of the importance of always examining our endeavors. We cannot take “refresh” as an assumption, but as a call to action, a call to reform. We can thank the pandemic for forcing upon us the opportunity that has always been there.

Perhaps administrators will take notice. I doubt that they will reinstate positions that have been lost. But they may notice a shift in Asian Studies as it broadens to include thematics that might be responsive to the times at hand. At that point, we may no longer need admonitions, such as “Asia Matters,” because Asia is already upon us. A reconfigured Asia will certainly matter in shaping a broad, inclusive view of the world. Asian Studies will thus go well beyond its nineteenth-century Orientalist cradle to embrace the many Asias that are part of our lives globally. Global Asias. It’s a lot to consider.

Welcome, then, to the first day of school in which nothing is business as usual—reconfigured classroom, semester, year, institution, organization, and community. Join us as we create a new Plan A. We hear the following refrain so often in our chaotic, pandemic-filled era: we’re in this together. Well, we are, whether knowledge of that shared bed provides comfort, support, or further anxiety. This is why my friend wrote the email that began, “I am writing to you in a mood of desperation.” Let us think through our desperate times together. And as part of our thinking through, let us commit to action. At the very least, we challenge ourselves and our fields through these crucial—even desperate—opportunities to be fully part of a new school.

Call this our convocation.

On the Inevitable Politics of Our Lives and Institutions

It has been fifty years since the Journal of Asian Studies published William Theodore de Bary’s by now iconic presidential address, “The Association for Asian Studies: Nonpolitical but not Unconcerned” (Aug. 1970, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 751-759). De Bary spoke in the context of very different, but not unrelated, times, marked by debates over the Vietnam War, as well as the rise of social and scholarly movements that included the Black Panthers, Women’s Liberation, and Ethnic Studies. De Bary’s address responded to fissures within the AAS, such as the formation of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, whose members expressed their criticism of the Vietnam War, and particularly of the complicity of the field of Asian Studies with U.S. international policy. 1970 represented highly public political times and divides—globally, nationally, and within institutions.

As part of this backdrop, 1970 gave birth to the restructuring of AAS into four area councils designed to give proportionate voice and equal representation in governance through the Board of Directors. That year also ushered in the first female President of AAS, cultural anthropologist Cora Du Bois, who succeeded De Bary. (Note: Du Bois had served as President of the American Anthropological Association just the year prior in 1969.)

My message to you today plants two seeds closely related to 1970.

Seed One: Politics of Everyday Lives

The first seed regards what I call the inevitable politics of our lives and institutions. Given the urgency of Black Lives Matter and the backdrop of global tensions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it seems an appropriate time to revisit AAS’s longstanding self-identification as a “nonpolitical organization.” The current groundswell clamor demands that we listen and examine ourselves, our institutions, and our histories as part of the process of connecting the dots and acknowledging larger structures of inequity and discrimination. I suggest that we shift what de Bary defined as the tipping point of political/nonpolitical because our times demand it. What do acts of police brutality and systems of racism, and civil protests against these, demand of us? Nothing less than that the details of who we are come under close and critical scrutiny. The era flags Hannah Arendt’s concept of politics, which demands active participation by citizens, guided by collective deliberation.

What our times require is that the necessary work of critical scrutiny and enunciations be reconfigured into practice, into active citizenship. These practices are not wholly new. AAS has been working to put values into action, through initiatives such as mentorship programs, graduate student travel support, international exchange grants, curricular support for K-12 educators, and a speaker series for institutions with underrepresented Asian Studies programs. Inspired and informed by our membership, we are seeking funding to expand these and other programs.

Part of what can be done has been ironically enabled by the pandemic shutdown and its forcible shift of our lives to online platforms. We can meet virtually and discuss ways in which AAS might better serve minority constituencies. To that end, we will be holding our first webinar on the topic, “Asian Studies and Black Lives Matter” on Wednesday, July 22, 7pm Eastern Standard Time. All members are invited to register and participate via Zoom.

Part of what needs to be done lies in questioning the processes of our organization. We should rethink and restructure to assure greater transparency and more widespread involvement. We should more clearly define our stakes and thereby build a broader base of committed stakeholders. Any culture of elitism and gatekeeping must give way to mentorship and support. Emphatically, we gain strength by learning from one another at all levels of the profession. In the spirit of generative communication, we will hold town hall discussions at our Annual Conference and through council open houses, as well as encourage broader dialogue and conversation with the membership in general. Now that our interactive possibilities have expanded virtually, these should not necessarily be confined to in-person annual meetings, but held on a regular basis virtually.

Seed One takes politics as the engagement and responsibility of AAS, not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we work. In a previous blog I mentioned the Hawaiian concept of “kuleana.” I invoke it here again as the principle of fundamentally conjoining engagement and responsibility, and doing so with community at its helm. Kuleana presupposes a commitment, an understanding that we are really part of something we cannot easily dismiss. This constitutes the Arendt-ian tipping point. Our communities are multiple: research communities, colleagues, institutional communities, families and social ties, places where we live. Engagement, responsibility, community: here lies kuleana politics at its core. The Black Lives Matter movement teaches us as committed scholars of Asia the importance of centering social justice, freedom from oppression, and that fragile, shifting negotiation called truth in our work. These times call upon us to recognize the inevitable politics of who we are and what we do. Ours is the fundamental commitment to the human spirit.

Seed Two: Global Asias

I will only touch upon Seed Two briefly here, with more to come in the not so distant future. Please note the exploratory nature of my remarks. At this point in time, these are suggestions and ideas, with a long road ahead of working through institutional mechanisms (including a Board of Directors vote and membership input) and budgetary considerations. I expect that process to be lengthy and not without controversy, but part of my point here is to plant the seed of an idea for future discussion.

Inasmuch as AAS structured itself fifty years ago through area-focused councils, I propose that we recognize both the value and limitations of that structure. Increasingly, our Asiatic worlds include intersections, crossings, mobilities, migrations, and diasporic communities that preclude a strict areal focus. AAS and its public face have tried to work within those areal silos while addressing existing research, realities, and concerns that cross those boundaries. The Journal of Asian Studies, for example, now has “transnational and comparative Asia” as a rubric for the interstices between areal foci. Likewise, the call for proposals for the Annual Conference uses a similar “inter-area/border crossing” category. In short, the makeshift categories exist, but do not necessarily do justice to the realities of research, on-the-ground structures, and people’s lives. I suggest we need to do more.

I would like to explore the possibility of a fifth council. We could call this potential council Global Asias, a rubric used most prominently with the Global Asias project of Penn State, including its signature journal Verge: Studies in Global Asias, but also including other institutional alignments, such as at the University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Connecticut, Miami University, Duke University, and others. This fifth council could serve many purposes, including acting as a bridge between AAS and the Association for Asian American Studies. Although the core issues that animate Asian and Asian American Studies have been historically very different, I think it is important that we structurally acknowledge and learn from each other. Among the core issues of Asian American Studies—from which Asian Studies can gain—is that of race and racialization. Note as well that Global Asias goes beyond Asian America to include those diasporic communities within Asia, both Americas, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Conceptualizing this globally is part of the point.

The details of Seed Two have yet to be worked out, and for this I sincerely welcome your input. It is my hope that by creating an institutional space for these diasporic considerations in Global Asias, we acknowledge both the common issues, as well as new framings that can bring greater meanings to kuleana-based research.

The tumult of 2020 is at least as demanding of our response as that of 1970 was. We must face it with all our resources and reasoning, and make active, political concern our motivating guide. Fifty years after de Bary’s pronouncement, we are still in turmoil, but that turmoil has meant that we are indeed political and, in fact, very concerned.

Sheltering in Place with Asian Studies

Warm greetings from Honolulu! Our pandemic lives filled with numbers define us and the places in which we live. Hawai`i: 643 cases confirmed, 589 recovered, 17 deaths. Sheltering in place and keeping tourists out have produced these optimistic results. Nevertheless, the pandemic globally has brought with it much pain, misery, loss of life, loss of resources. It has brought hunger, sickness, death, and heartbreak. It has highlighted the inequities in our society, so that those with the least are suffering the most. Our individual experiences differ greatly, from those active daily on the front lines, whom we thank mightily, to others of us privileged enough to shelter in place. We cannot predict how it will ultimately and fully impact us, but know that we all have rarely experienced a disaster on such a global scale. Importantly, part of the recipe for resilience lies in recognizing unforeseen opportunities, amidst a backdrop of widespread disaster. Let us consider just a few of these, with a focus on Asian Studies.

The pause in our lives imposed by the pandemic has given some of us expansive breathing room, thinking room, connecting room—paradoxically, as we cloister. We learn the point of the cloister itself, even as our four walls can feel claustrophobic with partners, children, and other obligations now around us constantly. Our close spaces have been defined by worries and fears. Many of us normally engaged in the breakneck speed of juggling careers, families, and communities have discovered a life centered upon the home. In the past we zoomed around with abandon and now we zoom in place with caution and concern. What has it meant to stay put, sometimes for days, weeks on end? How do public and private intersect when we rarely step outside? And how do these issues change daily and weekly as our governments engage in the processes of re-opening and rebuilding? There is no easy normal in this heavily laden world.

Pajamas — Drawing by David Ring, Europeana Fashion, via Wikimedia

What have become meaningful, surprisingly, are mundane things, like pajamas. Yes, pajamas—PJ’s, the soft, comfortable, loose-flowing stuff (pants and shirt) you are supposed to wear indoors, lounging or not. Pandemic pajamas, our daily uniforms. The word is actually of South Asian origin, derived from Hindustani (borrowed from Persian), and adopted throughout the Western world by way of the British empire. Men wore them first, then the rest of the family followed suit. In the word and concept of pajamas we invoke empire, public/private distinctions, and globalization. Pajamas in this empire view represent the privileges of home, and the luxury of differentiation (separate outfits for different times of day). The central feature of pajamas is unrestrictive comfort and ease (not a zipper in sight), private nighttime garb, designating its wearer as at home and in place, maybe even asleep. Pajamas assume there is a home to be had, including a sleeping place and special clothing to be worn there.

The distinctions (night/day, indoors/outdoors, leisure/work) are built into the empire concept of pajamas. Pajamas suggest informality, relaxation, and intimacy, only afforded as part of our at-home selves. Pajamas clad supposedly unguarded selves, sheltered and sheltering. They symbolize refuge and safety, whether alone or among consociates. Although there may have been exotic associations in their introduction to British home lives over two centuries ago, they are now thoroughly domesticated in the west, and by a kind of reverse globalization, back to “the east.” Pajamas, in their travels, take on local meanings and values: on a visit to China in 1980, a colleague witnessed indoor and outdoor pajama fashions in a department store and on the street: especially nice ones for street wear, but still with pastel ducks and bunnies, and more modest ones for home and bed. At the same time, fashion runways in global capitals have at various times trended pajamas as glamorous evening wear—shantung silk and designer jewels.

Our pandemic-bound lives are pajama lives of the frumpy sort—borrowing sartorial idioms of comfort and ease, even as our minds race through real and possible dis-comfort and dis-ease. We forego the normal distinctions made by their soft cotton. We can no longer tell the time of day by their presence. We jump into pajamas at night and sometimes rarely emerge from them throughout the day, ensconced in cocoons of comfort that home is supposed to represent. (The softness of pajamas extends to hair. As our hair gets increasingly shaggier—and for some, grayer—our reflected images become accustomed to that newfound fuzziness—shutting in, shutting out. Crispness has succumbed to wooliness. We shelter in our soft shagginess.)

By no means am I suggesting that the pandemic is one big pajama party. Far from it. The mounting death tolls, sheer exhaustion of health care workers, increased domestic violence, and staggering unemployment preclude such celebration. But pajamas—with their Asian histories and connections to empire, as well as their very cosmopolitan array today—remind us of the complications of our garbed lives. In this pandemic era, we mourn in pajamas, as we lament their daily wearing. We rejoice in pajamas, as we check in with friends to ask just how they are doing. The answers are never simple. We express our care in pajamas that expose our vulnerabilities one to another. And in these various pajama-infused processes, we recognize that Asia (and Asian Studies) has played a part in defining us, no matter how we are clad. These pandemic days and nights remind us of the core of who we are, with long-term commitments that define our professional and personal lives. Sheltering in pajamas, we embrace the concerns that take us across the Pacific and within our Chinatowns, knowing that our loosely-clad selves swaddle deep ties and values. Our connections to Asia and Asian Studies may be intellectual, but padding about in our pajamas, isolated in our own spaces, we retrieve personal connection, even intimacy, with the people and emotions that define the global perspective of this field we take as home. What is the value of Asian Studies in our pandemic world? The value lies in its capaciousness, in the hominess of its global and historical perspectives it offers, and in its grasp of pajamas as a means of drawing far-flung peoples—our friends, our kin, our community—in close. The value of Asian Studies lies in embracing and being embraced by our extended global homes, warts and all. Perhaps a pajama party is not such a bad thing after all.

Asian Studies in a Time of Pandemic

AAS President Christine R. Yano

Greetings from lush Manoa Valley in sunny Honolulu! It is a strange time to become AAS President with the cancellation of our Boston conference and the realization of just how important these meetings are in renewing our friendships and ties to each other. We all feel the loss deeply. Many thanks to those who generously donated their conference registration fee to AAS, helping make our continuation as an institution that much more financially feasible. However, well beyond finances, the loss is keenly felt. Many hopes were laid in the months of careful planning, including that of a newly configured local arrangements committee which had created a rich showcase highlighting the best of Boston. Personally, one of my disappointments was not being able to soft-launch the AAS Oral History project—a new initiative to conduct and collect oral histories of Asian Studies scholars, beginning with our organization, but extending in the future well beyond. I will detail this project in a future letter to the membership.

But for now, I return to the present, and to my desk with a view, where everything looks as unchangingly beautiful as always, but nothing remains the same. We are living a nightmarish game-changer. Our days and minds are filled with numbers, projections, fears, Zoom meetings, and the strange newfound experience of time on our hands. We are mostly busy people, who just barely squeeze 25 hours in a day. But I know that now my house has hardly been cleaner, my dog never walked as much. Our at-home activities take place in the name of an enforced pause button in our lives that are anything but paused. Instead we linger through our days preoccupied with the unknowable future amidst wholly new contexts of balancing childcare, home schooling, elder care, stopped research and tenure clocks, and more. People are writing wills; they are baking cherished family recipes as never before. We search for textures that stop clocks and offer comfort that feels familiar. As of the time of this writing, I personally do not know anyone suffering from COVID-19, much less died from it. My heart goes out to those more directly affected. But the threat looms large and captures us all.

That threat has taken on a particularly pernicious turn in the form of anti-Asian racism. Although the pandemic’s epicenter has moved away from Asia to Europe and the United States, some segments of the population still cling on to the image of China qua Asia as holding the blame of its origins. Certain political leaders have inflamed this sentiment by repeatedly calling it the “Chinese virus.” Expectedly, this nomenclature has ugly consequences that call up long histories of yellow-peril racism in the United States and elsewhere. As Cathy Park Hong, Korean American author of Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, says, “Anti-Asian racism has come roaring back with the coronavirus scare.” That racism strikes fear in the hearts of Chinatowns, Japantowns, Little Saigons, Little Manilas, and other Asian American enclaves throughout the United States. The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has led to the creation of a website to track these attacks, Stop AAPI Hate. Newly launched by Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and organized by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) and Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), the website acts as a repository of reported incidents in English, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Khmer. In its first week (March 19-26, 2020), over 650 reported incidents ranged from verbal harassment to physical assault. And for those who have been targeted, Harvard University has gathered a compendium of legal, social, and mental health resources. It takes a village, and AAS is part of our village of interconnectedness, one to the other.

Those of us who work in the field of Asian Studies should not find anti-Asian hate crimes terribly surprising. Racism—whether in North America directed against Asians or within Asia directed against other peoples—is part of our sociopolitical landscape. Much of the work that we do in our different fields acknowledges, if not focuses upon, this kind of terrain. And yet, it is absolutely worthwhile noting its reappearance, here in the context of a global pandemic.

This kind of violence reminds us of ways in which Asians—including those within the geopolitical scope of continental and island Asias, as well as the many diasporic Asians across oceans and continents—may be bound together, not always by choice, but by fiat, through racism. As long as powerful naming practices label a pandemic a “Chinese virus” and thus lay the blame more broadly by association upon something called “Asia,” then Asian Studies must take note and consider such targeted racism part of our kuleana—a Hawaiian word, meaning responsibility, concern, stewardship.

The Association for Asian Studies connects us through kuleana to Asia. That kuleana may be intellectual, emotional, and personal. Some of us are of Asian ancestry and may embrace kuleana on a familial level. Others may not be consanguineally linked to Asia, but share strong affinal bonds. All of us have committed our careers to scholarship on Asia. I ask that we as Asian Studies scholars extend our kuleana inclusively to the many parts of Asias and Asians globally that may suffer as targets of public fears and real human loss.

In the midst of dire forecasts, I extend my own concern for the safety, health, and lives of yourselves and those you know. I hold utmost respect for the frontline health workers who tirelessly risk their own lives in the process of caring for others. I extend warm gratitude for the personal ties that have been created—in the name of Asian Studies, over virtual and in-person annual meetings (including AAS-in-Asia), in an overworked and highly committed office staff in Ann Arbor, in the regional huddles of friendship, and in the many bonds of collaboration centered upon our zeal for scholarship. My gratitude is heartfelt, undoubtedly heightened by a sense of shared, global crisis. We wash each others’ hands and feet as we maintain the social distance that draws us ever closer. Did saying “take care” ever mean so much?

Take care. Be well.

With gratitude,
Christine R. Yano

Meet the New VP: Christine Reiko Yano

Christine Reiko Yano is professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She will take office as the AAS vice president following the March 21-24 conference in Denver, Colorado.

I am an anthropologist of Japan with research on popular culture analyzed through multiple lenses of gender, affect, nationalism, globalism, and consumption. I come to the AAS vice presidency as an outlier—Asian American (Sansei, third-generation Japanese American, born and raised in Hawai’i), working-class background, popular culture research. But it is these very outlier positions that provide a perspective that may be of benefit to the field of Asian Studies. I have been active within AAS, serving on the Northeast Asia Council (including as Chair) and the Distinguished Speakers Bureau. I currently serve on the American Advisory Committee of Japan Foundation (AAC, elected chair as of 2018). At the same time, I have recently been active in the field of Asian American Studies, serving since 2017 on the board of directors of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) as a regional representative. This experience working from within the major Asian American Studies organization has taught me a lot about commitment, passion, and engaged scholarship.

This mixing of Asian and Asian American Studies has shaped my research as well. My first book, Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song (Harvard University Asia Center, 2002), examined the sentimental popular song genre, enka, through emotionally based cultural nationalism and its fandom. It was strictly Japan-focused. My subsequent plan was to research different Japanese song genres, beginning with military song (gunka), school song (shoka), and the like. And I was midway through a textual and ethnographic study of gunka, when I stopped dead in my tracks. I—a Japanese American female from an American university—was not the one to do this study. The target was too easy, the conclusions too facilely drawn. As I sat in a gunka bar in Ginza, the walls decorated with military uniforms and medals, a battery of miniature balsam World War II fighter planes flying around the room, watching elderly men flanked by young women dressed in Meiji Era school-girl uniforms fervently sing the military songs of their youth, I shook my head not only at the bizarreness of the scene, but at my own fraught positioning. Even if I could “pass” at some level, I did not want to be the one to do an ethnography of Japanese military songs. I left the bar knowing I would never complete this project.

Instead, I turned to a topic far closer to home. Having secured a position at the University of Hawai’i in 1997, I was living once again in the familiarity of my hometown, Honolulu, where I knew the sociopolitical terrain like the back of my hand. Because of this, I could conceptualize research projects easily and with complexity, make contacts readily, and engage in very much grounded work. My first Hawai’i-based project focused on a Japanese American beauty pageant (Crowning the Nice Girl, University of Hawai’i Press, 2006). My second focused on Japanese American stewardesses with Pan American World Airways (Airborne Dreams, Duke University Press, 2011). In both of these, I could use not only my local knowledge, but also my knowledge of Japan to bridge fields of Asian and Asian American Studies. I brought Japan deeply into what might have been a Japanese American project, not only because I could, but because it was there in the research itself. And I have come to seek further projects that do so. For example, my research on the Japanese company Sanrio’s global cute character, Hello Kitty, involved fieldwork in Tokyo as well as in the company’s U.S. headquarters, and in stores and other venues across the U.S. (Pink Globalization, Duke University Press, 2013).

My point here is that Asia obviously does not stop at the borders of any one continent or ocean. Rather, some version of Asia extends well beyond, on the shoulders of immigrants, refugees, tourists, commodities, food, song, and ideas. Asia exists in its transnational diasporic settings, as well as its natal homes. And it is this notion that I would like to emphasize in my leadership role within the Association for Asian Studies. Diasporic Asia takes the continent and islands of Asia as only a starting point of inquiry. My research, positionality, and organizational leadership role lead me to consider ways to effect stronger and deeper ties between Asian Studies and Asian American Studies. While acknowledging the very real differences between these two fields, I strongly urge us to learn from each other by leaning in. 

The idea of bridging the fields of Asian and Asian American Studies is one of a number of issues I have in mind to explore, both with those upon whose shoulders some of these may ride (e.g. AAS staff and officers), as well as with the general membership. Acknowledging that some of these ideas may already exist in your institutions or regions, I invite your feedback. 

For some decades now, Asian Studies has been witnessing the passing of a generation of many of its key founders, its first generation scholars. It might behoove AAS to take on the task of securing oral histories of scholars. If this already exists in different places, could AAS act as a coordinating clearing house of information? Secondly, acknowledging not only the changing job market and scarcity of academic positions, but also a generational shift of interests away from the ivory tower and toward “applied” work, AAS may want to further support and explore this shift. This is a rich and vital field that has the potential to connect ethically-driven scholarship directly with communities. And third (the least developed) is something I tentatively call “Asia Riffs.” The idea is to juxtapose people with an Asia focus who would not likely know or be in conversation with one another. Tied thematically, this small grouping of twos or threes might discuss, interact, and possibly even collaborate on a project together. Some possible themes:  rupture, coalescence, transcendence. Some possible juxtapositions: visual artist and social theorist, poet and historian, composer and philosopher. I believe in the power of the unexpected, even as we try to second-guess the realm of results. At this juncture, these four issues—bridging Asian and Asian American Studies, oral histories, applied Asian Studies, and “Asia Riffs”—are but musings that need far more careful consideration and planning before any form of implementation. There are budgets and staffing to consider as necessary bedeviling details. But better to think big than not at all. Furthermore, these ideas may stimulate some of your own, implemented at your institution, department, library, or museum.

In conclusion, I am honored to take office as vice president of the Association for Asian Studies because I believe in the value of this organization. I seek your help in shaping the organization’s future, embracing its truly trans-disciplinary, trans-border potential. In the twenty-first century, that potential must reaffirm a core ethical base. Whereas in the past, political engagement may have been the decision of a small band of committed scholars, our very institutional and societal foundations beg us not to shirk this responsibility. Thus we as a large body of scholars of Asia must find within ourselves the wherewithal and commitment to address the politics of what we do as individuals and as a group. I ask your help in creating a set of best practices that will strengthen a sense of engagement centered upon scholarship of Asia and guided by the deepest sense of responsibility.