AAS 2022 Annual Conference — Thanks from the Executive Director

AAS Executive Director Hilary Finchum-Sung

The Board of Directors of the Association for Asian Studies, AAS Secretariat staff, and I would like to thank individuals and groups who contributed to the 2022 Annual Conference. So many people and organizations helped to make the conference possible, and we are grateful for their time, talents, and assistance.

Thanks first to the 2022 Program Committee: Chair Hyaeweol Choi and Vice Chair Mary Zurbuchen; Natasha Heller, Leigh Jenco, Kristina Kleutghen, and Liang Luo (China and Inner Asia); David Ambaras, Ji-Yeon Jo, and Tom Looser (Japan and Korea); and Elora Chowdhury and Jane Ferguson (South and Southeast Asia). This group assembled an outstanding program of over 500 sessions, both in-person and virtual, which formed the foundation of an engaging and productive four days.

Heartfelt thanks go to the curator of the AAS Film Expo, Jason Finkelman, for organizing and running an outstanding film expo; and to Asian Educational Media Services (AEMS)/Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies (CEAPS) at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for their continued support of this event. 

Words cannot express how grateful we are for the work of the Local Arrangements Committee (LAC), which enriched the conference experience with special programs, such as the gorgeous opening ceremony, the phenomenon Māhū Madness show (produced with the PA‘I Foundation), and Kenny Endo and his taiko troupe at the reception, as well as discounts/opportunities for conference participants. Mahalo nui loa iā ʻoe to Ricardo D. Trimillos (co-chair), E. J. Ned Shultz (co-chair), Eric ChangJay J. JunkerNavid NajafiJ. Lorenzo Perillo, Teri Skillman, Victoria Holt Takamine, and Christine R. Yano.

The efforts of Timothy George made it possible for us to screen the film Minamata for not only conference attendees but also local educators and their students. George also arranged for Aileen Smith’s participation in the event; it was incredibly meaningful to have Smith, a real-life protagonist of the film, answer questions and lead a discussion together with Minamata’s director, Andrew Levitas. Thanks also to Michelle Daigle for all of her work in preparing and moderating this enrichment event. The importance of taking care of the environment and persevering, despite seemingly impossible odds, proved a powerful message for the students and their teachers as well as conference attendees. Photos taken by Smith and her late husband, W. Eugene Smith, were displayed in the lobby of the Convention Center throughout the conference.

We are grateful to the foundations and organizations that sponsored sessions, participant travel, special events, and plenaries at the Annual Conference: the East-West Center; Geiss-Hsu Foundation; Henry Luce Foundation; Korea Foundation; Japan Foundation; Japan-US Friendship Commission; Open Society Foundation; PAI Foundation; University of Hawai‘i, Office of the President (David Lassner, President); and University of Hawai‘i College of Social Sciences (Denise Konan, Dean).

2022 Annual Conference program cover, featuring “Earthship” artwork by Mayumi Oda.
2022 Annual Conference program cover, featuring “Earthship” artwork by Mayumi Oda.

A subtle highlight of the conference was the design for the gorgeous conference tote bags. World-renowned artist Mayumi Oda (known as “The Matisse of Japan”) granted the use of her creation “Earthship” for our conference bags. A powerful image throughout the conference, the design on the bag underscored our commitment to supporting the work of artists in our communities and sustaining our natural resources for generations to come.

We are grateful for the volunteers who worked in a variety of roles, from on-line and on-site session monitoring to registration and exhibits support. Without the generosity of their time, it would have been impossible to accomplish all that we did during the conference. This was the first year we launched a conference volunteer program. We learned much from the process and look forward to working with volunteers again in 2023.

I would also like to thank our Board of Directors, council, and committee members for their commitment to the profession and considerable time devoted to association affairs. We are grateful to 2021-2022 AAS President Hy Luong for his steadfast leadership as we determined the format for our 2022 Annual Conference. We would like to thank outgoing board members Peter Carroll, Hyaeweol Choi, Prasenjit Duara, Richard Fox, Charles Kim, and Elora Shehabuddin for their work in supporting preparations for the conference, together with continuing board members Kamran Ali (current AAS President), Joe Alter, Hy Luong, Catherine Phipps, Tom Rawski, Bill Tsutsui, and Christine Yano. We look forward to collaborating on the upcoming 2023 Boston conference with those continuing board members, as well as incoming members Manan Ahmed, Eunsook Jung, Sonja Kim, Jean Oi, Shellen Wu, Don Wyatt, and Mary Zurbuchen. Work on our board, councils, and committees is 100% volunteer. It is a labor of love and devotion, and it is beyond valuable.

I would like to commend our incredible staff. Director of Conferences and Events Robyn Jones is a master of organization and composure. Her leadership at the conference was infallible and breathtaking to behold. Staff members Molly DeDona (Grants Coordinator), Bill Warner (Membership Manager), Angela Bermudez (Conference and Events Coordinator), and Jenna Yoshikawa (Advertising and Marketing Manager) worked tirelessly in areas such as registration, technology support, exhibits, and communications. Maura Cunningham (Digital Media Manager) worked behind the scenes managing the virtual sessions, collaborated with technology support on live-streamed events, and did a fantastic job leading the new attendees’ orientation. Jon Wilson (Publications Manager) indefatigably ran the AAS publications exhibit and supported “meet-the-editors” events, as well as providing valuable support with other staff on satellite registration. Krisna Uk (Director of Special Initiatives) diligently coordinated the effort to support and schedule the keynote speaker and the Minamata film screening, as well as other special sessions and meetings at the annual conference. In addition, our wonderful interns Alexandria Molinari, Lucas Paschal, and Isaac Wittenberg and special operations team Kat Sung and Jun Hyuck Han were absolutely fantastic in their unstinting support. I am grateful, as well, for Michelle Hodges’s work in ensuring travel support and all conference-related invoices were processed efficiently.

I would also like to recognize the crucial work of Ricky Hopkins at ConferenceDirect, Scott Okeefe with Levy Show Service, and Tim Berry with Expo Logic in ensuring the smooth running of the annual conference. Special thanks go to Governor of Hawai‘i David Ige, Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau, Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, Hawai‘i Convention Center, Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Resort, Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, and the Ala Moana Hotel for their assistance and guidance in navigating the ever-changing COVID-19 local and state guidelines and mandates, and for welcoming our attendees.

Last, I want to thank all of you for your participation in the Association for Asian Studies 2022 Annual Conference. Whether you attended virtually or in person, or both, you participated in a coming together of nearly 4,000 Asianists worldwide. Regardless of medium, the act of coming together, sharing our work, and exchanging ideas is a testament to our strength as a community. We are grateful for your ongoing support!

I want to remind you that the post-conference survey is available until May 1 for all attendees to complete. Hearing about what went well and what needs work is essential for us to provide ever-stronger programs for you. Thank you, in advance, for taking the time to do this. And, please keep in mind that the online conference offerings will be up until May 31. Thank you!

Balancing Act: The AAS and Public Statements

Image via Pixabay user jarmoluk.

Since its inception in 1941, the Association for Asian Studies has identified as a non-political entity dedicated to the scholarly pursuit of Asia. Correspondingly, since its inception, Association leaders and members alike have both challenged and questioned this stance. Particularly since the Vietnam War era, many have called on the Association to speak out against atrocities and injustices in the world. Instances wherein the leadership has refrained from taking action while reinforcing the non-political identity of the AAS have led to intense critiques of the Association’s supposed passivity and retreat deep within the ivory tower. Yet, when the Association has chosen to take a public stance on an issue, it has done so painstakingly, out of a concern that supporting a particular perspective might alienate a portion of our diverse membership. 

It has and continues to be essential that the AAS strive to represent the viewpoints of our membership—a membership currently composed of 6,500 people around the world, who possess varied cultural, linguistic, academic and national backgrounds. Article V, section 1 (authority) in the AAS Constitution reads: “Ultimate authority in the Association shall be exercised by the membership.” This means that the Association’s leadership must work—every step of the way—to represent the perspectives of all members in governance, as difficult as that endeavor might be. Without the voices of our membership, the AAS ceases to exist.

The American Historical Association (AHA) recently released a statement on domestic terrorism, bigotry and history, and invited the AAS (and all other members of the American Council of Learned Societies) to co-sign it. We had already begun the process of determining the risks and relevance of doing so when criticisms of the AAS’s perceived silence appeared in Twitter streams. Why, asked several Asian Studies scholars on Twitter, had the AAS not endorsed this important statement? It would appear that the AAS does not move as fast as the immediacy of our social-media-driven world demands.

This marked the third time I had experienced such a situation since stepping into the Executive Director position in April 2019 (the first was in regards to a statement on Xinjiang, the second a statement on Stanford University Press—both of which were released after careful construction and vetting by the Executive Officers and Board of Directors, or BOD).

What happens when the Association for Asian Studies faces a decision such as whether or not to sign a statement, or to create its own, addressing an aspect of the current sociopolitical climate and/or a particular event or injustice? We proceed with extreme caution. The old stand-by response of “the AAS is a non-political organization” can only take us so far since, as South Asia Council Chair Purnima Dhavan recently reminded us in a discussion regarding AAS involvement in world affairs:

“Educational institutions are not isolated from the politics or culture of the societies from which they emerge, they are shaped by them. Neither academics nor academic institutions exist in a bubble divorced from political contexts.”

Situations that affect academic freedom remain our primary concern, but so do issues which affect our access to information and our very right to understand the nuances of our histories and the perspectives that shape them. At the same time, we must first ensure that the views expressed in a statement adequately reflect the concerns of the membership and, by default, the association. Such an endeavor requires much thought and the ability to assess the nuances and implications of a particular statement.

This is why it takes time for the Association to respond officially and/or sign on to a public statement. When an issue arises that AAS members and/or the BOD think we should consider speaking out about, the following steps take place:

  1. The issue is put on the table. This could come from within the AAS Secretariat or BOD, or a member could bring it to the attention of the Association, usually via their regional council representative.
  2. The Executive Director will consult with the Executive Officers (President, Vice President, Past President, and Past Past President), as well as any other relevant BOD members. They will discuss the issue and decide whether or not the AAS should consider taking action.
  3. If the Officers contend this matter is something the Board of Directors should discuss and act on, the Executive Director typically solicits feedback from the entire BOD. This stage, in particular, takes time—often several days. As a global association, our BOD members live and work in many different time zones. Especially during the summer, response times can be slow due to travel and/or periods of field research.
  4. A majority response from the twelve voting members of the Board of Directors is needed to reach a decision regarding appropriate action.
  5. If a majority of the board members votes in favor of speaking out, the AAS releases the statement in question to the public OR officially signs on to a statement crafted by our colleagues in other learned societies.

The above process may seem laborious, but remains the primary way through which we can ensure proper representation of the membership and, thus, the Association.

I encourage members to contact the AAS leadership with concerns and suggestions. As noted above, the most effective way to bring an issue to our attention is typically through your regional council representative. The council can discuss the issue and put forth a proposal for the Executive Officers and Board to consider which line of action may be most appropriate.

Thank you, as always, for your continued support of the Association for Asian Studies. Your voices make us who we are.