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It has been a while since I actually wrote about a specific book that caught my eye and is applicable to my field. So when this text was assigned for one of my graduate seminars and we worked our way through the text, I knew I had to dedicate a bit of time to it. The text is called Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies and is a collection of articles/essays by various scholars who would place themselves in various area study disciplines. Most of these essays are from Asian Area studies (i.e. Japan, China, Korea, Southeast Asian studies, etc.) but I think that they highlight the issues in area studies as a discipline, which are not necessarily specific to a specific region.

The tone of this book, overall, is quite cutting of Area Studies and these criticisms are made by those who are an active part of the field. I’ll admit right now that I really enjoyed this text because many of these people articulated issues that I had sensed over the past few years, but did not know how to articulate my qualms.

For those of you who maybe aren’t in an area studies field, or who simply don’t know the history as well (as I didn’t either!), most of the area studies fields grew out of two things: Orientalism and World War II. I’ll focus on Japanese studies from here on out, since this is the area that I know the most about, but this historical pattern is similar across other area studies, I believe. Japanese studies grew out of the military academies and training facilities that popped up to combat Japan during WWII. For example, the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies is probably the most famous case – the center was originally a military training school and many of the famous Japanese translators came out of there. One name that may be familiar to many people is the translator Donald Keene.

Once WWII was over there was a scramble to figure out what these institutions would continue to do. Furthermore, there was a lot of discussion about why the “Japanese threat” was so sudden. A few founders of area studies argued that it is because there was no conversation happening between disciplines: the Orientalists focused on philology (language), while anthropologists focused on culture, and never did the two meet. Thus, you’ll see a surge in calls for interdisciplinary work for area studies at this time. One primary source that’s actually quite fascinating to read (partially because it shows how arbitrary a lot of what we do now is) is the Conference on Area and Language Programs in American Universities put together by the Rockefeller foundation in 1944. During the conference a group of specialists hammered out the details of how to go about teaching area studies to students and what actually constitutes an area.

Even though this book focuses on asian area studies, it also covers a wide array of topics in its intent to dissect the problems in area studies in general. For instance, the first essay is Ivory Tower in Escrow by Masao Miyoshi and in it the focus is on funding sources and the politics involved in departments/fields. I think that it was a great history lesson that dives into some problems within academia, more broadly speaking. There is also another section by Harry Harutoonian on the issues of postcolonialism and the issues that arise when it was rejected by area studies and taken in by English department. In classic Harutoonian style (which is audacious and pretty over the top – but so so wonderful and gleefully enjoyable), he scandalizes the reader, while making many perceptive and salient points. Likewise, there are articles in here discussing specific Asia-specific topics such as internment, Japanese modernity, cultural studies, multiculturalism, etc.

This was an assigned text for one of my courses, but I am very glad that I own this and I think this is a great book to own for anyone interested in area studies, particularly Asian area studies. The authors consider the field in a really self-reflexive and critical manner, which I think is absolutely necessary for all of us to continually keep in mind – regardless of your field.

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