WEST AFRICA magazine (London)  21-27 June 1993 page 1046

Conference Report:

West meets East

John Philips reports on the 39th Annual African Studies Conference in Hirosaki Japan

    It lasted only two days. Only two panels were held at the same time. Jan Vansina wasn't there to get an award, and there were few foreign visitors at all.  No tee-shirts were for sale in the halls. It was far from the African Studies Association annual meeting in Seattle last year, but for the 517 members of the Japan Association for African Studies, the thirtieth annual meeting on May 29 and 30 was the climax of their research year.

    This year's meeting was held in the northern town of Hirosaki, the usual site of the Tohoku regional Africanist conference. Hirosaki is one of the most beautiful cities in Japan, surrounded by apple orchards and hot spring resorts and overlooked by majestic Mount Iwaki.  Only 180 attended such a remote venue, but they were well rewarded by the conference itself and also by the beautiful spring weather that weekend.

    Although the Japan Association for African Studies has far fewer members than its slightly older counterpart in the United States, it makes up for that in the range of disciplines represented.  Where American African studies is concentrated in the social sciences and humanities, Japanese African studies includes such hard science as seismology, medicine and biology (especially primatology).

    There were many papers on ethnology at this year's conference, such as Professor Junzo Kawada's paper on West African musical culture, and Paul Eguchi's paper based on his continuing work in Fulfulde folklore.  Several papers dealt with aspects of ethnobotany and herbal medicine from a variety of different disciplines, and some included chemical analyses.

    While African studies is a major part of the discipline of ethnology in Japan,  the same cannot be said of economics.  Economists complain that unless they work in another area, too, their colleagues may not take them seriously.  However, economics is such an enormous and important field in Japan that the relatively small proportion of economists specializing in African studies still make up a large proportion of the Africanist population.  There were several papers on various subjects from scholars at the Institute of Developing Economies, such as a paper on South Africa by Koji Hayashi, who spoke about recent developments in Natal.  Professor Ichiro Inukai of International University gave a paper comparing economic performance in sub-Saharan Africa with that of east and south Asian countries.

    One of the disciplines most lacking in Japanese African studies to an American eye is history.  It is still possible to meet scholars, even Africanists, who insist that Africa has no history, only anthropology.  While there is little place in the structure of Japanese universities for the study of African history as such, scholars in many other disciplines are working on historical studies. This is especially true in economics, since economic history is considered part of that discipline. Still, the lack of history is felt especially in the case of archaeology, which was represented by only one scholar at the conference (and perhaps in all Japan), Professor Ohmi Giichi of Aichi Gakuin University.   Several other disciplines well represented in the United States, such as art, music and literature, are barely present in Japan, largely due to the conservative nature of the academic establishment in Japan, and the difficulty in introducing new ideas and perspectives.

    The geographical range of papers presented at the conference covered Africa from Senegal to Sudan to the Seychelles to South Africa, but given the small size of the Africanist community in Japan, as well as the tendency to work in multidisciplinary groups, there were several strong regional emphases.

    Papers about Mali and Zaire were also presented.  There was a report on the Malian national conference by a Japanese who had been present, and several papers on seismology in Zaire, including one on the 1992 earthquake, written with the participation of scientists from Zaire.

    There was an especially large number of papers on Zambia and the Congo at this conference.  A series of papers were given on 'dambo', a form of irrigation used in rural Zambia.  The papers on the Congo were in a variety of disciplines, from sociology to botany.

    Dr. Joseph Masawe of Tanzania, currently visiting scholar at Kyoto University, presented a paper on formal and informal credit systems in agriculture and rural development in Tanzania.  Despite having written his title and abstract in English, Dr. Masawe not only delivered his talk in Japanese but he also fielded questions in Japanese.

    The two keynote addresses reflected the balance in Japanese African studies between science and humanities.  The first, by Professor Hamaguchi of Tohoku University, contrasted African volcanoes and Japanese volcanoes.  The latter are caused by the Pacific plate sliding under Japan, while African volcanoes are caused by a hot spot under the mantle, which in turn is caused by a deep structure of symmetrical axes in the earth's core.  The great volcano at Nyiragongo in Zaire is in fact nearly opposite the islands of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

    The other lecture, by Professor Itani of Kobe Gakuin University, reviewed the last 35 years of Kyoto University's African studies expeditions.  There were many slides, including very old ones in black and white.  Many younger members seemed surprised to see what today's senior professors looked like a generation ago.

    African studies in Japan has much room for expansion, if the role of Japan in Africa continues to grow and if Japanese universities continue their present reforms.   A workshop was held at UCLA last year to promote cooperation with American Africanists, and there is hope for a conference in Japan later this year and in Africa next year involving Japanese and American scholars working together.

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