Asian Currents
The Asian Studies Association of Australia's e-bulletin
Maximising Australia's Asian Knowledge
July 2009 | ISSN 1449-4418 | for the plain copy (no images) of this issue please click here

Sponsored by ARC Asia Pacific Futures Research Network

In this issue:

From the Editor

Since the recent disputed presidential election, Iran has been in the international spotlight. In this issue, Iranian specialist Hossein Heirani-Moghaddam sees many of the recent difficulties as being part of the process of democratic maturation for the Islamic government.

Think tanks have an important role in stimulating political and public debate, and the Lowy Institute for International Policy has made an impressive contribution in this field since it opened its doors in 2003. Its new executive director, Dr Michael Wesley, the former Professor of International Relations and Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, says he will use his role to pursue several ‘hobby horses’ such as encouraging greater engagement by Australia, as a society, with Asia and promoting the learning of other languages, particularly Asian. The Lowy’s Program Director–East Asia, Malcolm Cook, also talks about the program and its priorities, including the Australia–China relationship.

We profile the University of Technology Sydney’s new Indian Ocean and South Asia Research Network, a researcher whose deep interest in Japan stemmed from an early fascination with samurai and ninja movies, and a program to improve yields of key staple food crops in East Timor.

Khmer art specialist Martin Polkinghorne looks at the nameless individuals who created the profusion of decorative detail on every available surface of the temple complexes, and our student of the month, Emma Dalton, asks whether things are starting to change for women in Japanese politics.

Allan Sharp



The recent presidential election in Iran turned into the most challenging crisis for Islamic Iran since its establishment in 1979. The result of the election, whether rigged or not, was used as a pretext to unleash some outstanding dissidences, writes Hossein Heirani-Moghaddam*.

Thirty years ago, Iran experienced a popular revolution to put an end to 2500 years of monarchy and replace it with an Islamic government. The leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, marked the establishment of a two-tier state, receiving its legitimacy from the two sources of divinity and public support. He offered the name of ‘Islamic Republic’ for such a state, which was endorsed overwhelmingly by a national referendum in 1979. The idea of having a theo-democracy was put on trial. It was scrutinised and challenged both conceptually and in practice by the Islamists and non-Islamists alike.

The main arguments though came from within, from the religious elites, who by decree were entitled to interpretation of the religious rulings. Questions were predominantly asked about the compatibility of the two concepts of religiosity and democracy. But beyond that, some, who had already recognised this coexistence, began to ask the inherent question as to which element should take precedence, ‘Islamism’ or ‘republicanism’.

Without undermining the totality of the regime, they argued that the survival of the Islamic state depends on public accountability, which should not be compromised under any circumstances. This reading did not quite reflect the idea of marriage between the two concepts envisaged by Ayatollah Khomeini. These discourses, although fierce in nature, did not pose much of a threat to the fundamentality of the Islamic state, particularly because the charismatic leader and the founding father of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, maintained, as the main interpreter of the theory of Islamic governance and the prime arbiter, a balance between rival elites and thinkers.

Confident enough of being able to control embryonic divergences, he also gave his blessing to a degree of pluralism, whereby some less senior clerics formed a new factional entity by the name of the ‘Association of Combatant Clerics’ in 1988 in opposition to an older clerical establishment, i.e. the ‘Society of Combatant Clergy’. It is interesting to see this newly established faction is now the chief promoter of ‘republicanism’ and the main challenger to the government.

The Islamic government enjoyed a period of uniformity during the Iran-Iraq war. Any in-house challenge among the religious and political elites had to wait until the country came back on its feet. It took a few years before the pro-reform ideas gained momentum and dominated Iran’s political arena.

The year 1997 witnessed an overwhelming victory for Mohammad Khatami in the presidential election,

a more moderate cleric, an advocate of civil society, freedom of speech and the rule of law, who remained in power for eight years until being replaced by ‘principlist’ (a person or group act based on tenets of Islam and values of the revolution), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Khatami encountered enormous difficulties in implementing his reformist policies as he lacked structural power. However, the reformist faction achieved a hegemonic status. The country became more politically open and tolerant. Many political parties were formed and numerous newspapers were given licence to print. This provided the country with a foundation for a novel political factionalism, an unprecedented phenomenon that was given an opportunity to grow with an incredible speed, at times impossible to control and now challenging in nature.

Although Iran’s democratic movement has a fairly long history, going back to the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, its experience of factionalism is rather young, rudimentary and non-institutionalised, hence fragile in nature. A few camps formed around some political figures; the reformists gathering around former president Mohammad Khatami, the pragmatists embracing former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and last but certainly not least, the principlists encircled the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But it is not as clear cut as it looks. There are many other offshoots and subdivisions in the form of parties and factions, aligning with one of the camps, but at the same time having extraordinary disparities, a fact that has made the process of political participation so ambivalent. As a vivid example, in recent elections both the reformists and principlists failed to introduce a single candidate to represent their factions, and effectively Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric candidate from the Etimad Melli (National Trust party), chose not to withdraw in favour of Mir Hossein Mousavi,

a clearly more popular reformist candidate. Similarly, the principlist Society of Combatant Clerics did not reach a majority to nominate Ahmadinejad as their front runner.

Moreover, factionalism in Iran is characterised by and large by a great degree of fluidity, the result of which is frequent movement of the cardinal members across the political spectrum, or even from one faction to another. A prime example is the former head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohsen Rezaei, a principlist with some reformist aspirations, who challenged Mahamoud Ahmadinejad, the other principlist candidate.

The candidacy of Mir Hossein Mousavi, as the main challenger to Ahamadinejad, was also enveloped from the outset by uncertainty. Having undisputed revolutionary credentials, he could easily be placed in the principlist camp. However, he decided to stand for the presidency as an individual rather than a reformist candidate, but sought to advocate ‘reform through principles’ and promote righteous but forgotten revolutionary values. Such uncertainties on the part of the candidates were undoubtedly counterproductive and confusing when it came to vote winning.

The origins of the presidential election crisis were not limited to factional uncertainty and divisions. They were also rooted in the rapid growth of the youth generation, which is more exposed to the outside world through modern means of communication. Many of this generation have no personal recollection of the revolution or the war with Iraq and seek no political confrontation with the establishment. However, they are in favour of some changes to achieve more citizenry rights. Ironically, the government’s progressive modernising policies and advocacy for technological advancement should have helped attract such demands by the youth, but at the same time failed to appropriately process and meet them.

To put this into perspective, the recent developments are testimony that Iranian society is maturing. So are its elites, and many of the recent difficulties are part of the process of democratic maturation. These difficulties will only be overcome if proper policies and mechanisms are established to restore trust within the society, something that seems utterly vital for the Islamic government.

*Dr Heirani-Moghaddam is lecturer and Convenor of Persian and Iranian Studies, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, (The Middle East and Central Asia), Australian National University.


As the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s new executive director, Michael Wesley plans to continue to pursue his ‘hobby horses’ of the need for Australia as a society to engage more with Asia, and to learn an Asian language.

In an address to the Institute, the former Professor of International Relations and Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, was critical of Australia’s lack of maturity as a society in its discussion of Asia.

‘There’s a tendency to trivialise Asia and put Asia and Asian countries into a category of either something we can get rich from, or something we’re threatened by, or some aspect of an elite agenda,’ he said.

‘This form of trivialising the most important region to us holds a real threat to Australia. We need to start—and this has to be a broad societal thing involving not only the business community but the general community as well—a genuine interest in Asia for Asia’s sake. This means a genuine interest in all aspects of the Asian region, in all aspects of Asian countries and societies and languages and culture.

‘This is going to be a long-term challenge. It’s a question of education, but also a question of changing the national culture, of moving away from a national culture that tends to look over Asia to Europe,

and over Asia to the United States and North America. And it needs to come from the bottom up,’ he said.

‘Unfortunately, if this is seen to be a government agenda, or something we can rely on the government to do, it’s not going to work, because it’s going to be become politicised very quickly. It needs to be a broad movement, a broad consciousness that comes from the bottom up, that increasingly sees that we need to take the regions to our north—the closer countries to us—very seriously. And we need to engage with them as a society.’

Professor Wesley restated the need for Australians to have the ability to understand and operate in languages and cultures other than our own. Referring to his recently launched report, Building an Asia-Literate Australia, he said Australians being able to speak only their own language led to a certain complacency about the rest of the world and a belief that others had to cross the linguistic and cultural gasp to us, rather than vice versa.

‘Language structures the way you think about the world, and until you make the effort to learn another language you don’t realise that, and you don’t realise the relativities of the way you see the world,’ he said. ‘Learning another language, especially an Asia language, is a prerequisite for this country dealing with the increasingly complex world unfolding around us. I’d very much like to keep pushing this barrow while at the Lowy Institute.’

Professor Wesley said he saw think tanks, such as the Lowy Institute, playing many productive roles in society.

‘Some think tanks choose to be advocates of a particular point of view, hereby adding to the vitality of discussion and debate in a democratic society. Others choose to become alternative sources of policy advice to government. Yet others seek to force a range of viewpoints to become a leavener and driver of public debate—and this is the role the Lowy Institute has chosen,’ he said.

‘One of the greatest evils that could befall us as a country is for us simply to outsource our understanding of the world to other countries that have bigger or more vital think-tank sectors. The Lowy Institute and other think tanks in Australia should be focussed on is developing and fostering a distinctly Australia approach to looking at the world.

‘For generations we as Australians have held the opinion that we have a distinctive view of the world. It’s unique and it’s important, not only to us but in a broader perspective. In particular, some of Australia’s scholars of Asia have in the past—and also now—been valued in Europe, North America and Asia because of their distinctive take on the region Australia exists in. This is the sort of distinctive contribution that the Lowy Institute can help foster.’



Since opening its doors in 2003, much of the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s work has focused on Asia and Australia’s relations with the different countries of the region. The Institute’s Program Director—East Asia, Malcolm Cook, talks about the program and areas of immediate concern or challenge.

I have had four overlapping goals for my program:

  • to provide accessible and well-written research and well-organised events on some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing Australia in its engagement with Asia
  • to use the program to expose key relationships (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan) and domestic developments in these places that may be being overlooked in Australia—this has been a particular focus of my work within the program
  • to highlight ‘over-the-horizon’ issues that are not traditionally considered international policy ones, but that we believe will become so. Examples here include Milton Osborne’s work on the damming of the Mekong River, Meryl William’s work for us on the declining fish stocks in Southeast Asia and Sarah Potter’s work on the effects of climate change on malaria and dengue transmission
  • to provide informed views on current events in East Asia for the Australian and global media including our own weblog. It’s particularly important to provide more views from Australia on regional issues to media sources outside Australia.
In the near future, I think the Lowy Institute and the East Asia program

will focus more on the future of China-Australia relations given their growing importance for Australia, their rapid growth and change, the emerging domestic political dimensions of the relationship and the fact that other capitals in the region are watching Australia-China relations more carefully.

I would also like to work on the growing links between East Asia and the other parts of the Asian continent, including the Middle East. Hopefully this work will challenge some of the institutional constraints of the Asian studies I grew up intellectually within.

Australia’s continuing relationship with East Asia

Economically, I think Australia will continue to be well-placed to both benefit from and contribute to East Asia’s economic dynamism, and in the case of Japan, South Korea, etc, its economic and demographic maturation. Hence, Australia’s economic integration with East Asia should continue full speed ahead and could even accelerate if East Asia’s export-oriented economies shift towards more domestic consumption.

In 2009, Australia’s four largest export markets may be Japan, the People’s Republic of China, South Korea and India respectively. Asia’s massive pools of savings and the demands of aging populations could trigger new flows of Asian investment into Australia. We can already see signs of this with new Japanese mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activities in Australia outside the resources and agri-business sectors.

One other interesting dynamic I’ll be keeping a general watch over is how the growing East Asian and South Asian populations in Australia may affect (or not) Australia’s foreign policy towards the home countries of these populations. The Olympic torch relay in Canberra and its associated Chinese nationalist demonstrations and the recent concern of the risks facing Indian students here are some examples of this dynamic.

Areas of immediate concern or challenge for Australia’s relationship with the region

I think the most about two separate challenges; one that Australia itself is the main actor, and one where it is certainly not.

First, Australian foreign and security policy is facing, maybe for the first time, the problem of strategic geometry in which our most important security partner, the United States, and our largest trading partner, the People’s Republic of China, are not allied or bound together by common political values, and are potentially economic and security rivals.

Australian foreign and security grand strategy, I think, will become more difficult and open to worried misinterpretation by the major powers in East Asia, particularly in Japan, the People’s Republic of China, the United States and within Southeast Asia and India. I think you can see this in the interest in and then criticism of Prime Minister Rudd’s first foreign trip, the initial speech announcing the Asia Pacific Community idea, the pre-launch press coverage of the 2009 Defence White Paper, etc.

The second challenge is the changing contours of Asian regionalism and its various sub-regional versions—Southeast Asia, East Asia, Asia-Pacific. Australia has a strong interest in the continuing relevance and development of Asia Pacific regionalism as it advances a number of key Australian grand strategic goals, the most important of which is Australia’s inclusion.

Justifiably, we’ve often worried about the rise of exclusionary East Asian regionalism. Over the next few decades, though, I worry about another challenge as well. The rise of China and India in particular may shift the focus of regionalism away from maritime East Asia and Asia Pacific westwards to the Asian continent. Here, Australia’s geographical location in the South Pacific could well lead us to be excluded.

The struggle over Australia’s inclusion in the East Asia Summit, the underwhelming response to the Asia Pacific community idea, the establishment and development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are all possible green shoots signalling this shift.


New UTS group to extend South Asian Studies focus

A new group at the University of Technology Sydney has ambitious plans to expand the focus of research in South Asian Studies.

Launched in March by Indian High Commissioner Sujatha Singh, the Indian Ocean and South Asia Research Network (IOSARN) based at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, already has a full research program.

‘South Asian Studies is on the cusp of resurgence in Australia but the major thrust remains constrained by traditional area-studies conceptions of a region dominated by national borders,’ said IOSARN director Devleena Ghosh.

‘The Network departs from this pattern by expanding the focus of research to the connections between South Asia and its neighbours around the Indian Ocean. We focus on the interactions, flows and networks between cultures, societies and people in this dynamic region, concentrating on the movements and intermeshing of ideas, technologies, ecologies and people between all of the land and ocean cultures around the Indian Ocean.

‘Australia and Indonesia form an important but seldom recognised south-eastern quadrant in this ring of oceanic networks, as do Malaysia, Singapore and Burma on the northeast, and the mainland and island societies and the east coast of Africa, on the western shores. This initiative envisages the Indian Ocean and South Asia—a region that includes, and is extremely important for, Australia—becoming a top priority across the university’s diverse teaching, research and outreach programs,’ she said.

The movements of ideas, technologies, peoples and ecologies around the Indian Ocean, particularly in South Asia, are of particular interest to Dr Ghosh’s, and her fields of study include past and present day networks such as formal or informal diasporic ones. Her interests extend to technological and virtual networks, such as those that consolidate and disseminate cultural and national narratives; global labour networks such as those constituted by IT and call centre workers; and global networks of technology such as those demonstrated by medical tourism.

Dr Ghosh is also acting director of Trans/forming Cultures, a UTS research centre for studying social and cultural transformations and innovations. ISOARN is based in the centre, but receives autonomous funding from the university and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. With the 21st century promising to be the century of Asian powers, such as India and China, Dr Ghosh sees the establishment of IOSARN as timely.

‘Australia is part of this dynamic region, and is the receiving country for migrants from the Indian Ocean and South Asia region—one of the top 10 regions for a number of migrants to Australia. IOSARN promises to establish UTS as the premier site for Indian Ocean and South Asian Studies in Australia,’ she said.

Dr Ghosh said the Network aimed to consolidate UTS’s international reputation in globally focussed social and cultural research focussing on new areas of research in the dynamic change and interactions of the Indian Ocean and South Asia regions. The Network includes scholars from Humanities, Architecture, Law, Science, Engineering and Business, and is particularly keen on cross-disciplinary research.

David Chapman—From early wave to new wave

David Chapman, Coordinator of the Japanese studies program, School of International Studies, University of South Australia, talks about his life-long interest in Japan and a growing interest in Japanese popular culture.

How did your interest in Japan start?

It was sparked by the early wave of Japanese-made television shows in the 1960s. I vividly remember running home from primary school in the afternoon to watch Shintaro the Samurai and the first wave of Japanese anime; Atom Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Gigantor. For a schoolboy in suburban Brisbane in the 1960s and early 70s these programs made a lasting impression. I wanted to be a Koga Ninja and learn the secret art of jumping backwards into trees behind a cloud of smoke.

However, life took me in a different direction, and I had to postpone my ninja aspirations. My first profession was school teaching and I started off teaching science and physical education in country Queensland. They were interesting years but the urge to backpack through Asia was overwhelming. I quit my teaching position and left for Bali in the 1980s, planning to make it eventually to Japan. It took me 12 months and around 20 countries.

I worked and studied, and eventually ended up in the National Language Research Institute in Kita-ku, Tokyo doing research. I came back to Australia to lecture in an innovative Japanese partial immersion teacher-training program at Central Queensland University. I finished my PhD on Korean communities in Japan at Curtin University of Technology and took up a position at the University of South Australia. I turned the thesis into a book, Zainichi Korean Identity and Ethnicity, which was published by Routledge last year.

As coordinator of the Japanese Studies Program, what do you see as the current main preoccupations in the field?

The current government National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) initiative for boosting Asian languages and literacy in schools and universities is a positive step. Although still well short of what is necessary, the funding is a welcome sign of renewed life in the area.

But I worry about the emphasis on language—sometimes to the detriment of the ‘studies’ dimension of Japanese Studies. Both these areas, of course, complement each other, and a solid grounding in both is necessary for successful specialist research on Japan. I believe further merging between the two would increase the efficacy of a program. The perennial problem in universities, of course, is the decrease in staffing levels and the extra workloads we’re all carrying—finding room to create new and innovative initiatives in pedagogy is difficult.

Do you see any major new trends emerging in this field over the next few years?

In the field of teaching I see changes in the type of student studying Japanese at an undergraduate level, at least at the University of South Australia. More and more students from overseas or with experience of being educated overseas have an interest in Japanese popular culture, fashion and Japanese television programs. The student group, therefore, is continuing to diversify greatly, which I think is a positive trend.

In the field of research I think more people from diverse disciplinary backgrounds are researching Japan. I guess this follows a wider emergence of multi-disciplinary approaches, or it might be because the discipline of Japanese studies itself has suffered from decreasing positions being offered in the field.

What are your own current preoccupations?

Two research projects are my obsessions at the moment. Both have developed from my interest in the history of minority communities in Japan. I’m researching the social history of identification and documentation through Japan’s population registries from their early beginnings through to the present day. The aim is to provide a better understanding of how these registries have shaped Japan’s social world and how various groups have resisted social control.

The second project has emerged from the first. I’m very interested in the history of the Ogasawara Islands and their inclusion into the Japanese nation in the early Meiji period. I’m trying to document some life stories of descendants of the first settlers of these islands.


A team from the Australian National University is researching influencers on the rate of adoption of new staple food varieties in East Timor. Andrew McWilliam* talks about the team’s work through, an Australian government-funded initiative, the Seeds of Life program, to improve food security in East Timor.

What is the Seeds of Life program?

This is a $10 million bilateral initiative between the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the East Timor Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. AusAID is providing additional funding and the Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Areas (CLIMA), at the University of Western Australia, project management. The project is designed to improve substantially yields of key staple food crops such as maize, rice, sweet potato, cassava, peanuts.

The first phase, from 2001–05, involved testing a wide range of cultivars for desirable characteristics, such as drought tolerance, yield, fungal resistance and, importantly, taste. Prospective varieties have been gradually distributed to Timorese farmer households under an innovative participatory farming system to enable them to directly compare the yields and qualities of the new varieties with their existing crops under the same conditions. To date over 2000 farmer households have participated and the initial results are very positive.

How did you become involved?

I became interested during the project’s early phase of varietal testing from 2000 through lively discussions with Dr Brian Palmer, who was the initial in-country project manager. Professor James Fox, then Director of the ANU’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, had also been a supporter. When a new implementation phase was planned in 2005, we pushed to have a social research component included, arguing that ANU was well placed to provide a socio-economic support role, given our strong research track record on Timor.

I maintain a limited advisory role, but we’ve made significant contributions through the work of Dr Diana Glazebrook, who undertook field research and training between 2006–07, and more recently, Angie Bexley, who is finalising a PhD in the Department of Anthropology, and taken up an 18-month, full-time position on the project, working with the Timorese socio-economic team to complete intensive field evaluations.

What are your current projects with the program?

Our main objective is to research the factors influencing the rate of adoption of new staple food varieties. So our emphasis is on sustained field-based studies across the seven districts where Seeds of Life is operating. We’re working on agro-climatic calendars for extension and planning, baseline profiles of participating farmer households and an approach called ‘seed mapping’ that aims to document the production and distribution of new seed crop germplasm into markets or customary exchange systems. We’re also looking at the gender impacts of new varieties.

What has been the team’s most significant achievement?

Our involvement is principally designed to support training and mentoring of Timorese socio-economic staff in the Ministry of Agriculture. To that end, we’ve been able to demonstrate the value of social science applications.

The baseline studies undertaken between 2006–07 highlighted key features of Timorese farming systems, including the importance of tuber crops and wild-food gathering for rural diets, and seasonal food shortages coinciding with high labour demand. We also highlighted the significance of cultural factors in the patterns of Timorese agriculture and the need to integrate these practices into agricultural planning.

How successful has the program been?

Agricultural development projects by their very nature tend to have long lead times, as innovations take years to be integrated into local farming systems. Survey results indicate strong interest in the new crop varieties, particularly in an irrigated rice variety known as Nakroma. This is proving to be very popular, with 40 per cent yield gains on local varieties, good taste and easy preparation times. Sweet potato varieties known as ‘hohorae’ are also widely sought, and more are appearing in local markets. But there are many challenges in terms of building stronger agricultural support and extension systems, and of sustaining quality seed production for distribution, and for policy settings to support poor farmers.

What are the plans for the program over the next five years?

With the completion of its second phase in September 2010, there are hopes the project partners will fund a new five-year phase. It’s important to consolidate and build on the initial gains in areas such as, wider distribution of improved seed varieties, continued testing of new varieties, agricultural extension services and improved post-harvest storage facilities. A future phase would look to integrating most of the program’s daily operations under Timor Leste Ministry of Agriculture management.

What is the longer term food security outlook for East Timor?

Timor Leste has a highly variable monsoonal climate with low soil fertility and poor post harvest storage technologies. This makes the near-subsistence agriculture precarious at best. Timor farmer families are highly resilient, but they’re also vulnerable to periodic crop failure and seasonal food shortages. Seeds of Life holds out the prospect of significantly improving food security and an opportunity to raise rural incomes through the marketing of surplus. Increased government funding to the agricultural sector generally is also welcome. So I’m optimistic about East Timor, and particularly the capacity of Timorese farmers to survive, and even thrive, under difficult environmental conditions.

* Dr McWilliam is from the Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies

Art and culture


From enormous temple complexes to the profusion of decorative detail on every available surface, the sheer diversity, creativeness and scale of the temples and art of Angkor is staggering and of world-wide renown. Yet, says Martin Polkinghorne*, the individuals who created these works, from architects to builders, carpenters, painters, tool fabricators, brick and ceramic manufacturers, and quarry labourers are almost entirely nameless.

The artists were undoubtedly of considerable importance to the court and to broader Khmer society, yet they remain largely anonymous. What were their work processes? Were they organised into workshops? Was there a hierarchy of artists? To what degree did they follow the specifications of the project superintendent or, conversely, to what degree did they have artistic licence?

In the medieval Khmer epigraphic record there are few references to artisans. The fragmentary information tends to mention the individuals or the administrative hierarchy under which the artists worked. For instance, an 11th century inscription of Wat Baset, near Battambang, praises the official Gunapativarman, referred to as Vishvakarman, architect of the cosmos, and in this instance ‘chief of the artists’. Building projects were supervised by spiritual advisors who ensured that the project was conducted under the requisite ritual conditions. The 11th century inscription of Wat Ek named Yogishvarapandita, an official of Suryavarman 1st as Acarya sthapaka, the priest charged to guide the architects.

In the current dearth of inscriptional information, relevant construction debris, fabrication tools, or known archaeological landscape signatures suggestive of artistic intensification of the objects themselves offer the most significant information regarding the probable composition and activities of these workshops.

As one of the most durable and recurrent elements of medieval Khmer artistic culture, decorative lintels are excellent objects by which to study artistic process and change. The true lintel consists of the higher part of the framework of a temple door, which is usually formed of four independent sandstone blocks held together by mortise and tenon fittings. The decorative lintel, on the contrary, is rarely load bearing and is positioned in a principal position watching over all who cross the threshold from the secular to the divine.

The forms and iconography of the decorative lintel sought to maintain the temple in a permanent state of festival. Often they represent transitory decorations of garlands and rinceaux that gave the impression of a building alive with celebrations.

The richness and precision of decorative lintel ornamentation have provided art historians with an array of information to successfully chart the transformation of Khmer art from its early pre-Angkorian incarnations at Phnom Da and Sambor Prei Kuk to the glories of Bayon ‘style’ in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Examples of re-use suggest an appreciation for the specialised skill and symbolic importance of these works.

The sculpture of lintels in situ was among the last activities of temple construction and adornment. The carvers were probably not mere tradesmen but among the most accomplished artists in the state, and their analysis opens a path into the world of the Angkorian ateliers.

At the 9th century temple of the Bakong, the centre of the city Hariharalaya, we can observe how artists were allocated to the decorative project. From the nearly identical lintel designs, motif combinations and chisel skill we can see that one highly skilled person was allocated two façades each of a four sided prasat, presumably by the project superintendent or head sculptor.

In the 10th century these artistic divisions were still in operation and evident at the famed ‘miniature’ temple of Banteay Srei

where the same artist or small group of artists was assigned specific surfaces to showcase their particular designs. In addition to the allotment of labour at individual sites, we can also appraise the operation of the same artistic workshops across the medieval Cambodian landscape.

Consistency of lintel design during Rajendravarman II’s 10th century movement of capitals between Koh Ker and Angkor suggests that the workshop followed the court wherever it happened to travel. Workshops were obliged to the court, irrespective of the monarch’s ‘claim’ to the throne, but dependent upon their ability to provision the construction of temples.

No doubt the temple builders and artistic workshops well understood who their biggest employer was, and conversely the administration understood it must utilise artistic knowledge to maintain and symbolise its power. Other evidence suggests that artists and work-teams also engaged in productive activities outside the scope of the court, administration and possibly their own workshop.

How the temple builders and decorators were organised is difficult to ascertain. It is possible that artisans were organised into professional collectives within the sphere of the court known as varnas. By reviewing the organisation of analogous and contemporary craft production, it is possible to suggest a tentative association with medieval temple builders. For example, contemporary artistic workshops show evidence of a hierarchy of craft specialisations according to the type of goods they manufacture.

Lintel carvers were probably of a higher status than ceramic manufacturers, but of lesser standing than specialists produced elite objects such as jewellery. The nature of workshop recruitment is additionally difficult to assess.

We can theorise that production units formed through kin relations, marriage, and hereditary relationships. Contemporary Khmer ceramic workshops are usually organised on a familial basis, with specific tasks divided according to gender. A pragmatic deduction of how knowledge of the trade was transmitted from artist to artist, and generation to generation is via a master/apprentice relationships. For instance, on large temple projects of the 10th century (East Mebon, Pre Rup), less prominent lintels are of lesser skill and were work of apprentices developing their skills, whereas the central façades were reserved for the masters.

The makers of Angkor, the very people who carved sculptures and the architectural ornamentation deserve to be acknowledged, and it is hoped that this work on their decorative output will lead to larger studies that can cross reference other artistic production such as sculpture in the round and also identify and investigate the specific locations of their operation.


* Dr Polkinghorne, is Honorary Associate, Department of Asian Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, University of Sydney

Student of the month - Emma Dalton


Japan’s political parties have had a poor record when it comes to representation of women in the national assembly. PhD candidate Emma Dalton*, who is researching gender discourses and the under-representation of women in politics in Japan, particularly in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, asks whether times are changing for women in politics in Japan.

In 2008, for the first time in the history of the perennial Japanese government party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a woman ran for the position of party president.

Koike Yuriko, a political veteran with experience in many different political parties, as well as in the Cabinet (including a brief stint in the post of Defence Minister), challenged the other five LDP senior figures in the race. She didn’t win, but the question arises: does her attempt to challenge the leadership in the conservative and heavily male-dominated LDP herald something new and exciting for women in politics in Japan?

As a feminist concerned with bringing to light how patriarchal institutions operate to preserve male privilege and marginalise women, another question to consider is: did she climb the political ladder by ‘acting like men’, as Margaret Thatcher and other politically successful women have been accused of doing?

My PhD research is concerned with gender discourses in Japan and the under-representation of women in politics in Japan, with specific focus on the role the LDP has played in encouraging or hindering increased female participation in the national assembly, the Diet.

Apart from nine months in 1993–94, the LDP has held consecutive governments since its inception as a political party in 1955. It is a conservative political party and from a gendered perspective, fares the worst of all the major political parties in Japan in terms of female representation. Women occupy less than 11 percent of LDP Diet seats, and the LDP’s record has been worse than other parties consistently.

I’m interested in exploring the party’s ideology on gender equity and analysing the party culture to examine how the LDP has affected gender discourses in Japan, and importantly, how the LDP’s ideology on gender equity and dominant discourses of gender in Japan serve to hinder women’s increased political representation.

After a little over three years, I’m about two months away from submitting my thesis. Over the last three years of research


I’ve been fortunate to attend several conferences and workshops in many places, including Japan, Malaysia, Brisbane, Melbourne and Wollongong. To gain insights into the experiences of female LDP Diet members I went to Tokyo to interview them. It was very difficult to gain access and I learned a lot about fieldwork and also, more specifically, about how the political system in Japan seems to work.

I spent eight months in Tokyo on fieldwork, where I interviewed 19 members of the Diet (mostly LDP women). I also attended a class called ‘Women and Politics’ at Rikkyo University with which I was affiliated during fieldwork, and gained an insight into contemporary university debates surrounding my field of research. In addition, I worked as an ‘intern’ on a casual basis for a local Tokyo LDP councillor, and this allowed me access to local LDP politics which, though not directly related to my PhD topic, was enlightening.

My involvement with Japan started when I was 11 years old, when my primary school began teaching Japanese to ‘those who were interested’ after school. I can’t recall being interested in much other than fun and games when I was 11, but my parents decided I should be interested in Japanese, so off I went.

Of course, learning Japanese was a lot of fun and games at that stage, with lessons mainly consisting of games like ‘fruit bowl’ and drawing competitions. I continued with my Japanese studies, despite the disappearance of fruit bowl games which, in time, were replaced by gruelling kanji exams and nerve-wracking oral presentations, and eventually completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Queensland with a double major in Japanese studies.

After witnessing firsthand as an exchange student how Japanese middle-class families operated according to rules about gender differences, I developed an interest in gender and Japan. I wrote my honours thesis in 1999 on the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in Japan and its relationship to the feminist movement.

After completing my Masters in Interpreting and Translating at the University of Queensland, I freelanced as a translator for Japanese companies, translating a wide variety of documents, including car manuals, part of a novel, business statements and art guides. In conjunction with this, I worked as a medical interpreter at the Gold Coast, where I lived at the time. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the PhD experience and look forward to a career in academia.

With the LDP announcing that a general election for the Lower House will be held in late August, political pundits are predicting a loss for the LDP-Komeito coalition and a subsequent takeover of the government by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. It will be interesting to see what an LDP loss will mean for the representation of women in the Diet. Given that the DPJ record for female representation is only marginally better than the LDP’s, it is difficult to imagine a drastic change for the better.

* Emma Dalton is a PhD Candidate, Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies (CAPSTRANS), in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication, University of Wollongong.

Website of the month

Shakespeare Performance in Asia (SPIA), Shakespeare Electronic Archive, MIT Shakespeare Project, MIT, Cambridge, MA, US.

The centre of creativity in Shakespeare performance is shifting from Europe and the United States to Asia, where directors such as Ninagawa Yukio, Suzuki Tadashi, Ong Keng Sen, Wu Hsing-kuo, and many others experiment with combinations of traditional and contemporary theatre, new strategies for working across languages and genres, new ways of reaching diverse audiences. The site showcases video highlights with English subtitles, photos, and texts from Asia, the United States and Europe. This database is intended to promote cross-cultural understanding and serve as a core resource for students, teachers and researchers, and is part of the Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library by Matthew Ciolek.

Interesting books of Asian interest

Contributed by Sally Burdon of Asia Bookroom

As a number of Asian Currents readers teach Japanese or teach about Japan, this month’s selection includes an unusual DVD, Exploring Japan. It is a presentation of film of everyday modern Japan, without an interfering voice over, but includes sound that is relevant to the images—for instance, a busy market or a pachinko parlour. It is designed to be used in small bites to illustrate and support Japanese studies at any age. If you know of similar helpful DVDs, please let me know.

Deepening Democracy in Indonesia? Direct Elections for Local Leaders (Pilkada)

Maribeth Erb and Sulistiyanto Priyambudi (eds)

392pp, paperback, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2009. ISBN: 9789812308405. $69.95

The latest development in Indonesia’s democratisation process is the implementation of a system for directly electing regional leaders. The first round of elections for all governors, mayors and district heads was completed in 2008. The result of a workshop in Singapore in 2006, this volume presents data from across the archipelago for these elections and how far they have contributed to a deepening democracy.

Famine in North Korea. Markets, Aid, and Reform

Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland

309pp, paperback, Columbia University Press, New York, 2009. ISBN: 9780231140010. $51.95

A comprehensive and penetrating account of the North Korean famine in the mid 1990s, this study examines the origins and aftermath of the crisis, the regime's response to outside aid and the effect of its current policies on the country's economic future. It considers the root causes of the famine and weighs the effects of the decline in the availability of food against its poor distribution. The famine exemplified the depredations that can arise from tyrannical rule and the dilemmas such regimes pose for the humanitarian community, as well as the obstacles inherent in achieving economic and political reform.

Tourism in Southeast Asia. Challenges and New Directions

Michael Hitchcock, Victor T. King and Michael Parnwell

358pp, paperback, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu. 2009, ISBN: 9780824832995. $54.95

An up-to-date exploration of the state of tourism development and associated issues in one of the world's most dynamic tourism destinations, this volume looks closely at challenges facing Southeast Asian tourism at a critical stage of transition and transformation and following a recent series of crises and disasters. Building on and advancing the editors’ 1993 path-breaking Tourism in South-East Asia, it adopts a multidisciplinary approach and includes contributions and fresh perspectives from leading researchers on tourism in Southeast Asia.

Exploring Japan DVD. A Visual Journey

DVD (running time of 45 minutes), CD ROM with teaching notes, discussion points and slides, Visual Education Media, Auckland, 2007. ISBN: 9781877496011. $74.95

A visual account of everyday Japanese life, with its mix of traditional and modern culture, this DVD is conceived as a springboard for discussion on Japanese life and culture, in particular the similarities to, or differences from, students' own life experiences. The DVD can be adapted to any student level. Support materials are provided on the CD ROM but it is presumed that teachers will be able to bring to bear their own knowledge of the country, its people and culture when working with the most advanced students. A valuable Japanese Language/Social Science resource for students at any level.

Bangladeshi Cuisine

Shawkat Osman

141pp, Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2009. ISBN: 9781890206024. $54.95

The book’s theme is aappayon, or entertaining the Bangladeshi way. The menus are designed to steer you through planning a party, selecting the recipes and preparing the food. In doing so, the book gives a rare insight into the life of the Bangladeshi people and explains various rituals and traditions.

Phan Chau Trinh and His Political Writings

Phan Chau Trinh. Translated and edited by Vinh Sinh

139pp, paperback, Cornell Southeast Asia Program, Ithaca, 2009. ISBN: 9780877277491. $38.95

Phan Châu Trinh (1872-1926) was the earliest proponent of democracy and popular rights in Vietnam. Throughout his life, he favoured a moderate approach to political change and advised the country's leaders to seek gradual progress for Vietnam within the French colonial system. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not favour anti-French military alliances or insurgent military resistance, arguing that ‘to depend on foreign help is foolish and to resort to violence is self-destructive’. This collection offers translations of four of his most significant works: The New Vietnam, Letter to Emperor
Kh_i __nh, Morality and Ethics, and Monarchy and Democracy.




Congratulations to Caroline Mahoney, the winner of a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. A Japanese teacher from Sydney currently studying at Waseda University, Tokyo, on a Japanese Government Scholarship, Caroline was the first to email the correct answer to our two questions in last month’s issue. Our thanks to all of you who submitted answers, and to Cambridge University Press for their generous donation of the book as a prize.


Women in Asia Series

Gender Diversity in Indonesia: Beyond Gender Binaries
Sharyn Leanne Graham

Feminist Movements in Contemporary Japan
Laura Dales

Women, Islam and Everyday Life: Renegotiating Polygamy in Indonesia
Nina Nurmila

Southeast Asia Series

Kampung, Islam and State in Urban Java
Patrick Guinness

Thailand and T’ai Lands: Modern Tai Community (in press)
Andrew Walker (ed.)

Workers and Intellectuals: NGOs, Trade Unions and the Indonesian Labour Movement
Michele Ford

East Asia Series

Women’s History and Local Community in Postwar Japan
Anderson Gayle

Positions vacant

These sites offer career prospects for graduates and postgraduate in Asian Studies. If you know of other useful sites advertising jobs for postgrads in Asian Studies, please send them to and advertise worldwide academic posts. is a free-to-access website run by The International Studies Association. is a free service run by the United Nations to recruit for NGO jobs has a paid subscription service providing access to jobs worldwide in the international development industry.

Did you know?


Professor JAA Stockwin, University of Oxford, will chair and facilitate a workshop on Japan for postgraduates and early career researchers (ECRs) at the University of Adelaide on 23–24 November 2009.

Organised by the Japan–Korea node of the Asia Pacific Futures Research Network in conjunction with its network project titled ‘Japan: Descending Asian Giant?, the workshop will feature 10 to 15 speakers from Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States discussing aspects of contemporary Japanese economy, politics, society, demography and international relations.

PhD candidates and ECRs researching contemporary Japan are invited to apply for a fully funded place (airfare and accommodation in Adelaide) at the workshop. Ten 10 PhD students/ECRs from interstate are likely to be selected.

Applications close on Friday, 14 August 2009. Applicants should provide a brief curriculum vitae, a supporting letter from their supervisor, current research and future plan (1/2 page) and a statement of workshop expectations (1/2page). Applications to: Professor Purnendra Jain.


The Asian Studies Program of the School of Languages and Cultures is presenting its Summer School in Angkor again in January, 2010. The intensive 18-day course will focus on Angkor and will be led by Khmer art specialist Dr Martin Polkinghorne. The tour offers a unique opportunity to study Angkor’s history, art history, and archaeology. Formal lectures are integrated with site visits and field excursions. For information on enrolments, contact Jane Thomson, 02 9351 4505 or

Diary dates

BLOOD AND SOIL: GENOCIDE IN WORLD HISTORY, illustrated lecture, Sydney, 5pm–7pm, 5 August 2009, by Professor Ben Kiernan, Yale University, USA, organised by the Sydney Democracy Forum. Venue, University of Sydney, Room 246, New Law Building. Lecture free and open to public, but registration essential. RSVP: Zoe

INDIAN MODERNITY: ONCE COLONIAL, NOW GLOBAL, keynote seminar, Sydney, 17 August 2009. Speaker: Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty, ANU, Chicago Centre for Contemporary Theory, School of Historical Studies University of Melbourne. Part of the seminar series organised by the Indian Ocean and South Asia Research Network (IOSARN), University of Technology Sydney. Further information: Devleena Ghosh

WAR ART IN ASIA AND THE REPRESENTATION OF WAR, workshop, Sydney, 28 August 2009. Organised by the Australian Centre for Asian Art & Archaeology, University of Sydney, and the Research School of Humanities, ANU, the workshop will be held at Mills Lecture Theatre, R.C. Mills Building, University of Sydney. Booking essential. RSVP and enquiries:

23–24 November 2009,
organised by the Japan–Korea node of the Asia Pacific Futures Research Network. Professor JAA Stockwin, University of Oxford, will chair and facilitate the workshop for postgraduates and early career researchers at the University of Adelaide. Ten to 15 speakers from Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States will discuss aspects of contemporary Japanese economy, politics, society, demography and international relations.

30 November–1 December 2009.
Organised by the Australian Council for International Development and Institute for Human Security, La Trobe University, the conference will critically engage the Millennium Development Goals and the processes or rather possibilities for change. A key aim is to bring together development practitioners, academics, policy makers and the business community. Deadline for abstracts/proposals, 14 August 2009. For more information, please the see conference website for latest details.

GENDER AND OCCUPATIONS AND INTERVENTIONS IN THE ASIA PACIFIC, 1945–2009, workshop, Wollongong, 10–11 December 2009. Sponsored by the Asia Pacific Futures Research Network, CAPSTRANS and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Wollongong, this small workshop, at the University of Wollongong, will bring together for the first time established scholars, ECRs, postgraduates and community members and activists to discuss issues related to gender, occupation and intervention. A few competitive places for sponsored positions (travel within Australia only and accommodation for two nights) for postgraduates and ECRs are available. See the workshop website for more information or contact the organisers: Dr Rowena Ward or Dr Christine de Matos.

IN THE IMAGE OF ASIA: MOVING ACROSS AND BETWEEN LOCATIONS conference, Canberra, 13–15 April 2010. This interdisciplinary conference explores how ‘Asia’ has been imagined, imaged, represented and transferred visually across linguistic, geopolitical and cultural boundaries. It aims to challenge established assumptions (and consumptions) of cultural products of ‘Asia’, from arts, artefacts and film to performance. Proposals for papers should be submitted to Dr Fuyubi Nakamura or Dr Ana Dragojlovic by 11 September 2009.

ASAA BIENNIAL CONFERENCE, Adelaide, 6–8 July 2010. The 18th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia will be held at the University of Adelaide. Its theme is ‘Asia: Crisis and Opportunity’. A conference website will be launched soon to provide further details and call for papers and panels.

DISPLACEMENT, DIVISION AND RENEWAL conference, Sarawak, Malaysia, 8–9 July 2010. The Curtin University Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change (RUSSIC), in conjunction with Curtin University in Sarawak, is calling for panel proposals for its conference, which will be held at Miri, Sarawak, as a sequel to the conference ‘Crossing Borders’, held in Sarawak in 2007. Panel submission closes on 31 August 2009, and call for papers will open on 1 October 2009. A conference website with further registration and location details will open soon. Enquiries and expressions of interest to Dr Aileen Hoath.

You are welcome to advertise Asia-related events in this space. Send details to Allan Sharp.


What would be useful for you? Human interest stories, profiles of successful graduates of Asian studies, more news about what's on, moderated discussions on topical issues? Send your ideas to Allan Sharp.

About the ASAA

The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) promotes the study of Asian languages, societies, cultures, and politics in Australia, supports teaching and research in Asian studies and works towards an understanding of Asia in the community at large. It publishes the Asian Studies Review journal and holds a biennial conference.

The ASAA believes there is an urgent need to develop a strategy to preserve, renew and extend Australian expertise about Asia. It has called on the government to show national leadership in the promotion of Australia’s Asia knowledge and skills. See Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge Repositioning and Renewal of a National Asset.

Asian Currents is published by the ASAA and edited by Allan Sharp. The editorial board consists of Kathryn Robinson, ASAA President; Michele Ford, ASAA Secretary; Mina Roces, ASAA Publications officer; and Lenore Lyons, ASAA Council member.

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