The Career Pathways in the Study of Asia series aims to help demystify potential career pathways for those engaged in the study of Asia, particularly at an early stage. Next in the series is Dr Shin Takahashi who is a Lecturer in Japanese at Victoria University of Wellington | Te Herenga Waka, New Zealand.
How did you become interested in studying Asia?
Growing up I was interested in politics of ethnic and racial relations and post-colonial history. My early academic interest was in ethnic relations in Australia, not Japan. So, in my third year of undergraduate study, I took a year off from university and came to Sydney and Brisbane to do my ‘fieldwork’ for about six months. In my bag, I had only about 300 dollars and the Japanese translation of Multiculturalism edited by Amy Gutman. To make a living and to start participatory observation, I started to look for jobs right after my arrival. I worked at various jobs, such as a Japanese restaurant for $8.5 per hour(!), Japanese translation for the website of a real estate company, and as a cleaner.
This experience in Australia was transformative for me. My interactions with colleagues and friends, mostly from different parts of Asia, made me reflect on post-colonial history and politics in the Japanese context. So, after I returned to my university, I began to read the modern history of Japan and its East Asian relations. I then came back to Australia to study further at the ANU with Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki, whose works as an eminent academic of Japanese and East Asian history were widely read in Japan as well as in Australia.
What was your first academic job and how did your career progress from there?
Before I came to Wellington, I had two full-time academic jobs in Japanese universities for fixed-term academic/administrative positions. At Kumamoto University, I worked on a government-funded project to train students who major in public health. So, most of my colleagues were from the schools of medicine and pharmaceutical science, and many students were from overseas, such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Nepal, Myanmar, and China. While coordinating the program with my colleagues, I taught the students modern Asian history, Japanese public policy, and supervised social and cultural research projects.
Although my job was fulfilling, it was not a permanent contract. So, I kept applying for jobs wherever possible, including overseas. The next place I got a job was at the school of liberal arts at Kobe University. It was almost like a full-time administrative position, managing and overseeing student mobility programs. Practically, there was no time for research and teaching. As an early career academic with two little kids to support, I was very anxious at that time because I could not imagine how to develop and establish my academic career. Therefore, I started job hunting again after a while. I still feel extremely fortunate that my current workplace (Victoria University of Wellington) picked me up.
What is the focus of your academic teaching and research now?
I’m completing my monograph, The Translocal Island of Okinawa, which is under contract with Bloomsbury. While working on it, I have another major project underway. This is a translation of works by Arasaki Moriteru, an eminent Okinawa historian. Arasaki left thousands of pieces on modern Okinawan history, particularly the history of civic activism since the 1950s. Like many Asianists, I believe in the value of translation. This is still the most effective way to communicate with people widely. This translation project has another meaning for me, which is to investigate the contexts around Arasaki’s coinage of the term, and ultimately, the establishment of a genre of literature called, “post-war Okinawan history”.
I’m teaching modern Japanese language, history, and literature, while guest lecturing courses in the history program. Maybe one of the key characteristics of my teaching is its emphasis on differences (regional and cultural) to understand modern Japanese culture and society. I never buy homogeneity in any sense as a frame to understand Japan. On the contrary, Japan is, in essence, a considerably decentralised country. This needs to be taken into account when understanding the dynamic nature of language, culture, and history.
What has been one career highlight?
The fact that I can study and work with students and colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington is, so far, my career highlight after an uncertain few years in my post-doctoral period. Some people might see this statement as too modest or a joke. But I am pretty serious. As many ECRs experienced, I received tens of rejection letters and worked under a fixed-term contract after my PhD. This is my fifth year at Victoria. Our institution is not as big as G8 universities. But colleagues, especially in my school, are supportive across the unit, and I feel a good potential for building up from here.
What is the best part about your job as an academic with expertise on Asia?
We can always bring in insights that question, challenge, complicate, and provoke interpretations of the world that are yet to be liberated from the asymmetrical relations of power and cultural/social capital. Given the most critical existential challenge—the catastrophic crises of global climate—I think Asianists, particularly humanities scholars, have a lot to say, do, and contribute to our communities.
What piece of advice would you give to your students keen to build a career as an academic in Asian studies?
From my own experience, I am telling my postgraduate students to be prepared for many rejection letters and eventually finding a job in a third country. So, in a nutshell, try every single possibility and take whatever comes to you.