World War II in the Asia-Pacific: Border Crossing Mobilities

World War II in the Asia-Pacific: Border Crossing Mobilities

On 18 and 19 July 2022, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Wollongong, the University of Notre Dame, and Ritsumeikan University (Japan) hosted a Two Day Online Workshop titled “WWII in the Asia-Pacific: Border Crossing Mobilities”. The international research team and organisers of the workshop were Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi from Ritsumeikan University, Rowena Ward from the University of Wollongong, and Christine de Matos from the University of Notre Dame. The event was supported by an ASAA Event Grant 2021.

The theme of the workshop, war and border crossing mobility, is particularly relevant in light of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine which has resulted in war-related movements such as those of refugees, and global communities have had to respond accordingly. Analysing this war is not as straightforward as distinguishing between crisis and peace. Instead, it involves a complex web of intersecting processes and events that span both national and international boundaries. Given the importance of this topic and its timeliness, the workshop received a large number of applications in response to a call for papers. Over 70 people registered for the workshop from around the world.

The workshop offered six mentorship sessions to early career presenters beforehand. The research team discussed the presentations and provided valuable advice during these sessions. The funding received from ASAA was utilized to hire an Australian early career researcher, who assisted in organizing and conducting the workshop. Ritsumeikan University also provided funding for this workshop and hosts the workshop website.

This workshop took a different approach to war history by examining international mobilities and migration. By using this perspective, it aimed to uncover the complexities of war histories that exist within the intersections of local, national, and international contexts, as well as between peace and crisis, imperial power and colonised people, citizens and non-citizens, men and women, and other factors. This sensitising lens also directed us to identify an existing gap in the empirical research. While there is substantial research on war mobilities in the European context (deportees, expellees, refugees, etc), much less research has been done on similar experiences in Asia and the Pacific, although such experiences abound. This disparity is likely due to the fact that war histories tend to be researched within a paradigm of national history at the expense of inter-regional war mobilities. Another reason is that International Migration Studies does not consider war migration and mobilities. The workshop thus aimed to 1) fill the empirical gap with research in the Asia-Pacific region, 2) challenge the dominant nation-state paradigm in writing war history, and in so doing, 3) enrich war history through cases from the Asia-Pacific region.

The workshop began with a keynote speech given by Associate Professor Kirsten Ziomek from Adelphi University (USA), titled “The War of Magnificent Distances”. The address she provided highlighted a critical aspect of understanding war mobility. Distance is not a universal or abstract concept. Protagonists of various mobilities construct the meaning of distance through their social, cultural, economic, racial and gender backgrounds. Thus, writing war histories is an unpacking of inscribed and constructed meanings of war mobilities.

Followed by this keynote address, the workshop covered a variety of transnational war mobilities. These war mobilities occurred in spaces where power and resistance intersect in a particular social space and time. Some people have the freedom to move or leave, while others are compelled to move or stay. By examining war history through a mobility lens, we can gain insights into why and how a form of war mobility was created and enabled by reflecting on uneven conditions: political, economic, social, racial, colonial, gender, age, geographical and physical conditions, and mental ability. The mobility lens allows us to capture these contesting intersections and be sensitive and tactile to unheard or overlooked subjects of war history, and to bring them to the fore. By doing so we decolonise war histories and narrate war histories of long-silenced subjects of war mobilities. With these subjects, the ways war history is researched, apprehended and narrated can also be shifted: from a sedentary perspective to a mobility perspective. The history of WWII can be conceived of as an interwoven textile of these uneven war mobilities.

The presentations highlighted several important topics that warrant additional research or discussion. First, the concept of children’s mobility, as explored by Marcos Centero, questioned the conventional notion of free versus forced movement in the Western world. Who decides the mobility and immobility of whom, and how can we define “free” or “forced” mobility? Historical cases of children’s mobility merit further research from a vantage point of global history. It is worth noting that child migration continued during the Cold War era, with examples including the international adoption of South Korean children, North Korean secondary school students moving to socialist countries for their education, and British child migration to Australia. Studying these cases will contribute to understanding child mobility and migration on a global scale.

Second, Niamh Hanrahan discussed the journey of a group of Jewish refugees who fled Europe to Hong Kong, Manila, and Surabaya. In so doing, she challenged the conventional understanding of the mobility of Jewish refugees and also questioned the hierarchical binary between the West and the non-West. The refugees were forced to leave due to racist policies implemented by the Third Reich, in a place that was purportedly a stronghold of Western civilisation. However, the refugees found support in less developed and colonized or occupied Asian cities. There is a need to explore and better understand this complex geography of war mobility.

Third, unpacking the meaning of mobility is an effective approach, and Anthony J Miller, Rory Huang and Alyssa Wang revealed how a geographical movement becomes entangled with politics, societies, religion and culture to assign meaning and complicate history. At times of ongoing crises that hit China (Thirteen Years War, WWII, and internal civil wars in the post-WWII era), Christian missionaries, either Westerners or Chinese, experienced various mobilities, and they were interpreted as “Pioneers”, “Prisoners”, “Exiles” and “Refugee Evangelists”. By unpacking these representations, Miller uncovered a searing ideological contestation amongst Chinese nationalism, imperial desires to govern China through Christianity during and post WWII, the rise of local Christians and the organizational power of local Christianity.

Huang examined Buraku Japanese people’s settler migration to Manchuria and unpacked the meaning inscribed onto this migration: Their aspirations to land ownership, to escaping from their outcast status, to full integration into Japanese society, and to participation in nation-building were all tied to this migration. This movement sheds light on the complex history of the Buraku Japanese, who were both a marginalized minority and colonial settlers in the puppet state of Manchuria.

Wang’s work highlights the importance of examining the situation of “illegal” migrants, as their illegality is determined by political, social, and cultural factors. For instance, long-standing domestic labor migration in northern China was suddenly deemed illegal following the establishment of Manchukuo. Additionally, these migrants and their border-crossing mobilities were labelled as a national security threat and were restricted by the KMT government.

The fourth point is the role of diasporic or expatriate mobilities. These mobilities have the potential to diversify history and bring forth more complex narratives. Shinnosuke Takahashi and Bolin Hu have provided examples of how such mobilities, connecting Japan to New Zealand and Australia to China, can challenge and overcome stereotyped views against Asian countries in the Anglophone countries. Recently, Australian history has also attempted to situate Asian migrants’ experiences within Australian history without appropriating them. Diasporic mobilities/migration could be further developed to create a valuable framework for connecting two long-separated fields of history.

The last but most challenging point was that understanding mobility during times of war also requires apprehending immobility. Research by Rowena Ward on the movements of a Japanese ambassador to and within Australia revealed the complex mix of confinement and war mobility experienced by the ambassador. This raises an important question: How can we analyze war history by conceptualizing both mobility and immobility? This does not suggest reverting to a sedentary view. Rather, the challenge is to incorporate immobility along with mobility within a mobility perspective. This challenge has also been considered in Mobility Studies (Adey, 2017). How can historical research provide insights into the understanding of im/mobility in historical contexts? This is an ongoing challenge that requires attention. With this task in mind, the international research team is preparing to publish the results of the workshop in a special issue of a journal.

Feature image: Photo by Juliana Kozoski on Unsplash

Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi is an Associate Professor at the College of Global Liberal Arts, Ritsumeikan University.

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