D – Transregional connections and entangled regions

Roundtable: “Oceanic Asia: The sea, global history, and the edges of area studies”

Event Details

  • Date

    Saturday, 27 June - 8:30–10:30

  • Venue
  • Theme
    D – Transregional connections and entangled regions
  • Stefan Hübner (National university of Singapore)
  • Ian J. Miller (Harvard University)
  • Nadin Heé (Free University of Berlin)
  • David Howell (Harvard University)
  • Stefan Hübner (National university of Singapore)
  • Ian J. Miller (Harvard University)
  • Manako Ogawa (Ritsumeikan University)
  • Takehiro Watanabe (Sophia University)


Asia’s oceans demand our attention. Violent and fecund, they define life in the region: pushing the shore under the rush of tsunami; charging typhoon circulation and seasonal monsoons; feeding billions. And yet, Asian Studies remains largely beholden to a terrestrial view of the world that is at odds with the importance of the sea across all eras of the region’s history. This “terrestrial bias” also means that oceans are seen as dividers or connectors, while the interaction with the wet environment often remains obscure. Our “Oceanic Asia” roundtable convenes a diverse, multi-national, multi-disciplinary group to expand the scope of Asian Studies, drawing from a broader turn to the sea—the “new thalassology”—developing within our fields and in adjacent areas such as Pacific History, Indian Ocean Studies, and environmental history. Oceanic and global perspectives are opening up new spaces that were often left untouched by area studies and maritime history. Approaching the nation-state from an oceanic “outside in” perspective also provides new insights into historical agency. Taking “ocean time” instead of terrestrial time into account will bridge modern and pre-modern interactions with the sea above and below its surface. Doing so also draws our attention to environmental, territorial, and social practices and changes. We will investigate especially those that emerged from or took place in the greater Pacific region, driven by our shared interest in integrating Japan more strongly into Asia’s oceanic history. This interest will lead us far beyond Asia’s coastlines. But it will also help us to shed light on coastal regions otherwise marginalized in “terrestrial” or port-oriented global histories. Seeing the ocean as more than merely empty space between entrepots or political entities thus elicits questions: How does thinking with and about and against the sea require us to change our practice as humanists and social scientists? Does an oceanic perspective change how we understand the trans- of “trans-national”, “trans-regional”, or other scalar frames? What interests are unsettled by an oceanic approach, especially within the ambit of Asian Studies? Each presenter has 7 minutes—timed by the turn of an hourglass—to present their argument. David Howell uses Japanese stories about a “barbarian woman in a hollow boat” to investigate how Japanese during the early nineteenth century viewed the ocean and Japan’s place in it; Nadin Heé focuses on tuna fisheries to show how especially Japan’s “pelagic imperialism” led to defining and exploiting tuna no longer as a local commons for societies, such as fishery villages all over the world, but also a global one, available on the high seas for those able to access it; Stefan Hübner argues that an “amphibious revolution” colonized the world’s seas, which as a counter-reaction to neo-Malthusian degrowth strategies turned their surfaces especially near coastlines into new industrial centers; Manako Ogawa illustrates how exchanges of fishing and pearling knowledge between Hawaii and East Asia resulted in ecosystem transformations and increased human control over biomass shifts; Takehiro Watanabe tracks the hydrological connection between land and sea, showing how maritime policy shaped land use particularly in Eastern Hokkaido. Each presenter will, before the roundtable takes place, post a précis to a public website—allowing all in the room to enter discussion with key concepts and shared knowledge that will deepen conversation and spur debate. The website is the following: href="https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/oceanicasia">https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/oceanicasia We will also provide access to an online/cellular; A tool of the sort used in many classrooms. This simple app aggregates real-time audience input—focusing discussion on shared themes or points of disagreement rather than privileging the very first question asked. It also helps ensure that diverse voices can be heard.