On 22 and 23 September 2021, the Research Center for Area Studies of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in collaboration with The Japan Foundation Jakarta held an international seminar titled Japanese Studies in Indonesia: Crisis and Reorientation. This online seminar is held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Japanese Studies Program at LIPI and the ongoing integration of LIPI into the newly inaugurated National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). The seminar brought together speakers from Indonesia and abroad, presenting fascinating research and perspectives to reflect on the direction of Japanese studies, where it has come from, and where it is heading.

After opening remarks, the first day began with a keynote lecture from Professor Christine R. Yano of the University of Hawaii, followed by presentation sessions from Leng Leng Thang from the National University of Singapore and LIPI researcher Fadjar Ibnu Thufail. These lecture and presentations contextualize Japanese studies by tracing the origins, development, present state, and future possibilities of Japanese studies, with Yano covering the global scope, Thang covering the Southeast Asian scope, and Fadjar covering the Indonesian context. They addressed the relevance of area studies, especially Japanese studies, in an increasingly globalised world and amid growing interest in studying the rising China.

The lecture and presentations note that Japanese studies in the US originated in World War II, from the need to understand the enemy as a different “other.” Yano recounted how Japanese studies in its early days was dominated by white men, with limited share of key texts that all of them read from. However, that dominance has receded, with present day students reading from female and Asian scholars, and even some Black scholars, and the digital space has opened up new possibilities for sources of reference and interactions between scholars in different countries.

Thang highlighted how Japanese studies in Southeast Asia has grown unevenly, but largely initiated in the 1980s with the support of The Japan Foundation, in the context of PM Fukuda’s emphasis on heart-to-heart relationship following anti-Japanese sentiments in the region during the 1970s. In Indonesia, Fadjar recounted how reference materials for Japanese studies from the 80s and even up to the 2000s largely come from translated works by Western authors, and the orientation tended towards imitating essentialised characteristics of Japanese nation to reproduce its economic success. All three shared the same thread of suggesting not to study the Japan state in isolation as a unit of analysis, but rather examine how Japan is a part of international flows of people, ideas, goods, etc. And there is a need for more comparative and collaborative works.

The second day began with keynote lecture from Patrick W. Galbraith from Senshu University. The lecture was mainly concerned with the topic of his chapter in the book The End of Cool Japan, adding to the challenges faced by Japanese studies with topics that are difficult to research because of the risk of moral or legal repercussions in accessing or presenting the materials necessary to research them. He recounted his experiences in encountering limitations to what can be presented from his research that are related to lolicon that makes it difficult to fully comprehend what is actually discussed.

While Galbraith understand the risk, as there have been actual legal cases related to the possession of these materials, he argued that avoiding to research and discuss the subject would be complicit to the tendency in public discourse that defaults to conflate erotic manga and games with child abuse materials and framing Japan in blanket terms as a weird other, rather than producing nuanced understanding about such subjects. In this regard, he sees that area studies can have a role to bring context-specific knowledge of the reality on the ground to inform the global discourse, and he also pushes for translating academic research into popular publication to make research a part of public discussions and debates about the topics.

The following presentations from Karl Ian U. Cheng Chua from Ateneo de Manila University and LIPI researcher Upik Sarjiati brought the focus on creative industries in Japan and foreign workers in that industry. Cheng Chua characterized work in this industry as being precarious, as indicated by the low pay and exhausting work hours, in contrast to the image of the work as a “dream job” of doing something you love. But he also contextualized it within the shrinking domestic market in Japan and how work in general are increasingly becoming precarious.

Read more: Interview with Animator Ida Bagus Yoga:”I Won’t Recommend Indonesian Animators to Work in Japan

Meanwhile, Upik’s research takes a closer look at Indonesians working in the Japanese animation industry in the context of globalized animation production. The research uncovers their motivations, the networks that enable them to get work in Japanese companies, and their experiences that produce social remittances of ideas and practices imported back to their home country. She found that the workers are highly mobile, often moving from one company to another, which is enabled by project-based contracts and the regulation.

Both presenters expressed concern that the workers from Southeast Asia in Japan’s creative industries are not aware that their work is precarious, because even though the pay is meager for Japanese standard, it is still comparatively higher than what the workers can get in their own home countries. Cheng Chua noted that he isn’t against the dream of working in creative industries, and particularly in Japan. But the creative industries in general, wherever they are, must be transparent about the reality of the work conditions.

The next presentations were also about Indonesian workers in Japan, with Kazufumi Nagatsu from Toyo University focusing on Indonesian workers in the fishery industry in Kesennuma, while LIPI researcher Firman Budianto focusing on skilled professionals with university degrees. Nagatsu observed Indonesians working on fishing ships in maruship system or working in technical trainee system in seafood processing mainly do unskilled work, and the technical trainees rarely develop their skills when returning to Indonesia.

These facts relate to criticisms of the technical trainee system as just a means to exploit cheap foreign labor rather than actually transferring skills to low-skill workers, and training agencies often portray Indonesian workers as being gentle, docile, and rarely protest. However, Nagatsu also noted that the workers still expressed positive memories as an experience of “merantau” (leaving the hometown and even going abroad to make a living), so eliminating the program may not be the best solution, and there need to be other approaches to improve the workers’ rights without taking away their opportunities to get work abroad. If other countries could offer better working conditions, Japan might be less attractive compared to those countries the workers’ destinations for “merantau.”

In regards to skilled workers, Firman found that there is a complex interplay between factors in Japan, Indonesia, and global labor market, including but not limited to scholarship regimes, transformations of Japan’s labor market, lack of career opportunities for PhDs in Indonesia, referrals/professional networks, and images of Japan, that contribute to shaping their motivations and enabling them to get work in Japan. Those are not purely economic in nature, and need to be understood to get a more whole picture of workers’ mobility.

After the presentations, Purwoko Adhi Nugroho from The Japan Foundation Jakarta, detailed the contributions of the Foundation to support more diverse research on Japan, that are less glorifying, more humanizing and more reciprocal. Aside from building networks and collaborations between researchers and experts, various programs such as podcast are also made to promote Japanese studies to the public. The whole seminar is then closed with a speech from the Director of the Center for Area Studies LIPI Ganewati Wuryandari.

Overall, this seminar has brought together illuminating findings and perspectives from researchers from various countries to give a picture of the direction of Japanese studies. It is clear that globalisation has not made area studies, and in this case Japanese studies in particular, irrelevant or obsolete. Instead, there are new potentials to explore Japan’s links with global processes, as well as more varied approaches to study those increasingly diverse subjects.

The Indonesian Anime Times | Report by Halimun Muhammad

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