The Future of Southeast Asia Viewed
from Historical Area Studies: in Memory
of Professor Sakurai Yumio (1945-2012)
Assistant Professor CSEAS
On 19 April 2013, a conference, “The Future of Southeast Asia Viewed from Historical Area Studies: in Memory of Professor Sakurai Yumio” was held in honor of Sakurai Yumio, former visiting professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS). To the sadness of many, Sakurai suddenly passed away on 17 December 2012. He was a leading Japanese expert in historical and area studies, and many scholars both young and old gathered to give presentations in his honor.
Held at Inamori Foundation Memorial Hall, almost 80 participants from all over Japan gathered, among them retired CSEAS faculty members, colleagues from academic societies and research groups who had been associated with the late professor, and current Southeast Asian postgraduate students.
Two sessions were held in his honor, “Historical Studies and the Fieldwork: Viewed from Historical Studies of Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Asian Waters” was hosted by Momoki Shiro (Osaka University) and Okamoto Hiromichi (Prefectural University of Hiroshima). The second, “Area Studies and Historical Area Studies: Viewing Southeast Asia from its Ecological Foundations and Rural Communities” was hosted by Emeritus Professor Takaya Yoshikazu (Kyoto University) and Yanagisawa Masayuki (Center for Integrated Area Studies (CIAS)) all paid tribute to Sakurai’s achievements.
All paid tribute to the trajectory of Sakurai’s research with participants reflecting upon the various perspectives and the wide range of fields that he explored over his productive academic career.
The late Sakurai began his career as an assistant at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the predecessor of CSEAS in 1977, before assuming the position of associate professor at the Department of Oriental History in the Faculty of Literature at Tokyo University in 1990. After retiring in 2007, he rejoined CSEAS as a visiting professor.
Sakurai’s own background was in oriental history and he originally studied the history of villages in Vietnam based on investigations of texts, mostly written in classical Chinese. However on joining CSEAS, he was heavily influenced by the Center’s unique approach to area studies, and came to expand the sphere of his research interests to cover Southeast Asian history. He combined his knowledge attained through fieldwork and historical studies based on the investigation of texts in order to integrate area studies methods learned at CSEAS. Thus, Sakurai played no small role in strengthening both the fields of historical studies and area studies.
In recent years, he started to show an interest in Information Science (IS) and began to participate in the Historical-Geographical Information Analysis Project which utilizes GIS (Geographical Information Systems Science), a joint research project and approach conducted in collaboration between CSEAS and the Center for Integrated Area Studies (CIAS). At the conference, former academic colleagues came together to exchange thoughts on the legacy of his broad research activities and their impact on the current situation of area studies.
Hamajima Atsutoshi (National Taiwan University) reflecting on Sakurai’s impact on historical studies in the early 1980s, explained how, in a “Symposium on Culture of Rice Cultivation in Jiang Nan” Sakurai held in 1984,1 his influences had a major impact on oriental history studies which had hitherto simply relied on textual analysis and investigation. Sakurai’s research inspired Hamajima to rethink his own research style.
Fukami Sumio (Momoyama Gakuin University) paid tribute to Sakurai and the influence he had on textbooks. He discussed how a Japanese high school text book (published by Tokyo Shoseki and compiled by Sakurai) on world history came to deal with history of Southeast Asia as an independent issue and incorporate it as part of a broader view of history.
Visiting Professor Kato Tsuyoshi (Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, (RIHN)) spoke about Sakurai’s recognition of Southeast Asia. Sakurai was inclined to categorize Southeast Asia’s history and argued that its development stage theory arose from terms originating from the region, such as “Negara” and “Pura.”2 He had come to argue the differences of cultures and civilizations across certain periods of time and Kato noted how the fundamentals of Sakurai’s research might have been greatly influenced by postwar historical studies in Japan. This led him to development stage theory, inflected by historical materialism as well as the history of villages in Vietnam which all influenced his descriptions of the overall history of Southeast Asia as a region.
Takaya Yoshikazu shared a moment by revealing that Sakurai had recently intended to write a novel titled “The Vietnamese” by assuming the persona of one of them, and that he aimed to go as far as anecdotally explore both the method and stance of area studies, as well to test the limits of area studies achieved as a researcher.
When Sakurai was first at CSEAS, there was not yet a momentum toward establishing cross disciplinary exchanges among different areas of interest; however, there were people who were already regarding this as an issue of importance, people such as Tsuchiya Kenji, Yano Toru, and Murai Yoshinori. We will never know if Sakurai had reached a point where he identified himself with the Vietnamese, yet his straightforward attitude in achieving his goals is worthy of praise.
Professor Shibayama Mamoru (CIAS) commented that Sakurai’s vast accumulation of data for starting his research on Bach Coc villages in the Red River Delta in 1993 was an indication of his desire to stick to facts so as to understand his subject matter. As such, Sakurai’s more recent approaches to Area Informatics (AI) also reflected his ongoing efforts to overcome the difficulties in capturing different realities within a broad field through the application of the latest Information Science (IS) technology.
Toward the end of the conference one poignant question was raised by a younger scholar, a graduate student at the Graduate School of Asian and African Studies (ASAFAS) who did not know Sakurai;
“With research interests, there are two stances. One is to stay close to the area, and the other is to take a step back to secure objectivity. I wonder if area studies today has become too academic.”
The Director of CSEAS, Professor Shimizu Hiromu responded, in the light of his own career in anthropology, spurred by his desire to escape from the afterglow of U.S. military occupation and his own postwar experience of growing up in Yokosuka, that “area studies teaches us how to maintain distance as the focus of our interest,” finishing with a call to the next generation of area studies students. The conference covered over 50 years of his research and brought into sharp relief the issues which area studies now faces. It also brought gave us an opportunity to bring together both new and old area studies researchers for furthering the field.
Sakurai Yumio leaves behind his wife Mieko and two children Shizuho amd Koshi.
1 Watabe Tadayo and Sakurai Yumio. 1984. Chugoku Konano no Inasaku Bunka: Sono Gakusaiteki Kenkyu [Rice Culture in Jiangnan, China]. Tokyo: Hoso Shuppan.
2 Ishii Yoneo and Sakurai Yumio. 1985. Tonan Ajia Sekai no Keisei (Sekai no Rekishi Bijuaru Ban 12 [The formation of the Southeast Asian World]). Tokyo: Kodansha.