JANUARY 24-25, 2020
Harvard University
CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street
Japan Friends of Harvard Concourse
Kang Seminar Room S050

Asia’s oceans demand our attention. Violent, prolific, and changeful they define life in the region: pushing the shore under the rush of tsunami and rise of climate change; charging typhoon circulation and seasonal typhoons; feeding millions and seeding conflict over resources and island territories such as Senkaku/Diàoyú or Takeshima/Dokdo. And yet, much of our work in Asian Studies remains 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 conference brings together a diverse, multi-national, multi-disciplinary group to expand the ambit of Asian Studies, drawing energy from a broader turn to the sea—the “New Thalassology”—developing within our fields and in adjacent areas such as Atlantic History, Pacific History, and Indian Ocean Studies. Our particular spatial focus is Japan’s place within oceanic history, but the subject matter demands careful engagement with other places. Our particular concern is with the environmental history of the sea.
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?


David L. Howell
Robert K. and Dale J. Weary Professor of Japanese History, Harvard University

Ian J. Miller
Professor of History, Harvard University


Robert Hellyer
Associate Professor of History, Wake Forest University

David Armitage
Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History, Harvard University

Naomi Oreskes
Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University

Timothy George
Professor of History, University of Rhode Island

William Tsutsui
President and Professor of HIstory, Hendrix College