The Newsletter 77 Summer 2017

Perspectives on Asian Studies in Latin America

Cláudio Costa Pinheiro

Workshop: 9-11 November 2016
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 

The objective of the workshop was to (1) outline the current state of Asian Studies in Latin America  and (2) identify ways to move forward, encourage internationalization of Asian Studies at the institutional level, and integrate universities and scholars from the region.

The workshop was preceded by a Public Opening on 9 November and attended by almost 30 participants from 8 disciplinary fields, representing 25 institutions from 11 countries in Latin and North America, Europe and Asia. The event was hosted by the School of Advanced Studies of the Rio de Janeiro Federal University and organized/sponsored by SEPHIS (the Global South Exchange Programmed for the Research on the History of Development), ICAS (International Convention of Asia Scholars) and IIAS (International Institute for Asian Studies). The preparations for the workshop included a survey carried out by Sephis; the initial results of this survey were published in The Newsletter (#72, Autumn 2015, pp.36-37;

Public opening

In addition to the workshop participants, the public opening was attended by an audience of scholars and students from public and private universities in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro. Also present were directors and other formal representation of various organizations, including the Japan Foundation for South America, the SSRC for Africa and the Vice-Consul of Japan. Most relevant was the notable presence of students of African descent, testifying to the potential of Asian Studies in Latin America to de-ethnicize Social Sciences on the continent. ‘Asia’ has also traditionally been identified in Latin America with an elitist curiosity concerning the ‘Orient’, but recent promotion of social inclusion through tertiary education shows that this picture is changing. Moreover, the field of Asian Studies in Latin America is characterized by a noticeable presence of scholars of Asian descent.

The workshop

The first day focused on analyzing the state of affairs, whilst the second discussed how to move forward toward a sustainable and inclusive environment for Asian Studies in Latin America, as well as suggestions for concrete action plans and pilot projects to integrate initiatives across Latin America and with Asia. Below are some results from the workshop discussions.

Asian Studies in Latin America. Questions of importance and relevance.
The importance and relevance of Asian Studies in Latin America is not necessarily self-evident under a permanent demand for justification. Development continues to be the main approach for framing relevance, however, this does not provide a sustainable prospect for Asian Studies. Moreover, Asian economic activities in Latin America, as well as the eruption of ‘International Relations’ as a field of study, have led to ‘Asia’ becoming a ‘commodified’ academic good. This has led to an archipelago of isolated initiatives, directed by the priorities of national agendas. If economy and development were to be the sole determinants of the relevance of Asian Studies in Latin America, scholars and themes would run the risk of becoming subservient to economic flows. It would also diminish the study of Asia to only those countries that are economically/developmentally active in Latin America (China, Korea, Japan, India and Russia).

The existing capacities of Asian Studies in Latin America.
At an institutional level, Latin America relies on a well-developed academic and scientific structure, where the interest for Asia/Asian Studies is neither new, nor small. Asian Studies in Latin America have notably been framed by the specific interests of Latin American countries, reflected in the availability of resources, sustainability of the field, local teaching traditions, research agendas and the role played by language.

Past/existing continental initiatives include ALADAA (Latin American Association for Asian and African Studies, 1978), which has had a fundamental role in promoting Asian and African studies on the continent, but has problems with its financial sustainability and governance. ALADAA should be supported as an intellectual legacy of the continent, but its limitations for promoting a full-fledged integration of Asian Studies within Latin America should not be ignored.

Material concerning Asia or Asian Studies depends on the mediation of US or European academies, media or publishing industries. Likewise, materials on Latin America in Asia are mostly Latino-Americanist readings produced in the US and Europe (primarily produced in English, resulting in a mediated secondhand perception of Latin America), and very rarely are fresh works produced on the ground in Latin America. This seriously impacts on teaching traditions, as most students do not read languages other than their own, adding to the creation of stereotypical views. This has also led to teaching traditions to crystalize around non-autonomous understandings of Asia in Latin America (and vice versa). There thus exist challenges for enabling direct intellectual linkages, free access to research and bibliographic resources concerning both regions, and connecting academic journals, associations, archives and libraries in direct dialogue through an electronic platform.

Another obstacle is funding. National resources are primarily reserved for a country’s own nationals. As a consequence, funding for pan-national, regional or continental initiatives are normally made available by external resources (e.g., Asian, European or North-American foundations), again leading to nation-specific research (e.g., funding from China for research on China).

What should be done? Perceived gaps and needs.
What kind of Asian Studies do we want for the future? Improvements would include the investment in direct dialogues between the two regions, in a way that the encompassing presence of the West could be challenged, not just at the level of mediator for global knowledge circulation, but for producing knowledge outside a certain methodological and theoretical framework. Studying Asia helps Latin America to rethink and deconstruct self-imposed views of the region being part of the West. Asia-Latin America intellectual encounters could lead to reconsidering ‘history’ as a derivative effect of the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world, organizing perceptions of the past as much as of the present. A Latin America-Asia intellectual connection is not only heuristically relevant for producing autonomous views on Asian and Latin American Studies that could avoid the encompassing presence of the West, it is equally important for producing pluralistic views of ‘global’.

Moving forward
Encourage continental collaborative projects and initiatives, and organize existing capacity through a platform that can connect Asian Studies within Latin America within the broader international field of Asian Studies. Promote a pan-Latin American graduate program on Asian Studies that could work for the circulation of scholars and publications within the region and from outside; although this could also be risky, as the present academic scenario of Latin America has difficulties to absorb classic Asiantists. Other formats of collaborations are also possibilities, such as on-line collaborations and the consolidation of Asian History into an obligatory discipline at the undergraduate level.

Participants of the workshop.

Latin American Knowledge Platform on Asia

The workshop participants discussed the relevance of a continental platform as a strategy for consolidating new forms of collaboration with institutions and associations in Asia and elsewhere. The platform should also function as a means for Latin American intellectuals to connect with other parts of the Global South in an autonomous way. The discussion led to the idea of a ‘Latin American Knowledge Platform on Asia’, that could promote initiatives and later evolve into the form of an Association. The platform would require communication strategies, including newsletters, social media and a collective electronic platform (a site or blog), as well as a repository for identifying achievements (publications, journals, institutions) and for identifying libraries and archives that store material concerning Asia. The electronic platform should be pursued as a collective project, organized around local commissions. Functioning as a community for professionals at different stages of their careers, it could be the kick-off collective project of our Latin American Knowledge Platform on Asia.

After the debate, the following concrete initiatives were proposed:

  1. The Latin American Knowledge Platform on Asia should be present at meetings on Asian Studies, in our region and abroad.
  2. A panel or roundtable organized around our platform during ICAS 10 (Chiang Mai, Thailand, 20-23 of July 2017).
  3. The strategic meeting of the Latin American Knowledge Platform on Asia should discuss an agenda for one, three and five year plans, with practical and academic issues, including:
    • the establishment of a secretariat; a calendar for bi-annual conferences; a definition of roles of individual faculty members and research agendas; a committee for the ICAS Book Prize (Portuguese and Spanish);
    • the construction of an on-line platform to: gather academics, institutions, journals and newsletters; improve continental knowledge about the history and present capacity of Asian Studies in LA (building on the survey by Sephis); register archives and libraries with special collections on Asia in Latin America; constitute a privileged space for students and young scholars from Latin America and Asia for interaction and information sharing.
  4. The Latin American Knowledge Platform on Asia should be present at the next ALADAA meeting (Lima, Peru, October 2017) - not only for taking the opportunity for further consolidating our platform, but specially for promoting an integrative agenda with ALADAA and other institutions and associations within Latin America.

Cláudio Pinheiro, Professor, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Chairman, Sephis Programme for Research and Cooperation on the Global South. 

Abridged version by Sandra Dehue (IIAS). 
The full report is available here: