WEAI Author Q&A: Jessamyn Abel’s “The International Minimum”



We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The International Minimum: Creativity and Contradiction in Japan’s Global Engagement, 1933-1964published by The University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Jessamyn Abel, an assistant professor of Asian Studies and history at Pennsylvania State University. Professor Abel tells the history of internationalism in Japan from the 1930s to 1960s, shedding light on the deep connections between modes of diplomacy during times of aggressive imperial expansion and of peaceful cooperation. Her book traces the evolution of the internationalist worldview in Japan by examining both official policy and general discourse surrounding epochal moments such as Japan’s withdrawal from the League and admission into the United Nations, the failed and successful attempts to host a Tokyo Olympiad, and wartime and postwar regional conferences in Tokyo and Bandung, Indonesia.

We thank Professor Abel for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What is the significance of your title “The International Minimum?”

This phrase refers to a central idea of the book: that, after the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, countries aspiring to become or to remain great powers had to engage in a minimum level of international cooperation.  The internationalist imperative meant that when Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, political and intellectual leaders could not abandon the forms and rhetoric of Wilsonian internationalism that had taken hold during the 1920s, but instead twisted both the ideals and policies of internationalism to accommodate the realities of aggression and imperialist expansion.  Though postwar Japan has been neither militarily aggressive nor territorially expansionist, the patterns of international cooperation developed during the wartime period (such as non-governmental cultural exchanges and regional frameworks) continued to shape foreign policy in the decades after the war, even to the present day.  In order to adhere to what had become the “international minimum,” Japanese leaders had to be creative in their foreign policy-making, which sometimes resulted in seemingly contradictory policies.

What drew you to the topic of Japan’s international cooperation and to the time period that this book covers?

I came to the field of Japanese history via international relations, where the tensions between Japan’s strong economic position and constrained international contribution captured my curiosity.  I planned to study the historical background of contemporary Japanese foreign policy in the postwar period, but when I learned about Japan’s continued cooperation with the League of Nations for several years after its withdrawal from the organization, I began to wonder about the fate of internationalism and its proponents in wartime Japan.  A closer look at the wartime period revealed many fundamental continuities with the postwar years, and I decided to do a transwar study in order to highlight those continuities and consider their significance for our understanding of internationalism in the twentieth century.


What kinds of archives and sources did you consult during your research for the book? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this history?

The Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Archives (Gaikō Shiryōkan) is probably the archive I used the most for this book, as it contained materials for almost every chapter.  Other archives were very specific to a single chapter.  For instance, I used the archives of the Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai (Society for International Cultural Relations), now housed in the Japan Foundation Library, for the chapter on that organization.  In order to get at general views of international relations (as opposed to official government policies or efforts by a specific organization), I read a lot of the popular journals of opinion of the times, to see what people would have been reading about the big international questions of their day.  And this gets at my biggest challenge in researching this topic.  It’s very difficult to get a sense of the regular person’s view of a topic like international relations, because it’s not something that people tend to write about in their diaries or letters to the editor or that sort of material.  For the most part, the people who wrote about theories of international cooperation were intellectuals or government officials.  Of course, these are the people most involved in making policy, so their voices certainly matter.  But what I think brought me closest to a grassroots view was the concept of cultural internationalism, which involved international exchanges and ideas that (though mostly controlled by elites) made their way into everyday life via textbooks, poetry, films, music, and sports.

What surprised you most in the course of your research?

There weren’t surprises so much as a steady shift in my approach to the question.  I started off wanting to know about how internationalists continued their activities, so I was looking for things like that initial point that captured my attention, the continued participation in the League of Nations after withdrawal.  I gradually realized that the things I was pegging as internationalist were neither antiwar nor anti-imperialist.  So I had to realize that the people who claimed to be and sounded very internationalist were not that different from the ones whom historians usually label as imperialist or militarist.  And the question became, really, what aspects of internationalism continued through the war, and how did they change the ways in which the Japanese government and people pursued internationalist activities?

 How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about Japan’s diplomatic history?

I hope the book will change people’s understanding of Japan’s diplomatic history in a few ways.  First, I hope to provide a sense of Japan as contributing to the internationalist imagination.  The black-and-white sense of wartime Japan as acting unilaterally obscures the creative policy-making that took place in the various efforts of Japanese internationalists to remain engaged with the world in the context of imperialist war.  Second, I am joining several other scholars in working to soften the sense of 1933 as a disjuncture in Japan’s international relations.  While  the rift with the League of Nations had a powerful impact on Japanese foreign policy, there was not a clear turn from internationalism to isolation, but rather a variegation of internationalism to suit national circumstances and goals.  The continuities across 1933 are at least as important as the changes.  Third, beyond the field of Japanese diplomatic history, I am contributing to trends in international history more broadly by bringing cultural materials into the study of diplomacy and by linking the international and domestic realms.


WEAI Author Q&A: Shellen Wu’s “Empires of Coal”

We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920published by Stanford University Press. The book’s author is Shellen Xiao Wu, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In this study about the international battle over control of China’s coal reserves, Professor Wu argues that the changes specific to the late Qing were part of global trends in the nineteenth century, when the rise of science and industrialization destabilized global systems and caused widespread unrest and the toppling of ruling regimes around the world.

We thank Professor Wu for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What first drew you to the topic of Western interests in China’s coal reserves?

I first read the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen’s writings years ago and found them fascinating. Here’s a Prussian aristocrat traveling extensively in China right after the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s with his Indian tea (he didn’t like Chinese tea, thought it too weak) and American whiskey and writing down all his impressions, as well as long reports on mineral deposits in the interior to send to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. His expeditions took place at a time when very few Westerners went beyond the legation quarters of Beijing. Richthofen eventually coined the term “silk road” and correctly hypothesized the origin of loess in the North China Plains, the two things for which he is most known for today.  He also wrote a lot about coal in China.

I made the connection between Richthofen and the turning point in Western interest in Chinese coal, and realized that he was pivotal to a changing perception of China by the late nineteenth century. We know the expression “not for all the tea in China.” Richthofen and his writings led many in the West to see China not just as a source of luxury goods like tea and silks, but also as a place with vast reserves of coal. This shift in view in turn led to a Great Race between European and American companies and Chinese interests to be the first to develop these mineral reserves and reap the profits.

What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in researching this study? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this topic?

I used a number of archives and published documents, including the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing, the Hubei Provincial Archives, eight volumes of Qing documents related to mining published by Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and the German Foreign Ministry Archives. It turns out that the Germans kept extensive documentation of expats in China and records of German engineers who worked at one of the earliest iron foundries and modern coalmines established in China. Everyone, the Germans, the British, and Qing officials, were keenly aware of the importance of coal to the process of industrialization.

Doing these kinds of new global histories requires language skills and a lot of travel. Research for the book took me to three continents, Europe, the US, and Asia, and turned up massive amounts of materials. The very abundance of archival and published document sources turned into the main challenge. Mining engineers’ reports don’t make for the most exciting reading. It was a very unwieldy process to weed through all this material and distill it into a 200 -page monograph.


During your research, did any of your findings surprise you or change the way you thought about the history of China—or about the history of the West–during this era?

We take for granted now that we live in an age of globalization, but it’s quite surprising how much ground people covered in the nineteenth century. Europeans and Americans traveled extensively in China before the railroads were built; at a slightly later period, Chinese students and Qing officials traveled abroad to Europe and North America. Far from one sided, everyone was observing and studying everyone else and people were open minded in a way that I don’t think many of us are even today.

How are the global trends detailed in your book relevant for our contemporary times? 

I detail in my book the process of industrialization and the creation of a new mindset necessary for China’s switch to a coal based economy at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It was apparent to officials, intellectuals, and writers then that if they didn’t seize control of Chinese mineral resources, they might lose it to the acquisitive expansion of Western imperialism. Today we are living with the consequences of that transition. The intensive exploitation of coal and other natural resources to fuel the Chinese economy has resulted in extensive environmental damage. Even studies conducted by the Chinese government show that up to 20% of the farmland in the country to be dangerously polluted, much of it from heavy metals and the run-off from ecologically damaging mining practices. The global trends begun during the period covered in book are extremely important to understanding these contemporary problems.

How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about China’s history?

I’ve always found China to be similar to the US in that it’s a very big country and a place where it’s very easy to focus exclusively on local and, at a stretch, national concerns. My book is part of a growing movement taking place in Sinology. More and more of us are examining the various connections both within and beyond China’s borders, as part of particular global turns in history. I would like my book to help open up the horizons of people’s understanding of Chinese history and to see China in the context of global changes in the way we use and exploit natural resources to produce the energy that makes modern life possible.

May 1 Event: “Thailand Update Conference: ” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the May 1, 2015 conference “Thailand Update: One Year After the May 2014 Coup: Where is Thailand Heading?” Organized by Duncan McCargo, Senior Research Affiliate at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Professor of Political Science at the University of Leeds, the all-day conference featured presentations by a number of prominent panelists: Tyrell Haberkorn, Fellow in Political and Social Change, Australian National University; Napat Jatusripitak, Ph.D. Student, University of Minnesota; Pinkaew Laungaramsri, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Chiang Mai University; Joseph Liow, Senior Fellow, Center for East Asia Policy Studies; Lee Kuan Yew, Chair in Southeast Asia Studies, Brookings Institution; Frank Munger, Professor of Law; Co-Chair, Law and Society Program, New York Law School; Sudarat Musikawong, Associate Professor of Sociology, Siena College; Pitch Pongsawat, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University; and Kriangsak Teerakowitkajorn, Ph.D. Student and Teaching Assistant, Syracuse University.

The panelists discussed the prospects for Thailand after the coup, and what the future may hold for the Southeast Asian nation.

For audio of the event (split into four sections) on iTunes, please click here.




May 1 Event: “Collecting and Presenting Tibetan Material Culture in the West:” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the May 1, 2015 event “Collecting and Presenting Tibetan Material Culture in the West.”  The final event of WEAI’s 2014-2015 “Museums and Material Culture: East Asia” series, the presentation featured lectures by Melissa Kerin of Washington and Lee University and Dominique Townsend of the Rubin Museum of Art.  Their talk was moderated by Gray Tuttle, Leila Hadley Luce Associate Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.



April 1 Event: “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy:” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the April 1, 2015 event “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy.” The event featured a lecture by Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute.  His talk was moderated by Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University.

During the event, Dr. Pillsbury, who earned his Ph.D. from Columbia, talked about his new book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, published by Henry Holt. He also discussed his background as an adviser about China to several presidential administrations, from the Nixon presidency to the Obama presidency.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.







February 25 Event “Birds of Metal in Flight: An Evening of Poetry with 5+5:” Photos and Video



Photographs and video are now available from the February 25, 2015 event “Birds of Metal in Flight: An Evening of Poetry with 5+5.” The landmark event, held in the beautiful Cathedral of  St. John the Divine, featured a reading by five Chinese poets: Bei Dao, Ouyang Jianghe, Xi Chuan, Zhai Yongming, and Zhou Zan; and five American poets: Charles Bernstein, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Pierre Joris, Marilyn Nelson, and Afaa Weaver.  The event featured remarks by internationally acclaimed artist Xu Bing, the Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Lydia H. Liu, Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.

The event was co-sponsored by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Confucius Institute at Columbia University, Xu Bing Studio,  the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, the Department of English and Comparative Literature, the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia Global Centers East Asia, the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, and Literary Translation at Columbia (LTAC) of the School of the Arts.

For a discussion with Columbia University professor Lydia H. Liu about Xu Bing’s “Phoenix,” please click here.  To listen to and see photographs from the February 24, 2015 “Sound and Image” discussion between Xu Bing and the five Chinese poets at Columbia, please click here. 






























February 26 Event: “Makers and Markets: Drivers of Fashion in Chinese History:” Photos and Audio



Photographs and audio are now available from the February 26, 2015 event “Makers and Markets: Drivers of Fashion in Chinese History.” The event featured a lecture by BuYun Chen, Assistant Professor of History at Swarthmore College and Rachel Silberstein, Lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design. Their presentation was moderated by Dorothy Ko, Professor of History at Barnard College and faculty member of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.  The event, co-sponsored by the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, is part of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute’s Museums & Material Culture: East Asia lecture series.

During the event the three panelists held a captivating discussion about the development of Chinese fashion and its economic, social, and technological history.

The Museums & Material Culture: East Asia lecture series aims to engage New York-based museums, galleries, and art institutions and their key players, experts, and artists in conversation about a variety of issues and topics, from museum anthropology to collecting and selling art. The final lecture in this series is on Tibetan material culture and will be held on April 30, 2015.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.