No.069 - “The Liberal Arts after COVID-19: Learning from History and Culture.” Collaborative online lectures jointly organized by the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris and NIHU
“The Liberal Arts after COVID-19: Learning from History and Culture.” Collaborative online lectures jointly organized by the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris and NIHU
Since its establishment in 1997, the Japan Foundation’s Japan Cultural Institute in Paris (Maison de la culture du Japon à Paris) has played an important role in bringing Japanese culture to people in Europe from its base in the French capital. The National Institutes for the Humanities (NIHU) signed an international academic collaboration agreement with the institute in 2016. Our collaboration with the institute provides us with a European base for our efforts to bring Japanese culture to a wider audience, and we have worked together with the institute on symposiums and other collaborative projects related to various aspects of Japanese culture.
Since the signing of the agreement, the two institutions have collaborated on a number of events, including the international symposium “The liberal arts in an age of crisis” (La sagesse face aux crises actuelles), and a symposium titled “Japanese views of France, French views of Japan” (La France vue par les Japonais, le Japon vu par les Français) that was held as part of Japonismes 2018: les âmes en resonance, a festival of Japanese culture to mark 160 years of diplomatic relations between France and Japan.
During FY2021, the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris approached us with a proposal for a new collaboration, expressing a wish to “widen the scope of Franco-Japanese intellectual exchanges even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.” As case numbers continued to rise around the world, we began to exchange ideas for a new type of project different from anything we had attempted before.
The novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has cost countless lives around the world, has had a profound impact on people’s daily lives, and has brought new discord through social divisions. There is a widely shared aspiration on a global level to build a new society based on tolerance and coexistence, and to this end there is an urgent need to learn from the achievements and insights of scholarship in diverse fields. The humanities in particular face a moment of crisis, with the human exchanges that are crucial part of research in the humanities having come to a halt and restrictions placed on the use of museums and libraries.
Following discussions between the two institutions, it was agreed that in the context of the ongoing social changes brought about by the pandemic, our latest collaboration should focus on the prospects for how a society might change with COVID-19 from a humanities perspective, and look for pointers from the context of Japanese history and culture for ways to build a society conducive to better lives once the pandemic is over.
The resulting online lecture session, “The Liberal Arts after COVID-19: Learning from History and Culture,” was held online on Saturday October 16, 2021, hosted jointly by NIHU and the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris, with participants joining from Paris and Tokyo.
The seminar opened with lectures by two researchers affiliated with NIHU. In his talk on “The Foundations of Rationalism and Morality in the Edo Period,” Professor Iriguchi Atsushi of the National Institute of Japanese Literature, NIHU, spoke about Enju satsuyo (Concise Essentials for Extending Longevity), a health guide written in the hiragana syllabary in the late sixteenth century, and Kaibara Ekiken’s bestselling Yojokun (The Book of Life-Nourishing Principles), published in the late seventeenth century. Professor Iriguchi focused on a major change that took place between the publication of these two books, which both deal broadly with the health of the masses. By the time Yojokun was written, the health of the individual was seen as something that was necessary for society and the state, from the perspective of the teachings of Zhu Xi and other Neo-Confucianist scholars. Individual health was further linked to the ethics and morality of filial piety, with the parents identified with the wider world. Professor Iriguchi suggested that the response of Japanese people to the current pandemic revealed a view of health that was fundamentally unchanged from the view in Yojokun of health as something that existed for the sake of society and politics, and suggested that this continuity can be explained by the lingering influence of the ethical and moral views implicit in Yojokun, which are still latent in Japanese society.
This was followed by a lecture on “Online Resources for Research in the Humanities: The Present Situation and Challenges,” by Professor Sekino Tatsuki, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, NIHU, who spoke on efforts to tap the potential of online research materials at a time when restrictions on movement are in place around the world. His talk focused on the two trends of expanding data interoperability and increasingly diverse uses of data, and provided hints for thinking about research resources in the COVID era and beyond. On data interoperability, Professor Sekino discussed the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), an international standard, and used images of resources from the collection of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies to illustrate some of the latest ways in which online data resources can be used. The talk also addressed the increasingly diverse ways in which data can be used and expanding data interoperability by drawing on historical gazetteer data published by the NIHU, and discussed the potential of the online environment as a setting for research.
Professor Guillaume Carré of the L’ École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales then commented on both talks, following which there was a panel discussion among the three participants, with Lee Sungsi, executive director of NIHU acting as moderator. Professor Carré raised three points, which were then discussed in turn by the three participants.
The first point was a suggestion that even if a kind of collective discipline based on Confucian ethical and moral values could still be observed in contemporary Japan, it was also true that medical information available over the Internet and social media was serving to bring individuals and their preexisting values together into new and dynamic kinds of communities. He also suggested that the rational model of science was being used.
Second, Professor Carré observed that the pandemic had served to accelerate the already ongoing shift to digitalization within the humanities and the social sciences, and had increased the value of the digital humanities. Third, he remarked on the gap that exists in digitalization between the supply side (developers) and the demand side (researchers in the humanities), pointing to the difficulty of developing digital services that matched demand, and problems with accessibility. He also spoke of the need to develop training for users of digital resources at graduate school level by providing cross-border online training for researchers around the world.
Third, he remarked on the gap that exists in digitalization between the supply side (developers) and the demand side (researchers in the humanities), pointing to the difficulty of developing digital services that matched demand, and problems with accessibility. He also spoke of the need to develop training for users of digital resources at graduate school level by providing cross-border online training for researchers around the world.
Finally, there was a Q&A section in which participants responded to audience questions. In answer to a question from France regarding the response of young people to health rules and patterns of behavior with regard to vaccinations, it was suggested that whereas in France the role of parents has been particularly influential during the pandemic, in Japan there has been a tendency for young people’s behavior to be swayed by the state of media reporting. Lively discussions continued until the end of the seminar, which closed with some thought-provoking comments from Professor Carré. Although the pandemic has raised the importance of the digital humanities, Professsor Carré noted that it had also underlined the truth that while some things could be done online, others could not. The pandemic had served as a reminder of the importance of the kind of real-world local experience that can only be gained through studying abroad and other types of exchange.
This online seminar represented a first attempt at a livestreamed online seminar linking two cities and conducted in both French and Japanese. Despite the challenges, thanks to close collaboration between the NIHU and the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris, the seminar went smoothly without any delays or technical hitches. I would like to express my sincere thanks again for the continuing relationship of collaboration with the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris.
It is to be hoped that the two institutions will continue to work together on a variety of activities in different formats in the years to come, and that these efforts will help to further the understanding of Japanese studies in Europe.
Seminar participants during the panel discussion. From left, Professor Guillaume Carré, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales; Professor Sekino Tatsuki, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, NIHU; Professor Iriguchi Atsushi, National Institute of Japanese Literature, NIHU; and Lee Sungsi, Executive Director of NIHU.
Text by Lee Sungsi, Vice-Director, Center for Information and Public Relations, and Executive Director of NIHU
Video of the seminar can be viewed on the official YouTube channel of the National Institutes for the Humanities