skip to content

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies


This project proposes fresh analyses for approaching modern East Asian Studies in light of recent calls within UK academia to decolonize the humanities. Decolonisation is the most recent permutation in a series of academic turns since the heightened globalisation of the 1990s. This began with the rise of Postcolonial Studies followed by a desire to displace the category of the ‘nation’ by foregrounding their discussions in terms of ‘transnational’ connections and the ‘world’. Although emerging initially within Faculties of English and Comparative Literary Studies, the last decade has seen scholars within Japanese literary studies, too, foregrounding contemporary writers who transgress national and linguistic borders through their multilingual writing practices. The presumption of this scholarly excitement is that through writers able to self-translate their work into other languages than Japanese, Japanese fiction might reach new international readerships and thus gain added value in the world. Its shortcomings are twofold: first, the motive to internationalise Japanese literature and culture has, also since the 1990s, been deeply rooted in promoting national interests, particularly in Europe and the US; second, the promotion of contemporary ‘transborder’ fiction as a new development has resulted in de-emphasising continuities between this recent generation and those writers who worked under the direct conditions and/or explicit historical legacies of Japanese imperialism in East Asia. As if to reinforce this point, as the shift towards ‘transborder’ fiction in Japan has been accompanied by scholars proclaiming the ‘end’ of ethnic Korean writing in Japanese, Korean literary studies have begun to embrace the latter despite considering such fiction as ‘Japanese literature’ until the late-1990s.


The challenge as we see it is to restore a historical dimension into contemporary discussions of decolonisation and transnationalism in East Asia that take their lead from movements—of people and texts—between geographical settings and languages in the present, and thus seem forgetful of differences, tensions and power imbalances that remain within East Asia, and between Asia and the rest of the world. We therefore seek to correlate more of the domestic histories of Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan, against a regional and international backdrop to ascertain a more holistic narrative of what the history of deimperialisation and decolonisation looks like when one does not presume a Eurocentric and/or Anglophone point of departure. We also seek to create new dialogues between the practices of history and literary analysis.


This project, devised by Dr Young together with Professor Barak Kushner, has been awarded a Cambridge Global Humanities grant with which we intend to host a one-day international workshop in Cambridge in 2021. The workshop will bring together historians and literary scholars working on texts and contexts related to post-1945 East Asia, in order to read across gaps between historical and literary scholarship and to devise more productive ways of interrogating the lines—geographical and theoretical— that demarcate Japan, Asia and the rest of the World.

Faculty Researchers