The Weatherhead East Asian Institute welcomes Paul Kreitman, Assistant Professor of Japanese History, to the WEAI faculty. Professor Kreitman, who earned his PhD from Princeton in 2015, specializes in environmental history, global history, commodity history, and histories of science and technology. In the following Q & A, Professor Kreitman discusses his scholarship and teaching interests.
1. How did your interest in 20th Century Japanese history develop?
It was a stew of ingredients, I could say. I had a childhood friend who was Japanese (in 1990s Britain that was fairly exotic), and took a trip to visit him shortly after high school. The usual fascination with samurai, and also that first apparent contradiction that still fascinates a lot of people, I suspect: how could a non-Western country modernize so successfully, so early on? Eventually, through rigorous training in grad school, I learned to unpick some of the assumptions that underlie that question. But it was definitely one of the things that first got me interested in Japan, that’s undeniable.
2. What particularly interests you about environmental history and the history of technology? What is important about the environment and science in understanding Japan’s modern history?
What interests me about environmental history is that it we live in a society that is suffused with the concept of Nature. In the modern world any political question is at some level, a debate about the nature of Nature. And the obverse is also true: debates about the nature of Nature (scientific debates in other words) also invariably have political ramifications. But people often talk about concepts like “the environment”, “science” and “technology” as if they are value neutral. As I see it, environmental history and STS are simply complementary approaches for unpacking the latent politics that lie buried underneath these blanket terms. And these approaches can be applied to horrendous, headline grabbing catastrophes such as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown of 2011, but also to the quotidian micro-politics of such banal problems such as sewage infrastructure and the politics of excrement disposal.
3. What questions tend to drive your research and your teaching?
Aside from my interest in the politics of Nature, I am also interested in the question of sovereignty in a globalizing world. One of the most interesting transitions of the past three hundred years has been the shift from a world view that understands sovereignty (for want of a better word) as exercised primarily over people to one that understands sovereignty as exercised over territory. This territorialization of sovereignty has occurred in a highly contested and fragmentary manner, however – with one significant exception being the extraterritoriality clauses inserted into the Unequal Treaties signed between Western and East Asian states in the nineteenth century. To this day, a range of different strategies exist for asserting sovereignty over territory, and new ones are being invented constantly. My research focuses largely on tracing the evolution of these strategies.
In terms of teaching, since coming to Columbia I’ve been grappling with the question of how to teach the history of Japan in a truly global way, without losing sight of those particularities that do make the country such an interesting place to study. I’ve also been lucky enough to teach a graduate methods course titled Japan Bibliography, which is something of a Columbia institution. Here my approach has been very much on learning through doing: training students to conduct research on Japan by wading directly into the libraries and, where possible, archives. The availability of online resources really is transforming the way scholars work, so what’s great about Japan Bib is that it provides a regular collaborative forum where students can keep each other abreast of the latest advances in the field.
4. Can you tell us a little about your current book project on Albatrosses in the North Pacific borderlands?
The book takes albatrosses, or more precisely different ways of using albatrosses, as starting point from which to explore some of the issues I just mentioned. It turns out that Japanese sovereignty over many of the far-flung islands of the North Pacific is intimately bound up with the history of exploiting these rather rare birds. In the late nineteenth century gangs of bird hunters culled the birds for their plumage, which could be sold to Parisian milliners to make ladies’ hats. Later, phosphate companies mined the birds’ excrement to sell as fertiliser. Later still, Japanese ornithologists mounted campaigns to protect these birds, on what were now uninhabited islands that were nevertheless still putatively Japanese sovereign territory. I want to use the albatross as a lens through which to explore a whole host of interrelated globalised phenomena: commodity production, state-making, Nature-making, and so on.
5. What aspects of being at Columbia particularly excite you?
Wow, where to begin. There’s just such a tremendous crackle of energy that comes with doing research at a sprawling urban university with so much going on all the time. Even on campus it feels like there is so much happening on any given day, and then there is the whole city lying beyond that. It’s just a tremendously exciting place to be.
6. What classes are you planning to teach in the coming semesters?
Next semester (Spring 2017) I plan to teach an upper-level undergraduate course entitled Troubled Islands of the Indo-Pacific, which will explore East Asian history (very, very loosely defined) through a series of island and archipelago case studies: Hokkaido, Okinawa, Jeju, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hawaii. The goal is to combine a global approach with a local one to destabilise the usual nation-state centric narratives that we get in textbooks, and at the same time to interrogate the role played by islands – as laboratories, polities, entrepôts, peripheries – throughout history. The following academic year I will teach a graduate course on sovereignty in East Asia, which in many ways will explore similar themes but at a slightly more theoretical level. I also hope to teach a course on Japanese environmental-STS history at some point in the near future.