The angst Lindsay Nelson was seeing on her Twitter feed was palpable. As the Meiji University assistant professor read post after post by fellow scholars unable to come to Japan to conduct academic research due to pandemic-related border restrictions, she felt she had to do something.

“I’ve been in situations where I was stranded outside Japan,” Nelson tells The Japan Times. “Situations where I thought, ‘It would be so great if I had someone who could get me this one magazine article or this one random pamphlet that just isn’t available digitally.’”

This led Nelson to put out a tweet offering a free “grab and deliver” service for scholars who needed a particular item for their research that could only be accessed in Japan. She offered to take requests, find the necessary material and get it to the scholar who needed it. It was her own small way to help out those who won’t be able to conduct research in Japan for the foreseeable future.

Aoyama Gakuin University professor Chelsea Szendi Schieder saw Nelson’s tweet, and got in touch to recommend a group effort. She suggested creating a more formalized process for scalability and to reach beyond just contacts on Twitter. The resulting Google Form quickly became a focus of attention for those in the field of Japan studies, with hundreds of shares and retweets.

The volunteer-led offering puts scholars outside Japan in touch with those based in Japan for research support, but isn’t intended for heavy-duty requests or those that violate copyright law. The volunteers offer to help locate a paid research assistant for those who need more extensive support.

In just 48 hours since the announcement tweet on Dec. 8, more than 30 scholars in Japan had registered to help locate documents for their peers locked out of the country, and 13 requests for assistance were received. Those numbers are expected to grow as word spreads.

Digitization lagging

Why do scholars need this type of help? In an echo of the barriers to teleworking found in Japanese companies, Japanese libraries tend to work on the assumption that people will physically go there to utilize their resources. Digitization of archival materials is not as common in Japan as it is in many countries overseas, and many Japanese institutions actively resist it. Additionally, even digitized resources may only be available for viewing onsite. As a result, “it’s very difficult to do research remotely,” according to Tokyo-based independent researcher Angseop Lee, who has been helping to organize the support effort.

The lack of digitization and stringent gatekeeping historically led to “a situation where scholars needed funding to come to Japan to do the research, because there was no other way to access it,” University of Tokyo project associate professor Samantha Landau says. But with the pandemic border controls, that approach is “not working anymore.”

The project organizers look at what they are doing as a Band-Aid, not a permanent solution. Schieder describes it as “a creative workaround, and constrained by copyright laws, but not enough to really address the longer term problems created by border closures.”

The scholars’ “offer of help is generous and invaluable, but this is a huge systemic problem,” says Mark Ravina, a history professor at The University of Texas at Austin. He believes that “gracious individual scholars should not be expected to repair damage caused by educational policy failures.”

“Ultimately it’s the responsibility of the people in power to figure out a way to safely bring researchers here,” Landau says.

“There should be some kind of formal system in place where either government or educational institutions should be able to help researchers,” Nelson says. “Almost two years into the pandemic, we need to be coming up with better ways to do this. What we really want is first of all a push for more digitization of materials and an end to the travel ban and a more gradual and fair entry of students, researchers and students into Japan.”

The current plan is to continue the support project at least until the travel restrictions are lifted. “Beyond that, hopefully by then there will have been some changes in the whole way the system operates,” Nelson adds.

Returnees to Japan wait in line at Narita Airport on Dec. 6. to get on a bus bound for a designated quarantine hotel amid tighter border controls due to the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. However, academics and students have had to cancel their plans to come Japan altogether. | KYODO
Returnees to Japan wait in line at Narita Airport on Dec. 6. to get on a bus bound for a designated quarantine hotel amid tighter border controls due to the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. However, academics and students have had to cancel their plans to come Japan altogether. | KYODO

Not a true substitute

While this project may provide much-needed help for some researchers, it can’t really take the place of coming to Japan.

“How can graduate students complete their dissertations if they can’t do research here?” asks James Welker, a professor at Kanagawa University who has helped with scanning and sending documents to scholars overseas through the project. “You can’t do ethnography or deep archival research via Zoom or interlibrary loan or via Japan-based scholars.” And even if someone could manage to conduct their research remotely, “How will they get jobs if they’ve lost their prestigious fellowships and affiliations and lost their chance to meet key scholars here and expand their research networks?”

Scott Aalgaard, assistant professor of East Asian studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says that even though Japan-centered research can and should continue during the border closures, the resulting research “will potentially not be as rich and impactful as work that can/does access ‘the field.’” He fears that “one of the byproducts of this shutting out of researchers is that we will necessarily fail to access a broad spectrum of voices,” resulting in a “skewed” view of Japan that is “curated by gatekeepers.”

Scholarships in jeopardy

The difficulty of gaining access to resources in Japan is causing scholars to change their research plans, and for some to completely abandon a focus on Japan, with tremendous potential impacts on the field of Japan Studies.

“After postponing my sabbatical three times, I’ve given up on entering Japan any time soon,” Ravina says. “I’m changing my research project to topics that 1) focus less on Japan, and 2) don’t require travel to Japan.”

Aalgaard says he is “urging students to think strategically about how they can go about their Japan-oriented research that doesn’t necessarily require physical access to the field/ground in Japan (via use of digital archives, social media platforms, Zoom, etc.).”

And, unfortunately, there are many who have simply given up.

“One of the biggest frustrations and sources of heartache for many researchers, their families and students over the past two years has been that they have repeatedly been told, ‘Oh just wait, just a little bit more, please just wait,’” Nelson says, “and they have never been given a clear sense of when they will be able to enter the country. Many of them are now finally fed up and have abandoned their fellowships.”

As a result, “We are about to see a tragic gap of maybe several years of research that was not done,” Nelson adds. “You are going to see a huge number of both undergraduates and grad students shifting away from a Japan track.”

“This whole crisis is impacting researchers and students right now, of course,” Aalgaard says, “but I suspect that the true costs of the state’s choices won’t really reveal themselves for another five or 10 years, when there’s a big hole in the group of individuals who could have been advocates for Japan and Japan studies.”

The Japanese government is “barring entry for the people who are so valuable to Japan, who passionately spread information and knowledge about Japanese literature and history and cinema, and all of these things that make ‘Cool Japan’ a thing,” Nelson says. “These are the people that the Japanese government is losing, and will continue to lose over the next couple of years.”

Morale boost

The scholars’ efforts to help their peers are proving a small bright spot in an otherwise bleak situation.

Kaitlyn Ugoretz, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has been unable to enter Japan, says that she was amazed to see a concerted effort by scholars to work together and generously offer support to people like herself.

“This is the first time that anyone proactively considered what kind of small thing they could do to concretely help stranded scholars, rather than the usual ‘thoughts and prayers’ or vague ‘let me know if there’s anything I can do’ sentiments,” she says.

Nelson has heard similar comments from others.

“So many people feel abandoned and ignored by their institutions, by the Japanese government, by different funding agencies,” she says. “Just to know that there is a group of people out there who do see them, who care about their research, and want to in some small way assist, that’s something. It’s good for them to know they aren’t completely alone.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.