Report on Contesting territory – sovereignty, tourism and aesthetics: some reflections


23rd November 2015 marked a significant milestone achieved by the newly- established Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies of Kyushu University. Following the success of the first symposium on border studies in Asia and the Pacific in March 2015, the Center held its second international symposium entitled ‘Contesting territory – sovereignty, tourism and aesthetics’. It played host to numerous scholars, practitioners and artists from Japan, the UK, US, France, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, and was well-attended by academics and students alike. The one-day symposium challenged participants to rethink and contest concepts and perceptions of border, territory and sovereignty, and contemplate on the future of border studies in general.


Professor John Agnew from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) set the agenda going in his plenary lecture on ‘Geopolitics in the age of globalization’. The talk focused on the differentiated workings of sovereignty in a globalized world. He pointed to the shift away from totally state-centric narratives in politicalthought that has dominated scholarship for the past two decades, and charted the latest developments in the field of border studies. The talk ended with a series of thought-provoking issues related to the Syrian crisis, the refugees in Europe, and the power of passports, thus highlighting the everyday nature of geopolitics experienced by ordinary people, and setting the tone for the subsequent sessions.


The second session served to ground the earlier discussion with empirical examples from East Asia. The papers were presented by Professor Akihiro Iwashita of the Slavic-Eurasia Research Center in Hokkaido University and President of the Association of Borderlands Studies (ABS), and Professor Sangjin Shim of Kyonggi University. Professor Iwashita’s piece served as a very useful entry point, and point of departure when debating about issues of territory, territoriality and sovereignty. The paper covered two fascinating examples of Nemuro City next to the Northern Territories, and the Okinawa US military base. The first revealed the fuzziness of bordering the frontier regions through Japan’s claim’s for ‘nominal’ sovereignty over the Northern Territories, and the implications on the livelihood of people in Nemuro City. This was then contrasted with the case of the US military base in Okinawa, where Japan’s legitimate sovereignty does not seem to be applicable to the base, while ironically, US ‘sovereign rights’ often overflows the limits of the base. The dilemma of territoriality and dealing with sovereignty issues was discussed, thus highlighting the shifting and slippery notions of sovereignty. Furthermore, we are not only looking at the macro-political aspects of the border areas/frontier, but also that of bordering practices and everyday geopolitics, people-to-people interactions; or what Professor Iwashita puts it: ‘the realities of people living in bordered spaces’. Lastly, the paper encouraged the audience to shed a more positive light when seeing the border, and to treat border tourism as a possible avenue for generating opportunities.


Professor Shim’s paper on the Mt Geumgang Project gave a very good example of border tourism that was mentioned in Professor Iwashita’s paper. Discussion on the rise and fall and other complexities of the Mt Geumgang Project revealed how changing regimes of power affects tourism development and its implications on sovereignty and territoriality. Prof Shim reported on the prediction of an unprecedented increase in tourists numbers forecast for Northeast Asia, and the potential of geopolitical border landscape in providing a unique place identity and experience for the increasingly sophisticated tourists. He suggested that the border landscape is a potential draw for the new tourists who seek not merely to buy things, but importantly, experiences as well. However, in order for the Mt Geumgang Project to be a success, there needs to be strategic alliances of the public and private sectors.



While the second session provided the empirics to the first, the third and final session of the symposium shed light on new ways to perceive and research the border. The combination of academic – Anne-Laure Amilhat-Szary of the Université Grenoble-Alpes, and artists – Mahsa Mergenthaler-Shamsaei (Young Persian Artists blogger and curator), and Abdalla Omari (a Syrian visual and performance artist now based in Belgium) provided a refreshing and important synergy in re-thinking and re-shaping how one understands and represents the border in and through the aesthetics of art. Collectively, the presenters in this session dealt with issues of imagined borders, highlighting the roles art plays in telling stories of and from the borderlands, and in becoming ‘borders’ themselves by evoking sentiments and emotions.


Overall, the symposium alluded that issues of sovereignty and territory are very much alive. Contrary to the idea of a global village, borderless world that promises seamless travel, or a post-national community, we are still encountering resistance to mobility and cross-border interactions, be it the ‘invisible wall’ at the Northern Territories between Japan and Russia, or the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. Secondly, the continued relevance of the ‘nation’ and ‘sovereign state’ helps to reiterate the importance of border studies to understand the different practices of territoriality. However, there are possibilities of viewing the borderlands as ‘more vivid and lively’. In other words, we need to recognise the border areas as lived environments, rather than representations of sovereignty. Furthermore, new developments in border studies tend to shift their focus from the physical border itself. However, discussions in the symposium revealed that border areas or places that are in-between are furnished with emotions, identity negotiation and performances. Finally, and promisingly, as we now witness a shift from the traditional approach that focuses on macro-political issues, to micro-political ones, the symposium pointed to new forays in border studies and gave a glimpse of innovative analytical tools, and the potential to engage communities beyond the academia in the common pursuit of a better understanding of borders and borderlands. The successful hosting of such an international symposium sets a strong foundation for the ABS Japan Chapter, and indicates the growing maturation of the field of border studies in Japan and its continued commitment to become an important center for borderlands research in Asia.

J.J. Zhang (University of Hong Kong)