Study Group for Young Researchers in Islamic Area Studies

Shohei Sato


The Passions and Challenges of Young Researchers: My three years with the Study Group for Young Researchers in Islamic Area Studies.


Main text

Original text in Japanese, translated by RICAS

For three years from October 2010, I became involved with the gatherings of scholars engaged in Islam-related research. Their meetings were held once a month to listen to and then discuss research presentations on Islam and West Asian culture, history and society. Reflecting back on the intense times I spent with these energetic colleagues, I wish to introduce what these young researchers were so passionately devoted to as well as the challenges they were facing.

The Study Group for Young Researchers in Islamic Area Studies is held on a weekend, usually at the University of Tokyo’s Hongo Campus or Waseda University’s Waseda Campus. It is not just students and university-affiliates who gather at the quiet campus, in a classroom with a capacity of around 20 people. A wide variety of participants attend, including diplomats and journalists. The presenters are chiefly doctoral students, among whom there are students so committed that they prepare outlines over ten pages long. The themes and research methodologies of the presentations vary, but scholars who are able to respond to the presentations with expert comments are always invited to attend. For the event organizer, the task of finding an appropriate commentator is both a cause for worry and an opportunity to show what he or she is capable of.

These regular meetings, held almost every month, begin at 2pm. It begins with the discussant presenting his or her findings for about an hour. After a break, commentators present their expert commentary. This is followed by an open Q&A session, and by the time this ends, it is after 5pm. The discussion then continues into the evening at the social gathering that follows. This lengthy program of events is not allocated for multiple presenters. The time spent at each gathering is for one person’s presentation alone. At major international conferences, presenters are allocated only about ten minutes each. In comparison, those at this study group experience a full course meal indeed. Unfettered opinions are exchanged between the sharp-witted participants. There is sometimes tension arising from to the intense discussions, but naturally, bonds also deepen through the densely-packed sessions.

The reader may visit the group’s website to see the presentation topics at each month’s meeting, including detailed content. Here, based on my little experience, I wish to give a basic introduction to what these young researchers are so passionately devoted to and the challenges they are facing.

What I have strongly realized from these past three years is the importance of and difficulties in interdisciplinary studies. Perhaps the overall theme of the study group itself is designed to be interdisciplinary, but I had the impression that many of its participants had strong interdisciplinary interests. Some had the intent to engage in interdisciplinary studies, whereas some wished to actively study research outcomes in other fields while clearly defining their own field of research. At the same time, topics falling under the umbrella of “Islamic Area Studies” are diverse, with various themes related to Islam and West Asian culture, history and society, and methodologies extending to fields as different as archeology and political science. It is not necessarily easy to impart information that is meaningful to other fields. Although perhaps a classic problem, there were many opportunities to realize this again, for myself, as a presenter, commentator and organizer.

Employment is another matter of concern that young researchers cannot avoid. In the first place, the expression “young researcher” appears, on the surface, to refer to age and level of study, but I think it has to do with employment position and rank. It is an academic loss for someone producing truly brilliant research to be unable to secure a suitable job simply because of not satisfying a formal requirement. When buying a book, for example, how many people think, “Hmmm… This author obtained his/her X degree in only Y years. Well then surely it will be a brilliant study.” Administratively speaking, there are times when it is necessary to rank research according to a standard that applies across the different fields of study. If there is a unique strength in the humanities and social studies in Japan, however, is it not in its quantitatively immeasurable quality and accumulation? This is what I have come to realize, having witnessed these scholars who, as they handle multiple languages that differ greatly in vocabulary and grammar in conducting research around the world, continue their contemplations while making fundamental challenges in the international arena.



Shohei Sato
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Institute of Human and Social Sciences, Kanazawa University