Research at the RBML | Tomoko Akami on the Institute of Pacific Relations papers

Professor Tomoko Akami, from the School of Culture, History and Language at ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, is examining the Institute of Pacific Relations papers at the RBML. Below Professor Akami discusses how the IPR helped shape Asian Studies in their project, “Towards a globalized history of international relations.”


What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library?  

The collection of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR).  The IPR, which began in 1925, has been understood as an organization which pioneered Asian Studies as a modern sense of Area Studies, which is distinguished from the earlier ‘Oriental Studies’ focusing on classics and literatures, and which combined new social scientific methods, including ‘field works’, and applied these methodologies to examine ‘contemporary’ affairs. Because of this, in the 1920s and 1930s, IPR members were often not only experts on Asia (and the Pacific), but also those who were pioneering ‘International Relations’ (IR) scholars across the regions (Japan, China, India, the Philippines, the US, the British Dominions on the Pacific, and European empires which had colonies in this region), and they were interacting substantially.

I have worked on the IPR as a pioneering INGO before 1945, and more recently, I examined the conversion and diversion between the disciplinary knowledge of ‘Asian Studies’ and IR (Akami, 2021). For the visit to RBML this time, I wanted to look further on the ‘diversion’ in the late 1940s-mid 1950s when the two disciplines were being established in the US.

This is a part of my larger project which has been funded by the Australian Research Council, titled as ‘Towards a globalized history of international relations’. It could also be located in recent moves in the disciplines of History of International Relations, IR, and International Law, where respective disciplinary knowledge has been criticized as European or Euro-American centered, and an increasing number of scholars are turning to history and historical methods to critically assess the process of the knowledge formation, while searching for the new perspectives, frameworks, and methodologies to understand modern international relations.

My bigger project started in early 2020, but of course there was a Covid restriction,and this time (March 2023) was the first when I could actually come to RBML.


How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)? 

The first time I used RBML materials was when I was researching for my PhD thesis on the IPR a few decades ago. It was an amazing collection of the source materials, which resulted in my first book, Internationalizing the Pacific (2002). I still meet scholars and those outside the university world who tell me how much they appreciated this book even now! The book owes a lot to Professor Mark Selden, the editor of the series, but without the IPR collection at the Columbia, it would not have been possible.

There were no digital methods then. I took notes and ordered the photocopies, carried the paper bulks in boxes to the post offices, and shipped them to my university in Australia… I remember fondly about walking in a street in Upper West with all these boxes in a suitcase, as well as another day of a major snow in Manhattan when the city looked like a village and people were helping each other and having fun.

During the Covid, with the help of the archivists and a PhD student at the Columbia, I could also look at the sources on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at RBML.


What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here? 

The catalogue is very well done, and I could identify which files I wanted to look at. The archivists have also been most helpful.


What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you? 

A bit secret here, as it may be a crucial point in my book! But more so because I had gone through what I think relevant papers very quickly, and the more focused reading and digestion of the materials will be needed before I can tell. As I live in Australia, NYC is very far away and very expensive to come and stay, and I do not have a luxury to spend weeks and months to go through the details of all the materials and need to gather what I think most relevant.

One give away nonetheless is that I have always thought that it was more IR founders who ‘squeezed’ out ‘Asian Studies’ or made a ‘hierarchy’ to the knowledges, but that it could have been a two-way process. The rest, I hope, you can read in my book!


What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections? 

I can only tell about the materials of the IPR and the CEIP which I have looked at, and they are really excellent, while I realize there are so many other source materials. Rightly or not, NYC and Columbia University held a crucial position in the making of the global governing ideas and institutions of the twentieth century. I think RBML collections reflect this ‘fact’. We still live in these legacies, while the changes are also coming. Their materials need to be critically assessed. I found that the past we project our assumptions onto, and the past in the archives are often not the same, and the latter leads us to new frameworks and new thinking. In that sense, the past at the archives gives us not only insights into the past, but also inspirations for the future.

There are many topics and issues which could be pursued with these materials at RBML, and which are relevant to the current movements of ‘globalizing’ our knowledge of international relations, international law, Area Studies, the idea, method, and framework of ‘Social Sciences’, the idea of ‘development’ … I hope that the use of ‘primary sources’ by researchers and students of the disciplines outside of history would be furthered even more, when possible, for the reason I mentioned above. Thanks RBML!