Brief History

A Brief History
Relations between Kyoto University and the ASEAN region

Historically, the relations between Kyoto University and Southeast Asian countries can be dated back to developments initiated by Japan prior to World War II in the “Southern Areas.” Many of the University’s faculties recognized the potential for resource development in these areas and dispatched a large number of researchers to every Southeast Asian colony under European and American rule, except Thailand; researchers were sent to the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, the Philippines, and Micronesia. In addition to conducting academic research in various fields, Kyoto University also sent an advance group of graduate students to contribute to the economic development of the region.

After World War II, one by one the countries of Southeast Asia became independent. Focusing on post-war reconstruction, Japan — itself having achieved economic recovery — resumed relations with Southeast Asian countries. After Japan joined the Colombo Plan in 1954, many universities started developing exchange programs with Southeast Asian countries, including technical training and various other programs, through which Japan was able to send experts to re-establish relations with Southeast Asian countries as well as accept students from Southeast Asian countries due to war reparations. Kyoto University was no exception; its long-term support to Burma in the medical field from the beginning of the 1960s is particularly notable as the first of Kyoto University’s overseas technical cooperative projects.

In this way, the resumption of relations was led by researchers who had been involved in academic research in the region before the war. Opportunities to resume academic research in Southeast Asia began to increase. Researchers at the forefront of these activities included Kyoto University specialists working in the fields of ethnology, geography, and agriculture, who participated in a comprehensive investigation led by the Japanese Society of Ethnology on rice, ethnicity, and culture in Southeast Asia (The Synthetic Research of Cultures of South-east Asian Countries) from 1957 to 1958.

Pioneering fieldwork and activities in the 1960s

This university-wide engagement in academic research in Southeast Asia continues at Kyoto University to this day. In 1959, researchers primarily from the law, literature, agriculture, medicine, economics, and social sciences faculties, formed a Southeast Asia research group. Subsequently, the university’s executive body and its faculties worked together toward the launch, in 1963, of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), established to conduct comprehensive research on Southeast Asia and its surrounding areas. In 1965, CSEAS became the first government-regulated research center in Japan. Today, CSEAS has become a base not only for researchers from within Japan but also those from around the world who are interested in pursuing research relating to Southeast Asia.

With the new opportunities for fieldwork provided by CSEAS, research was actively pursued in each country in Southeast Asia. In 1964, CSEAS established a liaison office in Bangkok, and in 1970 a residence in Jakarta; both became a base for on-site studies by researchers from Kyoto University, as well as for exchanges between researchers and students from Thailand, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries. As the only such base in Southeast Asia operated by a Japanese academic organization at the time, the Jakarta residence (now known as the Jakarta Liaison Office) enabled researchers to acquire permission for research, coordinate with local universities, and collect documents in local languages. The facility also functioned as a base to prepare research projects, and was used by researchers from other universities.

During this period, Japan was still making the transition from post-war recovery to its long period of high economic growth. Due to the international political situation arising from the Cold War, the Western Bloc took a unified stand against the socialist faction and supplied a large amount of funds to Southeast Asian countries in order to stimulate their economic development. Japanese businesses moved into the region at this time. In the 1970s, as one of the benefits of economic growth, research funding such as Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (Kakenhi) increased greatly, allowing researchers to carry out more overseas research. Kyoto University’s Faculty of Science and Faculty of Agriculture was already engaged in fieldwork studies in areas such as zoology, plant ecology, soil science, forest ecology, and agriculture in countries including Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Following the increase in research funds, it became easier for researchers to secure support for overseas research and many more travelled to Southeast Asia. Kyoto University’s subsequent exchanges with Kasetsart University, Khon Kaen University, Chulalongkorn University, and other universities in Thailand through agricultural departments began to create new opportunities for joint research. In addition, Kyoto University’s science faculties and Primate Research Institute began joint research with Indonesia’s Andalas University and other universities, so that research could be pursued proactively and continuously via local research bases.

Expanding networks and deepening exchange

Researchers dispatched as specialists in technical cooperative by international organizations, such as the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), as well as from the International Cooperation Group (now known as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)) have also contributed to academic research and technical cooperative throughout Southeast Asia. In 1967, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines created the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the resulting economic assistance enabled them to achieve rapid economic development. Subsequently, of the ASEAN member countries at this time, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines sent scholarship students to Japan on Monbukagakusho scholarships; throughout the 1980s, the number of scholarship students rapidly increased. From the 1970s onwards, Kyoto University also accepted many scholarship students. On their return, these students supported various overseas research and international relations activities implemented by Kyoto University. Continuing on to the present, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the foundations for Kyoto University’s productive relationships with Southeast Asian countries were built through the cooperation of scholarship students from this period.

By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union had collapsed, China and other socialist countries were changing to market economies, and the Cold War structure was changing significantly. The impact extended as far as Southeast Asia, and by the 1990s, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (otherwise known as the Socialist Economic Bloc countries) had opened their doors. Kyoto University swiftly recognized opportunities resulting from these changes in Southeast Asia. Among the pioneering researchers at this time were teaching staff and graduate students from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the newly established Graduate School of Agriculture’s tropical agriculture major (1981), the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies offering lectures on Southeast Asian research (1993), and the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies (1998), as well as other graduate schools and faculties. By examining trends in the number of exchange students, it is clear that until the 1990s, the majority of exchange students came from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. However, during this period there was also a gradual increase in the number of exchange students from the three Indochina countries; students from Vietnam were arriving in Japan by the end of the 1980s, followed by students from Cambodia in the mid-1990s, and students from Laos in the 2000s. This trend has continued up to the present time, alongside an increase in the number of exchange students from Myanmar, following the country’s new policy of open engagement.

A new research climate

The rapid economic development of the region during the 1980s through the 1990s was accompanied by other dramatic changes. In addition to environmental problems on a global scale, regional problems related to environmental, societal, and cultural changes also became major contemporary issues, such as the rapid destruction of forests in Southeast Asia, the increasing disparity between urban-rural communities that brought about by the “Green Revolution”, and urban environmental problems for example in Bangkok and Jakarta. By conducting various research projects focusing on Southeast Asia, Kyoto University has been addressing some of these challenges through existing faculties and research institutes and centers, as well as by establishing, in 2002, the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies.

At this time, Japan started to implement academic, science, and technology policy reforms, and also initiated discussions on reforming education and research at Japanese universities. New policies were introduced not only to support basic research through the Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research program but also to distribute educational and research funds predominantly among research-intensive universities that were identified as a potential driving force for research. In addition, support was strengthened for interdisciplinary fields tackling real-world issues, both in education and research.

A series of large-scale research and educational programs was established nationwide; these included the Jyuuten Ryouiki Program (literally, the Important Areas Program), the Center of Excellence (COE) Program, the 21st Century COE Program, the Global COE Program, and the Core University Program. Kyoto University began to conduct several research and education projects based on these programs. Some of the projects and activities that arose as a direct result of these developments included the Sustainable Energy and Environment Forum (SEE Forum) organized by the University’s Graduate School of Energy Science and Institute of Advanced Energy, Indonesian summer schools run by the Research Institute for a Sustainable Humanosphere (RISH), international collaborative research based at the Equatorial Atmosphere Radar (EAR) Observatory managed by the Radio Science Center for Space and Atmosphere (RASC) (integrated into RISH), the Kyoto University Active Geosphere Investigation for the 21st Century COE Program (KAGI 21) International Summer/Spring School for earth and planetary science organized by the Graduate School of Science and Disaster Prevention Research Institute, and the establishment of the Lambir Observation Station by the Center for Ecological Research.

At the turn of the 21st century, these projects have resulted in a rapid expansion of Kyoto University’s involvement in joint research with universities and research organizations in Southeast Asia, increased the number of exchange students accepted by the university, and promoted student exchanges through mutual visits.

Greater collaborative ties

Initiatives such as the Global COE Program, the Re-Inventing Japan Project, and the Program for Leading Graduate Schools have also played a role in strengthening relations between Kyoto University and Southeast Asia. Aimed at creating new models for university education by working in cooperation with various departments, these programs have enabled many graduate students and young researchers to pursue their studies at other facilities, build relationships, and conduct collaborative research across multiple disciplines. In order to manage such programs on site, new facilities have been set up to provide local support to researchers. These facilities include bases established as research sites within counterpart universities, individual office spaces near research sites, and independent offices such as the Bangkok Liaison Office.

During this period of reform, universities in Japan were strongly encouraged to prioritize internationalization. Kyoto University has engaged in numerous Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) to continue to build on the aforementioned projects. Presently, Kyoto University has 19 MOUs with universities in ASEAN countries, including those with which the university has long enjoyed productive relationships, such as Kasetsart University, as well as other universities with which it has entered into collaborative agreements since the start of the 21st century. Kyoto University also has many departmental-level MOUs, which provide opportunities to implement large-scale projects such as those mentioned above.

In 1997, Myanmar and Laos joined ASEAN, followed by Cambodia in 1999. There are presently ten member states strengthening cooperation to form a community. Despite Myanmar being subject to Western economic sanctions, Japan has continued to offer its support, and organizations within Kyoto University, such as the Graduate School of Agriculture, the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, have continued working with Myanmar on joint research in the areas of forestry and agriculture. The University also accepts exchange students. Following Myanmar’s transition to a new era of openness, the country has become Southeast Asia’s last development frontline, and many countries are competing to provide Myanmar with support for economic development. The Japanese government prioritized the provision of support particularly in the area of higher education in Myanmar, which deteriorated under its military regime. Kyoto University is expected to provide support in the fields of engineering and agriculture. To achieve this, the Graduate School of Engineering has established its own engineering cooperation unit within the school and is already conducting cooperative activities with Yangon Technological University and Mandalay Technological University.

Challenges ahead

By reflecting and responding to major contemporary issues, Kyoto University has over the years contributed to advancing a wide range of education and research projects, and developing diverse programs for students and researchers from Southeast Asian universities. The University’s network now extends to all 10 ASEAN countries. Today, Kyoto University’s activities — launched in the past in specific areas relating to post-war economic recovery — have led to dramatic developments both qualitatively and quantitatively in education and research.

The opening of the Kyoto University ASEAN Center in Bangkok is therefore a natural development of the work that the University has conducted in Southeast Asia over many years. Looking ahead, based on its International Strategy known as The 2x by 2020 (“Double by 2020”) Initiative established in 2013, Kyoto University aims to continue to open up to the world and promote internationalization over the next decade and beyond. The establishment of the ASEAN Center is a key part of these activities. By acting as a hub to support Kyoto University’s various relationships and collaborations that have been growing from strength to strength, and by coordinating with the Bangkok and Jakarta liaison offices of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and with the Vietnam National University, Hanoi – Kyoto University Collaboration Office (VKCO), the Kyoto University ASEAN Center aims to strengthen the university’s commitment to educational and research partnerships across the Southeast Asian region.