Question: Professor Esenbel, what initially stimulated your interest in Asian Studies?

Answer: My immersion in Asian studies began as a result of growing up in Japan during the 1960s because my father was the ambassador in Tokyo. So I am the product of a diplomatic family’s life story. I picked up Japanese in high school and college. I studied at the International Christian University of Japan, and I think I am the first student from Turkey to have studied in Japan in the post-war period as a private student without government scholarship. In fact Japanese authorities have told me such. My graduate education continued in the United States, where I earned degrees from George Washington University, Georgetown University Japanese language and linguistics, and finally a Ph.D. in Japanese History from Columbia University in 1981. So my academic formation is very much part of the US academy; that’s how I define myself. After I returned to Turkey I started teaching Japanese history at the department of history of Boğaziçi University, and I also pioneered the establishment of the Japanese language program in 1988 and the Chinese language program in 2002, the founding of the Asian Studies Center in 2009, and the creation of the Master of Arts program in Asian tudiesS just about the same time.  So in many ways I suppose my generation could be considered the pioneer in terms of Asian Studies in Turkey.

Question: Is there growing interest in Asian topics among university students in Turkey?  

Answer: Students are very much interested in Asian topics — the rise of China, the brilliant modernization background of Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. All of these countries and peoples are attracting attention. We have many more students studying these languages than in the past. We are now getting the first crop of academics. People are doing graduate work in Asian economics, politics, and literature. Translations have increased. So, in my opinion Turkey — though modest of course in terms of library, background, university experience in teaching Asian studies — has become the best in the Middle East. We are the only country so far, except Israel, which has serious programs in Chinese, Japanese or anything related to Asia. We certainly are the only country with a relative growth in Asian studies if we compare, for example, to countries around the Mediterranean like Spain, Portugal, or Greece (with the exception of Italy, which is very advanced in this respect); and to the countries of Eastern Europe (with the exception of Hungary, where there is a strong tradition of Asian languages, literatures and philology). Turkey is the only country that has universities which teach anything serious concerning Asia, in particular, regarding Japan and China.

Question: Why did you choose Japanese history as opposed to other academic disciplines and/or other countries in Asia?

Answer: First of all, I was educated in Japan. So, obviously I was interested in Japan as opposed to any other country in Asia. Japanese people fascinated me, and it was the obvious topic for comparison with the Turkish trajectory of modernism. It is also the first topic that comes to one’s mind: Japan and Turkey were never colonized, they both had very intensive relations with the modern West (mostly positive but sometimes conflictive), and the 20th century has been a formative period in their development. Perhaps in terms of development statistics, Japan looks more “successful” but I think that’s also explainable in terms of context, conditions, and availability of resources — human resources especially. But they are both comparable experiences, so Japan definitely attracted interest. I chose history because I wanted to be a historian; if I had stayed in Turkey, I would have studied Ottoman history. If my family gone somewhere else I would have studied the history of that society. History fascinated me and being in Japan it just made sense to study Japanese history.

Question: Looking back on your career, what opportunities and constraints did you face?

Answer: My great opportunity was, I guess, simply the contingent conditions; I grew up in Japan and studied in the United States. That’s positive, something that was a great advantage for me. I think that if I had remained in Turkey, I don’t think I could have become a Japan scholar simply because there was no program in the universities of Turkey that focused on Japan. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have specialized in that field. Being able to grow up in Japan and being able to study in the United States gave me that rare opportunity as a Turkish citizen to immerse myself in a field that was not available in Turkey. That was an advantage, but the great constraint of course was, after returning to Turkey in 1982 and beginning my professional life as a young assistant professor at Boğaziçi University. Though perhaps the best university in Turkey, even Boğaziçi University in the early 1980s did not have the budget, did not have the library. In addition, we were sort of isolated from the rest of the world because we were undergoing very difficult political times. There had been coup d’état in 1980, and the atmosphere was very bleak. You couldn’t possibly order books from abroad. Our salaries were pitifully low, compared with US salaries. I remember in 1982 when I joined the Boğaziçi University, my monthly wage was just $250, far below the poverty line in the United States even back then. In other words, these material conditions were a real constraint. Like any other young scholar in this country who chooses to remain rather than emigrate, we had to struggle under adverse conditions. Today’s conditions are much better, but in no way would I compare Boğaziçi University’s collection with that of Columbia University, for example. I don’t even attempt to. But compared to 1980, after years of purchasing books and receiving donations, we now have a viable and workable library suitable for basic level research and teaching in Asian studies.

Question: What were the main catalysts for the establishment of the Asian Studies Center? How have its mission and/or the scope of its activities evolved?

Answer: It was the mood of the times; I always wanted to set up an Asian Studies Center. I started thinking seriously about it in in the year 2000 when were about to embark on a Chinese studies program. The students were interested in Asia much more than in the past, and I figured that that establishing an Asian Studies Center would be a proper way for me to top all my efforts — a vehicle for gathering the newly visible young community of scholars who know Asian languages and are doing work on Asia, and for forming some kind of a collegial environment within which to hold workshops, conduct joint research, and provide a forum for academics to network. Since its establishment, the Asian Studies Center is doing exactly that. We have formed a network of scholars from Istanbul and Ankara, we get together occasionally, and we hold a forum for talks with vising professors and our young scholars doing Asian studies. We have hosted scholars from the United States, China, Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe. I think we are now getting to be known; we are a burgeoning new center in the Turkish scene doing Asian studies with a global perspective. We do most of our work internationally in English. Most of our talks and lectures are in English, but we also purposefully publish in Turkish. For example a book titled Thinking about China in Turkey is going to be published in just a couple of weeks. This publication is the first comprehensive study of Chinese culture and society in the Turkish language. The book gathers together the papers of young Turkish academics currently working on China; most of them are using Chinese sources. This is something new. We want to provide a publishing outlet for these young scholars so that their academic work is widely available.

The Turkish academy’s potential for Asian studies is important, because we won’t be able to compete with the main centers in the United States and Europe in terms of libraries and resources, but we have the great advantage of geography. Asia looks different from Istanbul, and definitely Asia’s connections with the globalizing world, with the Middle East, with the Mediterranean, and with Eastern Europe looks very different when you observe them from Istanbul. I think that’s our advantage.

Question: Given your expertise, to what extent has Japan been a focal point of the Center’s work?

Answer: Japan has been a very important focal point of the Center. At the moment we have two major concentrations, one is Japan and the other China. This is inevitable because of the background of the scholars who are active in our center. I wish we had more people doing Korea and more people doing India, but at the moment we know only a couple of people who are interested and capable of doing work on these societies. Presumably this will change. We have a couple of people doing work on Southeast Asia, but Japan and China are certainly the strong focus. The Center has been involved in a conference on Japan in 2010, whose proceedings were published. In 2013, we will hold a second conference on Japanese studies; the center is one of the co-organizers. In October 2012, we held a very interesting conference called “Turkey and China at the Crossroads of the 21st Century.” This meeting brought together scholars from the People’s Republic of China and academics from Boğaziçi University and other Turkish institutions in an interactive discussion on issues of mutual interest.

Question: What are the short- and longer-term plans and priorities of the Center?

Answer: In the short term, we will definitely be continuing networking, finishing up the construction of a building allocated for our center within the Boğaziçi University campus. This will provide us with high-quality physical facilities where we can conduct our work, including a small research library. We will be receiving donations from the personal collections of the eminent scholars of Asia in Turkey, which will certainly contribute a great deal to our research capabilities. We are also holding joint research projects with our colleagues in Italy, Israel and the United States on topics we are very interested in monitoring and investigating (e.g., the interaction of Asian countries such as Japan and China with the Middle East, Mediterranean and African regions). We are very well situated to conduct this research and are already actively engaged in this work with our Italian counterparts at the Torino World Affairs Institute.

Question: To what extent and in what ways has the Center’s work mirrored the changes in Turkey’s external relations?

Answer: I think that the Center has been now noticed by Turkey’s policy makers. I say this because we have just been contacted by the department of public diplomacy in Ankara. It is a public institution, which conducts what I would call a culture or informal diplomacy by helping intellectual activities contributing to Turkey’s relations with other countries and peoples. They asked for our collaboration in Asia related projects. They are interested in getting to know important personalities from Asian societies with whom they should engage and who should be invited to open a dialogue. Although Turkey has a long history of continuing interaction with European intelligentsia, politicians and opinion makers, and also with the United States, there is very little experience and background with which to communicate with Asian countries. The Asian Studies Center is now recognized as the institution that can form viable academic connections and develop projects accordingly which will “bring the world to Turkey.”

Question: What developments within Turkey, in Turkey’s bilateral relations and/or in Asia have given Turkey’s relations with Asian countries a boost?

Answer: If you look at the statistics, Turkey’s economic relations with China and Japan are growing much more than they ever before. There has always been the complaint that people were interested in Japan, for example, but that the commercial relations between Turkey and Japan never reflected this general strong public interest. But definitely over the last few years, this has changed. Both Japan and China are investing in the Turkish economy. They are more deeply involved in Turkish economy. Japanese companies manufacture their products in Turkey, and export them to the European Union, the Middle East and also to parts of Central Asia. This is an important advantage for them and something that presumably the Chinese are to follow.

Turkey’s traditional financial, commercial, and technological relations are centered on the European Union. Even today, in the midst of the euro crisis and related economic difficulties in Europe, the EU still accounts for 40% of Turkey’s commerce. Although Asian countries have not replaced EU members as Turkey’s leading economic partners, the diversification of markets has helped keep Turkey’s economy on a positive trajectory.


This interview was conducted by MAP Director Dr. John Calabrese.