Press news

History but relevant
from Press News, posted 05/01/2013 - 16:15

As noted elsewhere, there is quite a difference in sales of a history book and of one focused on current affairs. The “up like a rocket, down like a stick” sales behaviour typical of many social science books compared with a more pedestrian sales pattern for many history books can be seen in the image below.

Arguably, however, in many ways this image is misleading. Just how is illustrated with examples from four NIAS Press books.

Coming out in the near future is a history of three political dissidents in pre-war Japan. On the face of it, this is a specialist work of interest to only a few scholars and one might expect sales to be modest. Think again, says the author, pointing out in an essay on Japanese politics at the crossroads that the country is in a similar situation to what it was in the late 1920s and 1930s; her book is highly relevant.

Japanese politics were also on the menu when I had lunch with Dominic Al-Badri last week. More specifically, with the new LDP government of Shinzo Abe beginning to make its mark, topicality and longevity/relevance were issues that I raised with Dominic with regard to the volume he co-edited on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan. The book was only released at the beginning of March but, I wondered, was it already out of date? Not at all, Dominic replied. The issues arising from the disaster still remain, so too most policy responses. About the only issue not covered in the book is that of constitutional reform, something of abiding interest to PM Abe but few other Japanese politicians. That said, while initial sales of the book have been strong, we can expect them to decline (perhaps quite rapidly) as time passes; memory of the disaster will lose its potency and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant.

Certainly, the era of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand is long gone; he was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Sales were massive when we published the definitive assessment of Thaksin’s impact on Thai politics and society back in 2005 but the copies sold had fallen markedly by 2008 when the deposed prime minister sought political asylum in the United Kingdom. Even today, however, the book continues to sell – perhaps because Thaksin’s sister is now the country’s prime minister but more than likely also because of the scholarship (the book has been judged to be “essential reading for anyone interested in understanding ‘Thaksinization’ and what is clearly an extraordinary chapter in modern Thailand’s political history”).

Finally, there is the case of Trudy Jacobsen’s history of women and power in Cambodia. This had less dramatic initial sales than After the Earthquake and Thaksinization but it continues to sell, week after week, despite Cambodian history hardly being a mainstream subject. Why? Certainly the scholarship but also the relevance; this is, as one reviewer wrote, “an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”. Not only do libraries and individuals buy the book but also it is still used in courses five years after publication.

In short, what is at work here is a combination of at least three factors: topicality, relevance and scholarship. History often deals with dead people but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.


 

A smorgasbord of talents
from Press News, posted 04/25/2013 - 21:46

Long lunches and publishing go together, or so it is said. Reality is rather different. However, it was a great pleasure to have Dominic Al-Badri pass through Copenhagen today. And what better than to introduce the co-editor (with Gijs Berends) of After the Great East Japan Earthquake: Political and Policy Change in Post-Fukushima Japan – recently published by NIAS Press – to the glories of a real Danish smorgasbord. Quite a while later we staggered out into a bright, sunny afternoon to take in the sight of legions of local Danes busy soaking up the Vitamin D.

This was my first meeting with Dominic, in whose life Japan has played a major role, but his back-story is even more fascinating. As someone working at the European Union’s mission in Tokyo, Dominic is of course careful in what he says. Nonetheless, he came across as a talented communicator with a broad palette of skills and experience – someone actually personifying the richness and breadth of our smorgasbord menu.

It was quite a treat.


 

Leiden magic
from Press News, posted 04/25/2013 - 06:47

Just back from Leiden after attending a conference on Asian cities that was ably led by Gregory Bracken of Delft University of Technology together with our friends at the International Institute for Asian Studies. It was stimulating to have a glimpse of some of the work being undertaken in this area. However, as always, it is a gamble just how much attending such scholarly events leads to a published title by the Press some time later.

Of course, at the same time we took the opportunity to promote eight of our books directly dealing with various issues of urban life in Asia.


 

Back from London
from Press News, posted 04/18/2013 - 23:07

So, another London Book Fair is over. Thankfully, I escaped London ahead of any traffic gridlock arising from Maggie Thatcher’s funeral and now have a few things to ponder – and even discuss. I am not alone, it appears. @Gollanz on Twitter has offered the following observation: ‘90% of people who attend #lbf13 reoffend within two weeks - talking about books to family or even complete strangers.’

Running between Monday and Wednesday this week, the fair attracted a healthy number of attendees (though the aisles are still not as crowded as they were a decade ago.) For many attendees, the rights deals are the main thing. These, however, we usually leave till the far bigger Frankfurt fair in October or simply with an e-mail at other times. No, what makes the LBF special are its publishing seminars and the chance to sniff out interesting new developments in the publishing world.

This year the Indians were out in force, busy promoting their pre-press services and all manner of fancy e-book conversion suites. Somehow the glitz looked a tad faded this time (and even the digital seminars on offer were a bit of a yawn).

One also hears that some publishers who happily outsourced their production work to India a few years ago are now bringing significant bits home again (making me wonder at the rationale of Cambridge University Press recently doing the opposite).

What was fascinating to see, however, was how much the LBF is becoming a venue for authors. More about that in a follow-up post.


 

Authors going it alone, sort of
from Press News, posted 04/19/2013 - 07:29

One reason for there being an author boom at the London Book Fair (as discussed in my last post) must be the rise of self-publishing.

Despite the best efforts of the Creative Commons movement, self-publishing is still uncommon in the academic world – not least because of the continued weight placed on the peer review process. However, there are other reasons, too (for instance costs in time and money), as explored here.

But in the literary world self-publishing has really taken off. Not only is this because of dissatisfaction with what the traditional cartel of publishers, agents and booksellers has to offer (usually not much) but also because the internet has given authors the tools to express themselves and reach out to a wide readership.

An early pioneer here was Lulu.com (celebrating ‘ten years and two million storytellers’), which offers tools and services to make publishing simple and which claims it has the most options to sell your books. Today there are many other companies offering similar build-your-own publishing services online.

However, the gorilla in the teashop is Amazon with its Kindle Direct Publishing service, allowing authors to quite easily publish their works in the Kindle Store. In effect, Amazon has set itself up as a publisher, a move that has already had a marked effect on its revenues and share of the publishing cake. Critics claim that the Kindle Store is swamped with rubbish, however, and very few of the tens of thousands of authors flocking to Amazon are making any money.

Be that as it may, ‘Authorworld’ is humming both at the London Book Fair and beyond. As for (not) making money, well that sounds a lot like the situation of most academic authors.


 

Authors out front
from Press News, posted 04/19/2013 - 07:08

As mentioned in my last news item on the London Book Fair, what was fascinating to see was how much the LBF is becoming a venue for authors. Sure, it has always been a place for selected authors to strut their stuff, usually in promotion of a new book – as for instance this Turkish author mobbed by his fans after doing a book reading last Tuesday afternoon.

But, much more so than in the past, there are seminars aimed squarely at authors. An example can be seen in the scene below, from a session discussing the usefulness (or otherwise) of literary agents.

It was in fact such an author event that was easily the best LBF seminar that I attended. And I did so by accident, thinking it was a seminar for publishers (the session being called called ‘How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring’). What each of the panelists discussed was how they used social media to promote themselves and reach out to (often huge) readerships. Their actual comments and advice are described elsewhere but the essence of what each of them said was:

If you want to be published today, you have to use social media. Don’t want to go near Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc., then you don’t want to get published.

Initially, I thought this judgement was extreme and did not apply to the academic world. For instance, some of our authors won’t even be photographed let alone appear in an interview on YouTube to promote their books. This is a nuisance in marketing terms but doesn’t effect the quality of their scholarship. But after listening to the panelists’ arguments and thinking about the issue, now I am not so sure. How many more readers would our shy authors reach if they pushed themselves forward a little more?

Something to ponder.


 

Unexpected first review
from Press News, posted 04/16/2013 - 09:09

The first review of our recently published study of Japan after the 2011 triple disaster, After the Great East Japan Earthquake: Political and Policy Change in Post-Fukushima Japan, edited by Dominic Al-Badri and Gijs Berends, has appeared. Frankly, we thought that one of the Japanese news media would be first but quicker off the mark was Acumen, the magazine of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

In its latest (April) issue, the reviewer recalls how some commentators suggested the impact of the triple disaster was so enormous that it might lead to ‘the third opening of Japan, following the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) and the post World War II occupation.’ Clearly, this did not happen (or not yet) but the reviewer sees that a better evaluation is now possible two years after the disaster.

Perhaps it is too early to really understand the long-term effects, but it is surely time to consider such things as energy policy, agricultural implications and food safety, aside from the economic impact.

Here is a book that does just that. It is academic in its approach but is no less readable because of this. Indeed, the way it looks at the impact that the disaster had on Japanese politics on a broader level is very entertaining.

In short, concludes the review, the study ‘highlights important considerations that Japan must address.’


 

Hague Magic
from Press News, posted 04/15/2013 - 09:25

Finally, after years of dispute and even some fighting between Thailand and Cambodia, clarification of the vexed issue of ownership of the historic Preah Vihear temple and its surroundings is to go before the International Court of Justice in the Hague this week. Perhaps recognising the passions generated by the issue among both Thai and Cambodians, the hearings will be broadcast live and in full by the Court. And, since the first days of the hearings coincide with Buddhist New Year (Songkran in Thailand, Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia), a lot of people perhaps will tune into what is broadcast.

Much of the proceedings will comprise two rounds of oral argument, first by Cambodia and then by Thailand, after which the judges will retire; a verdict is expected by October. If all goes as planned, the judges will hear legal arguments backed up by historical evidence. Use of magic is not expected.

Strange though it may sound, magic has played a part in the Preah Vihear dispute and, more than anything else, its use shows a different face of Buddhism than the peaceful, meditative image usually associated with that faith. (That said, ‘peaceful’ is hardly the word to describe the actions of some Burmese monks recently in nearby Myanmar.)

Preah Vihear has a spectacular setting on a cliff top in the Dângrêk Mountains (the natural border between Thailand and Cambodia), looking out on the plains of Cambodia to the south. Construction of the first temple on the site began in the early 9th century but much of the present temple dates from the 11th and 12th centuries. In its time, Preah Vihear not only had the most spectacular setting of all the temples built in the six centuries during which the Khmer empire flourished but also it was a key edifice of the empire’s spiritual life, hence supported and modified by successive kings.

With the fall of the empire, however, much of Cambodia including this region fell under Thai suzerainty. Only in the early 20th century, as the French extended their Indochinese colony, were the Thais pushed back. In 1907, the French delineated a border that followed the watershed line of the Dângrêk Mountains – except, that is, at Preah Vihear where the border was nudged further north so that the temple could be included in French territory. For a few years during World War II, the temple and many other ‘lost territories’ were reclaimed by the Thais but these gains were again lost in 1945. After Cambodian independence in 1953, the border issue flared up again with the Thais claiming they had never accepted the French deviation; Thai troops then occupied the temple. In 1962, the International Court of Justice narrowly decided in Cambodia’s favour, judging that the temple belonged to Cambodia but failed to be clear where the actual border was.

Although legal ownership of the temple passed to Cambodia, in practice for many decades access to the site was mainly from Thailand due to the physical terrain. However, the decades of civil war, genocide and chaos in Cambodia following 1970 meant that few visited the site until the last remaining Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered there in 1998. Visits from the Thai side then resumed immediately but it was not until 2003 that an access road up the cliff was completed from the Cambodian side.

What sparked the current conflict, however, was the listing of Preah Vihear as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. This proclamation was made despite Thai objections, earlier Thai cooperation in the process being undermined by the domestic political situation (the Yellow Shirt insurgency). Attempts by Thai nationalists to plant the Thai flag at the temple quickly led to a build up of military forces by both countries in the area. Eventually, this would lead to armed clashes and soldiers being killed on both sides.

Adding to the tensions in August 2008 was the arrival at the site of Bun Rany, wife of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen; here she conducted a Buddhist ritual joined by thousands of Cambodians. Many Thais accused Bun Rany of conducting black magic aimed to weaken Thailand (not the first such accusation). In response, across the border in Thailand there was a mass wearing of yellow to protect the country against this magic. In addition, the Yellow Shirts organised big public counter-rituals.

To dismiss these actions as superstition and indeed reject the notion that magic could be a weapon in international disputes is to miss the point. Thailand and Cambodia are not alone in having a long history of engagement in spiritualist and animistic magical practices. In their case, this originates from the time when Hinduism and Buddhism first arrived in the region; here they encountered and absorbed indigenous traditions in which spirits and magic played important roles. The result was development of a multi-facetted Buddhism. In the upper reaches of society a more ‘pure’ form of Buddhism was practised while among the broad populace a more syncretic, popular faith was celebrated. In this setting, then, such a belief in and use of magic is not surprising.

Such beliefs are explored by Trudy Jacobsen in her Lost Goddesses, published by NIAS Press in 2007. In a cogent deconstruction of ‘traditional’ Cambodian society, she recounts:

According to popular legend, the monastery of Vihear Thom in Kratie province was built on the bodies of one hundred virgins who were crushed to death in the foundations to accompany the spirit of Princess Krapum Chhouk, who was killed by a crocodile nearby. The resulting brai kramom [ghostly virgins] protected the monastery.

At the same time, she describes how King Ang Duong – influenced by his 30-year upbringing at the Thai court – brought a more austere form of Buddhism into Cambodia from Siam from the mid-19th century. In time this Thai import became identified with traditional Khmer values, first by the ruling elite and ultimately by most educated Cambodians.

A similar duality is evident in Thai Buddhism, with again (put simplistically) there being a more ‘refined’ Buddhism followed by educated Thais and much more of a folk religion practiced by the mass of Thais, especially in the countryside. Our understanding of Thai beliefs in spirits and magic owes much to the pioneering work undertaken by T.J. (Baas) Terwiel, whose groundbreaking Monks and Magic was first published more than three decades ago. The fourth (and most comprehensively revised) edition of this study was published by NIAS Press last year.

So what does this mean for the deliberations undertaken at the International Court of Justice in the Hague next week? Probably nothing. But for ordinary Thais and Cambodians, taking time off from their New Year celebrations to watch the Court’s proceedings live on TV, Preah Vihear continues to exert a power (if not magic) coming worlds away from a courtroom in Holland.

As for relations between Cambodia and Thailand, these could always do with a magical improvement, especially over the Preah Vihear issue.


 

Not simple
from Press News, posted 04/13/2013 - 23:16

As part of the new LDP government’s strategy to shock (re)start the Japanese economy, it was reported yesterday that Japan had reached a deal with the U.S. on bilateral trade issues that clears the way for the world’s third-largest economy to join talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement as soon as July.

There is a stumbling block, however, as noted by today’s Economist: agriculture. Not only are there a lot of Japanese farmers – about 1.5 million of them (electorally they are a significant voting bloc) – but also historically the powerful agricultural lobby has been a big player within the LDP. Although there is bound to be a backlash to the TPP move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be calculating that, during the period of his post-election honeymoon and enjoying as he does sky-high approval ratings in the polls, now is the time to make hard decisions on agriculture.

Certainly, there has long been general agreement in Japan (at least among policymakers) that something must be done. For instance, a tariff of nearly 800% on imported rice may help keep Japanese rice growers in business but the economic distortion and cost to consumers also need to be considered. A sense of urgency was heightened on the agricultural issue after the Fukushima disaster two years ago when concerns about food safety came to the fore. In the end, the DPJ government of the time was unable to force through major changes; today’s LDP government may do better.

Moreover, the agriculture issue is not just about consumer prices, protectionist tariffs and Japan’s desire to join the TPP and other free-trade agreements. With an average age of 70 years and average farm sizes outside of Hokkaido of less than one hectare, the situation of Japanese farmers is also difficult. The situation of this farming couple pictured below, still struggling to farm their land while in their eighties, is not at all uncommon.

While the Economist and other news media have covered the TPP news and its implications quite adequately, a lengthier more nuanced treatment of both the free trade and agricultural issues (including food safety) is to be found in a book recently published by NIAS Press: After the Great East Japan Earthquake: Political and Policy Change in Post-Fukushima Japan, edited by Dominic Al-Badri and Gijs Berends. The book argues that TPP entry would also have an adverse effect on reconstruction after the 2011 disaster. Wider issues like energy and climate policies are also examined.

Copies of the book are available in Asia and Europe (even finally at NIAS Press!) and any day now will arrive at our North American warehouse in Pennsylvania.


 

New Year, Buddhist-style
from Press News, posted 04/13/2013 - 15:48

Forget about the fireworks featuring in the celebrations of Chinese New Year and when 31 December turns to January 1st. It’s now the turn of water as the New Year is celebrated in Buddhist Southeast Asia – Songkran in Thailand, Thingyan in Burma and Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia, for instance – and beyond.

Although the new year is marked in many Buddhist households and communities with reverence, prayer and memory, there is also a more irreverent side to the festivities. Indeed, right now the internet is awash with images from the start of Songkran earlier today.

There is a sizeable Thai community here in Copenhagen but somehow we suspect there will be little throwing of water, at least outside.

Happy New Year!


 

Press news

  • Apr. 9 2019

     

     

    The Jade Bracelet

     

    by Mega Vristian

     

    That year winter in Hong Kong was longer than usual. I had to wear several layers of warm clothing. There was no heater in the apartment where I worked, perhaps because my employer wanted to save on the electricity. The weather should have been warmer, now that Chinese New Year was approaching.

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