University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Intersecting port cities: PTUC members collaborate with the Port Cities Research Centre, Kobe, Japan

In June, four members of the history team at Portsmouth participated in a series of field trips, presentations, and workshops with academics from Kobe University in Japan. In this blog, one of the founding members of the Port Towns and Urban Cultures research group, Dr Rob James, who is a senior lecturer in history, discusses the visit and what potential future opportunities the collaboration promises.

As part of our goal to extend links with other institutions worldwide, four members of the University’s Port Towns and Urban Cultures (PTUC) project, Dr Mel Bassett, Professor Brad Beaven, Dr Karl Bell and Dr Rob James, travelled to Kobe, Japan in late-June to meet scholars from the Port Cities Research Centre (PCRC) at Kobe University. The aim of the visit was to both collaborate on port city research and explore research interests between Portsmouth’s and Kobe’s academic communities. Both universities have strong research interests in history, literature, sociology, politics, education and languages, and during the visit we realized that there were great opportunities for working together.

The PTUC crew at the ‘Intersecting Port Cities’ workshop

On the first day of the visit members from PTUC and PCRC gave presentations on their various research areas at the Intersecting Port Cities. Kobe and Portsmouth. Their History and Potentialities workshop. This provided a chance for each of us to familiarize ourselves with both groups’ research interests and start to think about ways we could develop future collaborations. While both Kobe and Portsmouth are port cities, they are very different in terms of their history and social composition. Portsmouth is a city with deep naval roots, but Kobe’s port is more industrial, with strong commercial links to large manufacturers such as Kawasaki. Due to its broader industrial base, Kobe is a wealthier city, but we learned that pockets of deprivation still existed, particularly in areas with a strong immigrant community. Despite these economic and social differences between the ports, both operated (and still do) as contact zones in which people from differing cultures meet and mix. Both are waterfront cities at the intersection of maritime and urban space, offering the chance of cultural exchange that both reinforces and challenges local, national and international boundaries. The comparative histories of Kobe and Portsmouth discussed in these workshops thus helped us hone our methodologies and understanding of port cities in general.

Rob James presenting at the ‘Intersecting Port Cities’ workshop

Although these research workshops focused on a comparative analysis of port cities, it became clear from our discussions that there was the potential to work together on themes such as citizenship, ethnicity, ‘race’, education, translation and cultural transmission between East and West. All of these areas could involve academics from a range of disciplines at each university, and plans have been put into place to link researchers from both universities’ various faculties. For example, Rob James’ research into the cinema culture of ports links well with the work being conducted by postdoctoral researchers at Kobe University, so plans are afoot to work on collaborative projects in which the cinema cultures of Kobe and Portsmouth are compared and contrasted. After this thought-provoking workshop we were treated to dinner on the Luminous Kobe II pleasure cruiser, and while we sailed around the city’s harbour, eating an array of delicious food from sushi to Kobe beef, our PCRC partners continued to share fascinating stories about the development of the port of Kobe and its rich industrial, economic and social-cultural histories.

During the following days we engaged in a variety of trips to areas of historical interest, such as Kobe’s theatre district and ‘foreign quarter’, the Kobe Centre for Overseas Migration and Cultural Interaction, and the Kobe Planet Film Archive. These visits allowed us to see how identities in Kobe have been shaped and negotiated, especially through the city’s economic migration and its industries’ working communities. The visits also gave us a fascinating insight into how the city has changed over time, particularly the ways in which the ebbs and flows of the economy have affected the city’s cultural development. Indeed, while walking around the city, it became clear to us that the mapping project we have established at Portsmouth (that tracks the development of its ‘sailortown’ culture) could also be rolled out in Kobe. Such a task would enable the diverse and multilayered heritage of Kobe to be captured and shared with anyone interested in understanding the port’s history. As well as being taken on these very informative trips covering the city’s history, we were also introduced to the various outreach activities with which PCRC’s members are involved, including the Kobe Foreigners Friendship Centre and Takatori Community Centre, where we were told about the ways in which minority communities have been given a ‘voice’ in the broader Kobe community. We also visited Kobe City Archive and were introduced to many archival sources, including newspapers and trade directories, that showed us what a wealth of material there is available for us to use to enable us to further explore the port’s history while working collaboratively with academics at Kobe University.

Kobe theatre district

In fact, many opportunities for collaboration were discussed across the four days of the workshops, and it was at the final workshop session where both research groups put forward areas where we had identified real prospects for working together in the future. There was very clear potential to develop interdisciplinary projects that will showcase the research of both of our centres on the international stage. We also recognized opportunities to submit large funding bids to research councils that would allow us to fuse PTUC’s European port town network with the Asian consortium of universities, and thus help us to further explore the relationship between urban and maritime societies. In addition, we made initial plans for an international conference to be held jointly by the two centres, with plans for publications arising from the papers presented. We are also aiming to start a collaborative research project on Japanese culture and the West.

Kobe port from aboard the pleasure cruiser ‘Kobe Luminous II’

Overall, our visit to Kobe helped us to establish strong links with Asia, and particularly Japan, allowing us to solidify the port towns’ methodology while also establishing collaborative ways that the University of Portsmouth’s PTUC group could work with its new partner. Indeed, in discussions with our Kobe University colleagues, we have also identified opportunities for exchanges for both academics and students between the two institutions. We’ll keep you posted with future developments!

PTUC would like to thank the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, an organization that aims to support closer links between the UK and Japan, for its generous financial contribution to this trip.

Brad Beaven, Karl Bell, and Rob James are founding members of PTUC. Their edited collection Port Towns and Urban Cultures: International Histories of the Waterfront, c. 1700-2000 is available to purchase from Palgrave MacMillan http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137483157

All images author’s own.

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