RMA History Blog

Waseda University (Tokio, Japan)

Hidde Goedhart, Waseda University

Tokio, Japan – November 2019

Take a glance at a Vermeer and you will see the history of early modern globalization unfold before your eyes. Such is the thesis of Vermeer’s Hat, a 2007 historical classic by Timothy Brook. A VOC warehouse, a felt hat, tulips painted on a porcelain dish, a globe, tobacco, and a silver coin each signal the rapid development of global trade and its influence on economy, culture, and science in the seventeenth century. The professor of one of my classes at Waseda University in Tokyo can’t seem to get enough of referring to this book. In his opinion, Vermeer’s Hat depicts how the cosmopolitanism of European cultural elites drove and drives the development of the world economy in a way that others can’t.

Considering Japan’s popularity among European and American fashion, music, and streaming audiences, it is hard to think of a city more in the limelight of globalization in 2019 than Tokyo.

I spend my time on its busy subways or navigating its narrow streets – most of it getting from class to the central library or back. There, I once found myself staring in bewilderment at the Japanese-only Chinese history section, only to find out that the English book I had been looking for was stored in an entirely different part of the building. The same bilingual divide is maintained at my Asia-Pacific Studies grad school. With students from over fifty countries, it offers a diversity of nationalities that most programs can only dream of, but the resulting English classes are made up exclusively of foreign students.

Though this may depict Japan as an object of globalization against its own will, a Dutch bias is more likely to be the problem here. Its smallish language sphere and uniquely proficient speakers of English as a second language are strong factors supporting the internationalization of academia in the Netherlands. It is not easy, in short, to be more international than the Dutch. That makes me think Vermeer’s paintings are not the best measure for development, but I’m not sure my professor will agree.