In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sinophone and Japanese International Relations Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Key Journals and Reference Works
  • State of the Field in Japanese and Sinophone IR Communities
  • The “National School” Debates in Japanese and Sinophone IR
  • Homegrown Theorizing in Japanese IR
  • Homegrown Theorizing in Sinophone IR
  • Japanese Thought, History, and Traditions in Scholarly and Policy Discourse
  • Chinese Thought, History, and Traditions in Scholarly and Policy Discourse

International Relations Sinophone and Japanese International Relations Theory
Ching-Chang Chen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0271


By “Sinophone and Japanese International Relations Theory,” this article means nascent theoretical constructs about the “international” in Sinophone and Japanese International Relations (IR) epistemic communities that draw mainly on their local ideas, experiences, and practices. “Sinophone IR” here is not limited to the community of IR researchers in the People’s Republic of China (PRC); it also includes that of Taiwan and other overseas Chinese-speaking researchers, including non-ethnic-Chinese academics who substantially engage with “Chinese” thought and traditions in their own right, i.e., not for testing established, mainstream IR theories. Similarly, “Japanese IR” is not narrowly defined as a group of IR scholars with Japanese citizenship. Rather, it includes IR researchers based in Japan and their overseas colleagues who take “Japanese” ideas and history seriously. It is thus possible to research and write from these two epistemic communities simultaneously; so to speak, their boundaries are neither fixed nor immutable. The majority of the IR academics in these communities are not concerned with, or involved in, homegrown theorizing, and scholars associated with the “Chinese School of IR” have not engaged with ostensibly Japanese resources for inspiration. However, some homegrown theorists have started drawing on ideas and practices from the other side or shared resources, e.g., Buddhism. Such theorizing synergy and cross-fertilization are likely to continue, especially over such notions as ontology and relationality. This article maps out the literature on homegrown knowledge production in Japanese and Sinophone IR communities and their theorizing endeavors. It will assist readers in comparing and evaluating the originality and contribution of Sinophone and Japanese IR scholarship to global IR knowledge, as well as their shortcomings. Following this introduction, the second section locates the interests of constructing alternative theories in Japanese and Sinophone IR in the wider context of ongoing debates on how to make the theory and practice of global politics more diverse and equitable. The third section introduces key journals and reference resources, followed by the fourth covering the state of the field in Japanese and Sinophone IR. The fifth reviews the debates over the creation of a “national school of IR” in their respective epistemic communities. The last four sections focus on theorizing efforts in Japanese and Sinophone IR as well as their uses of local resources in academic and policy discourses. For the sake of stylistic clarity, surname precedes given name for all East Asian individuals mentioned in the following commentary paragraphs and annotations.

General Overviews

As the topic of this article overlaps with that of the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Chinese International Relations Theory”, the author has avoided most citations already introduced there while adding new ones in Chinese, English, and Japanese sources. Against the backdrop of the continued domination of American/Western theories and policy interests in IR, some scholars, such as the authors of Aydinli and Biltekin 2018, have been seeking to rectify this imbalance by articulating ideas, practices, and concerns from the periphery. The endeavors to construct “non-Western” or “global” IR theories as alternatives to existing mainstream theories tend to presuppose that one can and should apply such alternatives (if successfully constructed) not only locally but also to other contexts. However, a given theory’s ability to move across time and space does not take place in a geocultural vacuum void of power relations. Agathangelou and Ling 2004 illustrates that, in this hierarchical “house” of IR, a theory’s position is determined through violence and exclusion (inside, outside, or on the border), stratification (upstairs or downstairs), and material relations of production (the fact that the emerging Chinese School of IR has been gaining more attention in the discipline—see, for example, Babones 2017 among articles on major IR theories in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics—is inseparable from the PRC’s ascension into the world’s second-largest national economy). Without addressing the house’s Eurocentric structure, Chen 2011 argues, the “burden of proof” continues to lie with those who want to do IR differently if they wish to be let in; for Zarakol and Çapan 2018, IR theories remain “bad travelers,” whether they originate in the “East” or the “West.” This article puts “Japanese” and “Sinophone” IR epistemic communities in a single entry, for some of their researchers have noticed the importance of homegrown theory traveling within the “East” (or, indeed, between multiple “Easts”), not only to the “West.” Wang 2011, Wang 2017, Rösch and Watanabe 2018, and Shimizu 2019 all refuse to force “Asia,” “China,” or “Japan” into established IR categories as if they were territorially bounded, with stable boundaries and populations sharing fixed identities. The selected works can also be read as a part of the “relational turn” in IR, which, according to Trownsell, et al. 2019, needs more thorough engagements with ontology and even temporality when conceiving the notion of relationality.

  • Agathangelou, Anna M., and L. H. M. Ling. “The House of IR: From Family Power Politics to the Poisies of Worldism.” International Studies Review 6.4 (2004): 21–49.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1521-9488.2004.00448.x

    Agathangelou and Ling use the metaphor of “colonial household” to illustrate the IR discipline’s exclusive, hierarchical, and violent gatekeeping structure in determining what can be counted as legitimate or acceptable knowledge and whose interests and voices can be represented or heard. Inspired by Gandhi’s “oceanic circle” metaphor that stresses interconnectedness, the article calls for a Worldism that acknowledges the existence of multiple worlds while registering their mutual reverberation and reconstruction.

  • Aydinli, Ersel, and Gonca Biltekin, eds. Widening the World of International Relations: Homegrown Theorizing. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2018.

    Bringing together contributors from various peripheral geocultural sites, the volume maintains that diversity and dialogue in an IR discipline whose lenses have been dominated by a few cores require “homegrown theorizing.” For Aydinli and Biltekin, critiques of mainstream theories or “meta-theorizing” is insufficient for mitigating the exclusion of the periphery from theory production; rather, one needs to theorize based on indigenous ideas and/or practices “in the periphery about the periphery.”

  • Babones, Salvatore. “Taking China Seriously: Relationality, Tianxia, and the ‘Chinese School’ of International Relations.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    An open-access essay that covers major English-language sources on the Chinese School of IR. Focusing on the “Big Three”—Yan Xuetong, Qin Yaqing, and Zhao Tingyang—and their discussions about the notions of relationality and tianxia, Babones suggests that despite all the shortcomings, the Chinese School’s research on the world system9 has added to IR such that it is plausible to conceive the present interstate system as an American tianxia in action.

  • Chen, Ching-Chang. “The Absence of Non-Western IR Theory in Asia Reconsidered.” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 11.1 (2011): 1–23.

    DOI: 10.1093/irap/lcq014

    The article presents a postcolonial critique of the construction of non-Western IR theory (see Acharya and Buzan 2010 under “National School” Debates in Japanese and Sinophone IR). Chen argues that simply exploiting local histories and traditions for building more “national schools of IR” in Asia and beyond does not make the discipline more “international” or democratic, for non-Western IR’s Eurocentric meta-theoretical foundations render it a derivative discourse of Western IR.

  • Rösch, Felix, and Atsuko Watanabe, eds. Modern Japanese Political Thought and International Relations. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018.

    This volume rejects a popular assumption that adding “unique” insights from non-Western sites necessarily makes a Western-dominated IR studies more “global.” For Rösch and Watanabe, “Japan” is not a self-contained political entity or civilization with certain essence; rather, it is a field of global knowledge interaction or a space where agents study unfamiliar knowledge while sustaining each singularity. Studying/developing theories in Japan thus helps understand the diversity of global politics.

  • Shimizu, Kosuke, ed. Critical International Relations Theories in East Asia: Relationality, Subjectivity, and Pragmatism. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2019.

    Shimizu argues that theory-building in “Western” IR has much in common with that in “non-Western” IR: a fixed subjectivity already formed before entering into social relations and an abstract temporality that assumes linear progressive time separated from space. Involving contributors from Japanese, Korean, Sinophone, and Southeast Asian IR communities, the volume interrogates the consequences of such taken-for-granted assumptions in knowledge production and invites (critical) IR scholarship to face up to these challenges.

  • Trownsell, Tamara, Amaya Querejazu Escobari, Giorgio Shani, Navnita Chadha Behera, Jarrad Reddekop, and Arlene Tickner. “Recrafting International Relations through Relationality.” E-International Relations, 2019.

    This essay calls for academics and practitioners of IR to recognize that we often face but ignore existence from different and diverse ontological points of departure. Only when we break away from the dominant modernist/atomist/anthropocentric ontology and develop our “ontological translation” skills, Trownsell, et al. argue, can we better appreciate the notion of relationality and work more effectively with multiple worlds about which we want to know more.

  • Wang, Hui. The Politics of Imagining Asia. Edited by Theodore Huters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674061354

    The book seeks to deconstruct Eurocentric ways and categories that look at Asia and China in hierarchical binaries as if they had no historical agency. Specifically, Wang takes issue with the “nation-state logic” that has characterized the mindset of the modern West and of Japan and China since the late 19th century. To rectify prevailing ways of imaging Asia, Wang argues, it is necessary to reconstruct world history through reexamining Europe.

  • Wang, Ban, ed. Chinese Visions of World Order: Tianxia, Culture, and World Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

    A key text investigating the emergence of tianxia as a body of thought and practice in the Han dynasty and its evolution and mutation in modern times. Operating at the nexus of culture and Realpolitik, Wang maintains, tianxia as a Janus-faced notion may be abused by the powerful to disguise its selfish interests as general interests, but the strong may also find it hard to escape from tianxia’s normative scrutiny.

  • Zarakol, Ayşe, and Zeynep Gülşah Çapan. “Between ‘East’ and ‘West’: Travelling Theories, Travelling Imaginations.” In The Sage Handbook of the History, Philosophy and Sociology of International Relations. Edited by Andreas Gofas, Inanna Hamati-Ataya, and Nicholas Onuf, 122–133. London: SAGE, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781526402066.n9

    This chapter examines why IR theories do not move seamlessly across time and space and considers how theories can “travel” better. Beginning with the discipline’s self-image as an American social science, Zarakol and Çapan argue that Eurocentrism as a mode of knowledge has created epistemological hierarchies, preventing both mainstream theories from waking up to the illusion that they do not really travel and alternative ones from traveling to the American/Western cores.

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