In this research project, the researchers of history, hydrology, and meteorology collaborate to present a new narrative of Asian history focusing on the relation between water and people. The two pillars of the project are to envisage a history of Asia as a holistic region (Objectives) and to construct and analyze databases (DBs) incorporating knowledge from both natural science and engineering, as well as humanities and social sciences (Methods and Disciplines). These pillars are based on the following two water-related conditions that govern the regional society and economy: first, monsoon and seasonal rainfall have a large impact over a wide area; second, many areas in the region constitute a “hydrosphere,” a topography shaped by water systems consisting of seas, rivers, lakes, and marshes.
With the increasing interdependence between countries, regional societies, and economies, namely globalization, which has been progressing at an accelerating pace since the 1990s, it has become necessary to clarify the origins and processes that have deepened the ties between countries and regions around the world, rather than simply summing up their histories. In response to these concerns, research into global history has been undertaken with the study of historical relationships between various regions of the world and comparative history as the two main approaches. On the other hand, in Japan, in the field of Asian history, the “Asian Trade Zone” theory has been proposed since the 1980s, which argues that changes in Asian countries in the closely knit chain of the world economy since the 19th century should be regarded as regional problems in terms of the deepening of interdependence and interrelationship between economies, including industrialization. This has led to accumulation of research into merchant networks, trade, and coastal cities in the Asian region.
Prior to this interest in connectivity within and outside the region, diversity within the Asian region has been widely recognized. The climate in the region stretching from Siberia at 76 degrees north latitude to Rote Island (Indonesia) at 11 degrees south latitude forms a diverse natural environment, combined with the large mountain ranges and highlands, including the Himalayan mountains in the interior, and the topography that consists of deltas stretching over watersheds such as the Yellow River and the Yangzi River, which flow through China; the Mekong River, which flows through the Indochina Peninsula; and the Ganges River, which flows through the northern part of the Indian Peninsula. Studies in various places have revealed that the production and lifestyles of people living there, as well as the attributes and consciousness of ethnicity and religion, are complexly interrelated and varied.
How do these connections and diversity relate to each other and shape the society and economy of the Asian region? Can we build a meta-narrative of Asian history that incorporates various regional perspectives and examples of the two dimensions? To address these challenges, the project focuses on natural environmental factors, such as seasonal rainfall and the hydrosphere, that have a major impact on the society and economy in the region.
How have people been involved with the water cycle encompassing rainwater, surface water, and groundwater? Interest in the global environment is increasing worldwide, and climate and water issues, in particular, are at its core. The study of environmental history, which explores the historical linkage between the natural environment and human society, also responds to such awareness of the problems of modern society. The DB developed by the project and the historical findings presented will also provide useful insights to researchers and practitioners on urgent challenges such as disaster risk and governance, and the trade-off between resource development and environmental conservation.
Along with the importance of water as such a theme, water is also a way to envisage new Asian regional history within this project. There are three issues to be addressed. The first is the analysis of spatial relationships. Maritime Asian history, including trade history, has attracted interest in the coastal areas of various places. While inheriting these results, the introduction of the perspective of the hydrosphere allows for a more integrated analysis of trade as a link between hydrospheres, including the relationship between coasts and inlands and urban and rural areas. The second is the perspective of political and socio-economic pluralism. The socio-economic response to the natural environment of monsoon climate and hydrosphere is an area where local, national, and regional actors intersect, including administrations and private actors below the national level. Through an analysis of responses to shared problems, the plurality of politics and socioeconomics in each region will be identified and further comparisons within the region will be made. Finally, the project suggests the multiple layers of time. Focusing on the natural environment, such as rainfall and the hydrosphere, we can see not only the time course that responds to linear changes, such as economic development, but also the multi-layered time horizon, such as daily, monthly, and seasonal cycles; annual disasters; and long-term variability. These approaches are also common to the classics of socio-economic history research, such as Fernand Braudel’s Three Historical Times.
By responding to these three challenges, the project aims to envisage a new image of modern Asian history that differs from the interpretation and narrative of the traditional free trade regime or imperial and colonial governance.