Exploring Russia and its Growing Global Presence: Hosei’s Network Advances Cultural Exchange


Nobuo Shimotomai, Professor

Department of Global Politics, Faculty of Law

Posted Nov. 19, 2019

Faculty Profile

Professor Nobuo Shimotomai is renowned as one of the foremost experts in Russian studies. Drawing on historical knowledge, materials released following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and information gathered in the field, Professor Shimotomai unravels the contemporary meanings of historical change.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union: A Key Moment in History, an Invaluable Turning Point for a Researcher

I have been doing historical research in global politics and comparative political theory, with a focus on the Russian Federation (hereafter “Russia”).

Originally, my research was on the predecessor to present-day Russia, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (hereafter the “Soviet Union”) and socialist regimes. In my youth in the 1960s I observed the Cultural Revolution taking place in China and experienced the student unrest on university campuses in Japan, which prompted me to wonder why socialist movements and regimes tend to fragment and lead to conflicts. I wanted to find the answer to this question.

I gained a first-hand sense of the profound depth of the Soviet Union during my first ten-month stay in Moscow on a posting from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (now Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) in 1975. By interacting with people living in the Soviet Union and learning about their lifestyles and customs, I gained real-life information that could not be gleaned from documents. I sensed that there was more to the Soviet Union than what was visible on the surface: like a Matryoshka doll, there were many things hidden inside.

Research on the Soviet Union was mainly text-based, seeking to make sense of publicly available documents. The Soviet Union was a single-party socialist state, freedom of expression was restricted, and the very things which were most worth knowing were those that never saw the light of day.

A major turning point came with the coup d’êtat triggered by the perestroika reformation movement, which led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. I was disturbed that the object of my studies had suddenly ceased to exist, but as a researcher I also understood that this was a rare opportunity to witness firsthand a moment at which the wheels of history began to turn as the intelligentsia awakened. People began to re-assess their historical understandings. Crucial documents that had previously been suppressed by Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet Union came to light, and all sorts of previously unknown, behind-the-scenes information was revealed, opening up a new stream of research involving comparison of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.

The significance of studying international and comparative politics lies in gaining knowledge and mutual awareness of the national characteristics and thought systems of one’s own country and the country of study, the problems they each face, and how they are related to other countries. Historical materials pertaining to Japan-Russia relations and the Cold War in Asia have begun to appear recently, and I am continuing my research with an eye not only to Russia but to other countries in Asia including Japan as well.

Hosei’s Network to Japan-Russia Cultural Exchange

I have been teaching at Hosei University for 31 years, beginning in 1988. In all this time, my research activity has never been restricted in any way. I’ve been fortunate to attend many international conferences outside Japan including the former USSR, and Russian Federation and bring back the latest international information to apply in my research and teaching including Harvard, and LSE. I’m grateful for the way the university supports its faculty members’ research from a liberal standpoint.

Hosei University has been building a unique intellectual exchange network with Russia ever since it signed a cultural agreement with the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences (now the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences) around 50 years ago. The head of the Institute at the time and later Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Yevgeny Primakov, was awarded Hosei University’s first ever honorary doctoral degree, and was also a compatriot of Visiting Professor Konstantin Sarkisov, who has been invited to Hosei in the past, and Professor Andrey Kravtsevich.

Today, Hosei is one of the major hubs for Japan-Russia cultural exchange, and this environment has added greater depth to my own research. I worked on a research project on the history of Japan-Soviet and Japan-Russia relations with a focus on the Cold War era. The same historical facts can change depending on whether they are viewed from the Japanese side or the Russian side, and in this project we tried to make these differences clear by recording both perspectives in parallel. The outcomes of the project are contained in Nichiro Kankei – Rekishi to Gendai [Japan-Russia Relations in History and the Present Day] (Hosei University Press) and Nichiro Kankeishi – Parallel Hisutori no Chosen [A History of Russo-Japanese Relations –Challenge of Parallel History] (co-authored; University of Tokyo Press and Brill). The latter was later translated into Russian (2015) and just published in English translation  this year from the Brill publisher, the Netherland.

Go into the field to experience things that you can’t glean from texts alone

Russia seems an unfamiliar and distant country to most Japanese, but in fact it is our close neighbor. The city of Vladivostok used to have a Japanese precinct that was home to around 10,000 Japanese people. Following past conflicts and the Cold War, however, Russia became a place that Japanese people could no longer visit with ease.

I want my students to see and experience for themselves what Russia is like today, so for the past few years I’ve been taking my seminar students on a field trip. In terms of economic power Russia ranks around tenth worldwide; it has an abundance of natural resources, and is an important presence not only in Europe, but even more in Asia. It will continue to be a key point in international affairs. I believe it is important for students to know more about this country that is so close to, yet distant from, Japan.

Dynamic changes are underway in the global environment, and as Japan becomes more globalized, it will develop deeper relations with many different countries. I hope my students can hone their “practical wisdom” as they observe the world from a clear standpoint, free from preconceptions.

The way to understand global politics is to venture into the field and gain knowledge of historical context and national sentiment

Russia today has many problems in its relationship with other countries. Especially notable is the deterioration of relations between Russia and its neighbor, Ukraine, which are now at flash point. Why does such antagonism exist between two countries which both belonged to the former Soviet Union? What are the root causes of it? Studying history helps reveal the origins of the antipathy that continues to the present day.

However, I feel strongly that the realities of global politics cannot be fully understood through analysis of historical sources alone. The rise of the internet has led to an abundance of information: if we want to know something, we can usually find it by searching online. There is often a gap, however, between what a national government proclaims publicly and what its people are actually feeling. Many things that are difficult to comprehend from the outside become clear when you actually start communicating with local people. One example is the emotional estrangement arising from differences in religious beliefs, which leads to conflict becoming the normal state of affairs. Orthodox Christianity, in particular, is the wellspring of the Christian religion, but has generated a worldview that is distinctively different from those of Europe and North America Christianity. The way to truly understand global politics is by acquiring knowledge of various different historical contexts and national sentiments.

Edward Hallett Carr, who worked as a British diplomat in the early 1900s and studied the history of the Soviet Union as a journalist, wrote one of the renowned masterworks in the field of historical philosophy, What is History. In this book, Carr cites the famous thesis that “all history is ‘contemporary history‘” arguing that history comes about as we look at the past through contemporary eyes and in light of contemporary problems.

E.H. Carr’s research was on the Soviet Union, with a focus on its relations with other countries, and especially on European and North American societies. To tell the truth, E.H. Carr associated with the professor who taught me: his ideas are fundamental, and I bring the same awareness to my own research. History is inseparable from the present.

“Geopolitics” is a fashionable term these days. Russia has the largest land mass of any nation-state on earth and, together with the United States, controls 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, giving it huge influence in world affairs. I expect that Russia in a broad sense will continue to be essential to research on global politics. The United States and the Soviet Union pursued exhaustive research on one another during the Cold War era, but there is an inevitable lack of objectivity in research that is intended to foster vigilance for the other party as a threat. I feel very fortunate to have pursued my research from an objective, third-party standpoint and witnessed Russia’s historical transformations.

Nobuo Shimotomai, Professor(at time of writing)

Department of Global Politics, Faculty of Law

Born in Sapporo, Hokkaido in 1948.

Graduated from The University of Tokyo Faculty of Law, completed the Master’s and Doctoral programs in the Graduate School for Law and Politics at the same institution. Doctor of Laws. Worked as a Professor in the Seikei University Faculty of Law before being appointed Professor of the Faculty of Law at Hosei University in 1988, a position he still holds (at the time of writing). Appointments outside the university have included guest editorial writer at the Asahi Shimbun newspaper (1998-2001) and President of the Japan Association of International Relations (2002-2004). Continues to pursue a diverse activity profile as one of the foremost experts on Russian international relations.