On 25 March 2022, a panel “Seeking a Universal Tongue: Esperanto and Politics in East Asia” took place at the annual conference of the Association for Asian Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The panel presented papers by Joshua Fogel (York University, Canada), Yauheniya Hudziyeva (Waseda University, Japan), Kazumi Kamimura (Josai University, Japan) and Edwin Michielsen (University of Toronto, Canada), with discussion comments provided by Nadine Willems (University of East Anglia, United Kingdom).
Papers discussed the cultural and political history of the Esperanto movement, starting from its arrival in East Asia up until the end of the Second World War in 1945, and examined the transnational trajectories of intra–East Asian exchange and solidarity among Esperantists, as well as various ambitions, hopes and strategies with which the movement responded and adapted to the politically turbulent moments in history of the region.
First, Joshua Fogel’s paper “The Early History of Esperanto in China and Japan” provided an introduction to the essential history of the Esperantist movement, and mapped the routes along which the language was introduced in Northeastern Asia in the late 19th-early 20th century. Fogel highlighted the transnational intellectual exchange that facilitated its vigorous spread in the region, connecting the Russian Far East, China, Japan and France, as well as the historical links between anarchism and Esperantism in Japan and especially in China.
Next, the paper “Linguistic Imperialism and Colonial Resistance: Proletarian Esperantists in the Peripheries of the Japanese Empire” by ESF Interlinguistics Support Fund recipient Yauheniya Hudziyeva’s discussed the interaction of the Esperanto movements with the language and cultural policies of the Japanese empire. Questioning the possibility of “neutrality” of Esperanto during the times when language was actively politicized and nationalized, the presentation examined discourse on introduction of Esperanto as the second language of the State of Manchuria (1932–1945), and anti-colonial resistance of Proletarian Esperantists in Taiwan (Lian Wenqing and Yamaguchi Koshizu).
Kazumi Kamimura’s paper “The Proletarian Esperanto Movement in the Age of Oppression and Conversion” introduced the activities of proletarian Esperantists during the period of harsh police persecution by the Japanese state. Through an analysis of publications by proletarian Esperantists in the 1930s, such as Marŝu, Studo pri la lingvo internacia (国際語研究) and Majo, Kamimura argued for careful re-examination of the various strategies adopted by proletarian Esperantists in Japan as they “resisted for life” and continued to envision the more equitable future achieved through linguistic and social reform, in the face of police suppression and fascist movements rising to power.
Edwin Michielsen (Marjorie Boulton Fellowship recipient, 2021) presented a paper titled “Esperanto against Fascism: An U-Saeng and the Esperanto Community during the Sino-Japanese War”, exploring Esperantist resistance against militarism and fascism after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Focusing on an international community of Esperantist activists in Southern China, Michielsen presented the journalistic and creative activities of Korean Esperantist An U-Saeng (Elpin), who used Esperanto to inform the international community of the realities of life in the mainland, and raised its flag against the horrors of the war as a symbol of hope for a peaceful future.
Finally, Nadine Willems kindly provided discussion comments addressing each paper, underlining the transnational nature of the movement highlighted by the presentations, Esperanto’s historical dual nature as an egalitarian ideology in itself and as a medium of communication, and its political implications, as well as the importance of considering the colonial setting in discussing Esperanto’s position as a “language of dissent”.
Some of the issues raised in the robust discussion with the audience after the presentations included the significance of the Western European origin of Esperanto in the context of anti-imperialist thought in Asia; the relationship between the struggle of indigenous people within the Japanese empire and Esperantist thought; and the censorship and police suppression of the movement, as well as gendered aspects of Esperanto.
I would like to express my gratitude to the organizer of the panel, Edwin Michielsen; to the presenters, discussant and the audience for the illuminating discussion; and finally, to the gracious support of ESF which made my attendance possible. Let us hope that the study of Esperanto movements in Asia will continue to build bridges across regions and disciplines, exploring and expanding the rich history of Esperantists who labored in the name of a more just world and borderless solidarity.