East Asian Geography Research Paper

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East Asian studies seen through the prism of geographic analysis is a subset of the larger interdisciplinary field of area studies which developed during and immediately after World War II as the need for understanding foreign areas became more imperative in the US with its growing role in global affairs. Geography, with its emphasis on the study of people and places and their interrelationships, occupied an important niche, especially in East Asia, a region where extensive military operations and commitments were involved and where major perceived strategic interests of the United States were at stake.

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1. Changing Views And Realities Of East Asia

The study of East Asia from a geographic perspective in recent years has been strongly influenced by events in the region and the unfolding drama and trajectory of development within the regional units—China, Japan, and the Koreas—as well as by changing approaches and methods within the social sciences. China is defined here in its greater context of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. In addition, the shifting global geopolitical and economic trends and realities have exacerbated the challenges to the region and its national units. Meanwhile, area studies as an approach to knowledge has been undergoing far reaching changes as new conceptual trends in the social sciences and humanities have led to new ways of looking at how nations are structured and cultures operate. Thus, the nature of economic and social behavior within the national units has been reexamined in the context of the remarkable economic growth of Asia during the last 35 years and the emergence of East Asian states such as Japan and China as major global economic and political players with increased power.

Paradoxically, while political and military security issues have made the most dramatic headlines, geography research and study of the region and its subunits has focused mainly on economic, urban, and regional development studies including trade, regional growth, urbanization, migration, and environmental issues (see, e.g., Yeung 1998). Much if not most of this work has followed a well-established and more traditional paradigm of empirically based, positivist work in the social sciences and has employed conventional quantitative and statistical methods rather than more recent postmodernist and qualitative approaches.

2. New Methodologies And Technologies

At the same time geographic analysis employed in regional studies of East Asia has begun to embrace emerging methodologies of GIS (geographic information science), digital cartography, and remote sensing from earth satellite and conventional aerial platforms. These emerging methodologies focus on acquiring spatial data on natural and human patterns and phenomena and storing, manipulating, and analyzing these data digitally and numerically. By such means and methods, much larger sets of data can be reviewed and analyzed, which not only permit greater knowledge and understanding, but may result in the development of new approaches to the study of East Asia’s geography and new ways of conceptualizing regional and spatial arrangements.

Owing to the newness of these methodologies and data-acquisition sources, their impact and significance continues to evolve in step with ability to comprehend and harness their remarkable capacities in new and innovative ways. One significant trend associated with these technologies is their use in environmental studies and in the interface between human and environmental relations and linkages. While the effects of this trend are only beginning to be seen, given the power and utility of the new tools and methods it is likely their effect will be to encourage more studies that focus on the environment and the manner in which humans organize their economic, political, and social activities in space to respond to the environmental opportunities and realities that confront them. At the same time, given the enormous environmental changes underway and the growing challenge for local and regional environments to support the massive East Asian populations with food, fiber, water, and other essential elements for development, much remains to be done if geographic study in East Asia is to provide timely and valuable service for the social and behavioral sciences (Smil 1993).

3. Challenge Of Regional Diversity

Another striking reality about East Asia that affects the manner in which geographic analysis is employed is the range of social and economic systems that operate across what is only a partially coherent cultural region. Thus, Japan operates a relatively open democracy and managed market economy. South Korea has followed a similar path with closer relations between government and major private enterprises or chaebol (large multifaceted commercial industrial conglomerates). China, by contrast, is a massive socialist economy in transition that has undergone far-reaching restructuring, in which it has sought to rely on market mechanisms to increase efficiencies in production and output, and to increase dramatically the productivity of its land, labor, and capital resources while maintaining a high degree of political control and considerable economic control. Much recent work in geography is aimed at seeking better understanding of China and its growth and development.

3.1 Contributions Of Asian Researchers

One of the salient trends of the last two decades in Chinese geographic study is the emergence of a large cadre of young scholars from the region—China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—who are aggressively engaged in research and who frequently publish the results of their work in English. These young scholars are scattered through Asia, Oceania, North America, and to a lesser extent Europe, but their contributions have been very significant in bringing a Chinese and Asian view coupled with methodological and substantive training in both Asia and the West. This blending of intellectual traditions paired with training in the latest methods and fashions of Western science and social science provides creative and highly innovative approaches to study. It often results in scholars who are based in Western universities but who maintain very close contact with the East Asian setting and point of origin, and who bring a special insight to bear on the analysis of social, political, and economic issues in the region (Chan 1994).

4. Theoretical Matters And Substantive Studies

Examples of such geographic research on China have centered on analysis of regional development and economic growth, associated with foreign investment as linked to China’s recent economic growth and restructuring. Distinctive among the social sciences, economic geographers have centered their work on spatial issues and locational questions related to regional disparities in income, output, investment, and growth processes (Wei 1999). Generally empirical in nature, this work has added to the broader conceptual debate on China’s approach and policy to national development and its regional dimensions (Fan 1995). As much of this work has centered on variations in regional growth, it has evolved to look at issues in local and regional development and has explored some of theoretical points that touch on the special nature of Chinese development. Geographers have been especially active in investigating south-east China and the Pearl River Delta region around Guangzhou and Hong Kong (Lin 1997). This work has moved beyond a focus on economic variables and begun to explore issues at the interface of regional and local politics, society, and economy. In this way, it has drawn from theoretical and conceptual ideas within other social sciences and even the humanities.

For example, research in recent years in other social sciences has examined the social cultural notion of guanxi (Chinese for social relations or connections) and its role in commerce and politics. Much has been written on this topic and its more broad and related subject, what the sociologists Granovetter (1985) and Wank (1999) call the ‘embeddedness’ of private business in social networks and political power. What is this guanxi and how does it work? How does it interplay with commerce and politics and where did it originate? Can it be used and linked ideologically with Chinese and Asian thought to create a larger theoretical framework and context associated with Confucian and Asian values? Do these values and patterns vary in different parts of China, and is there a definable geography or spatial pattern of such matters? Related to this is the larger question of the role of the central state in development versus the role of local players and forces, and geography researchers are writing increasingly on the role of local forces and operatives.

Geographic study on this has largely been empirical, and some scholars have taken the difficult path of seeking to understand the commercial linkages between the PRC and Taiwan that transit the Taiwan Straits (Hsing 1998). On the surface such transactions would appear to be straightforward enough—the desire of Taiwan capitalists to minimize labor costs and thereby remain competitive in world markets for their manufactured goods that have a high labor content. Yet the relationships are complex, even among Chinese confreres who speak the same Fujian regional language. The political and commercial systems between Taiwan and mainland China have operated differently for a century if we include the previous period of Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan (1895–1945), and the subtle outward variation in behavior belies the complexity of culture and its interface with commerce and politics. Geographic research on shoe manufacturers, for example, who seek to bridge the gap between Taiwan and the PRC mainland reveals some of the difficulty and offers probing insight into the spatial complexity and significance of regional variation in what Wank (1999) has called the ‘commodification of communism’. Such work confirms the murky and conflated relationships of Taiwan foreign investment in China and the linkages between business and politics in Taiwan as well as in neighboring Fujian on the mainland.

Similar work on the Pearl River Delta of the Hong Kong–Canton Region reveals the significance of a political-economy approach to understanding how intimate and intertwined are relationships among foreign investment, economic development and growth, technology and information transfer, and local and regional politics (Leung 1993). Seeking answers and understanding to such processes of economic, social, and political behavior requires a combination of conceptual approaches that may range from the local ethnographic and qualitative to the statistical and quantitative. The resourceful investigator will employ all that have utility and value in achieving better understanding of the particular processes of social, political, and economic change underway in the time and place of her his study.

Geographic study of Japan and Korea has paralleled some of the same themes discussed for China while also exploring some topics that relate to economic trends associated with Japan’s economic growth and global financial role. Geographers have written extensively about Japan’s increasingly global economic ties, and much of this work has focused on the tactics and policies of Japan’s foreign investment especially as directed toward North America, Europe, and Oceania. At the same time work has been done on the evolving industrial and corporate networks in Japan with reference to small businesses and the dynamics of local, regional, and national forces that drive location and growth. Such research originates in the past growth and emergence of Japan as a global player in the world’s economy, and one whose decisions play a mighty role in determining world patterns of manufacturing. Thus, this work links events and trends in Japan to a larger world space economy, and its thrust comes from scholars who have a perspective that extends beyond a commitment to the analysis of Japan as a regional object of study. Such research provides a more intellectually viable and catholic framework for contemporary area studies (Watters and McGee 1997).

Urban studies on Japan continue to be an important focus of study, and these include more traditional historic studies of cities and their economic and social processes as well as a number of recent studies of specific cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama (Cybriwsky 1998). Similar work is found in Korea. Seoul, as the nation’s primate city, dominates as an object of study where the approach of urban biography has been used. This direction builds on traditional approaches in urban geography and continues an important qualitative dimension in urban related research. Knapp (1990) and Gaubatz (1996) have done extensive work in cultural geography that draws inspiration from the landscape and builds upon the intimacy of human activity and landscapes in China, although this is a minor theme in recent Japanese geographic studies. Related to this and historical geography is continuing work on the history of cartography of China, Japan, and Korea.

5. Geography And East Asian Studies, A Continuing Successful Blend?

Is geographic research and analysis on East Asia, as a branch of the social sciences, serving its purpose well, and providing creative and thoughtful answers and expositions on salient and significant issues, and matters that should benefit from spatial and geographic approaches to knowledge? In some specialized areas such as aspects of space economy, urban and migration studies, some specific cultural studies, and human–environmental studies, the answer is yes, and there are many good examples of high-quality work done in recent years in China, Japan, and Korea for evidence. On the other hand, social themes and gender studies are few, and geographers have largely ignored urgent political and security issues in East Asia. Are the current approaches, tools, and interests of contemporary geographers sufficient to meet the intellectual as well as policy challenges of contemporary East Asia as an increasingly important component of the world equation for the twenty-first century? Until geographers confront the key issues of geopolitics as well as political economy, it is likely their influence will be muted among social scientists and beyond in the broader arena of academic and policy oriented scholarship. At the same time, given the new tools of GIS and remote sensing that should enable a much more aggressive approach to environmental studies, geographers would do well to exploit that advantage and blend it with related studies in the social sciences to meet the many new challenges of the twenty-first century, as people everywhere cooperate and compete to make the fullest and best use of their environments and resources.


  1. Chan K W 1994 Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in post-1949 China. Oxford University Press, Hong Kong and New York
  2. Cybriwsky R 1998 Tokyo: The Shogun’s City at the Twenty-first Century. Wiley, New York
  3. Fan C C 1995 Of belts and ladders: State policy and uneven regional development in post-Mao China. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85: 421–49
  4. Gaubatz P R 1996 Beyond the Great Wall: Urban Form and Transformation on the Chinese Frontiers. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  5. Granovetter M 1985 Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddednes. American Journal of Sociology 91: 481–510
  6. Hsing Y 1998 Making Capitalism in China: The Taiwan Connection. Oxford University Press, New York
  7. Knapp R G 1990 The Chinese House: Craft, Symbol, and the Folk Tradition. Oxford University Press, Hong Kong and New York
  8. Leung C K 1993 Personal contacts, subcontracting linkages, and development in the Hong Kong–Zhujiang Delta region. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 83: 272–302
  9. Lin G C S 1997 Red Capitalism in South China: Growth and Development of the Pearl River Delta. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, BC
  10. Smil V 1993 China’s Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development. Sharpe, Armonk, NY
  11. Wank D L 1999 Commodifying Communism; Business, Trust, and Politics in a Chinese City. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
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  13. Wei Y H D 1999 Regional inequality in China. Progress in Human Geography 23: 49–59
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