Spotlight on Junko Takeda

We’re pleased to announce the next instalment of Historians Under the Spotlight – an occasional interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions. You can catch up with previous posts here.

Today’s spotlight is shining on Junko Takeda, Professor of History at Syracuse University. In addition to her own fascinating research, which you can read more about below, Junko has guest edited a Virtual Special Issue for French History on ‘Plagues, Pandemics and Pathologies in French History’ which you can access for free until 1 October 2021.

In a nutshell, what is your research about? 

My research focuses on statecraft, globalization, migrations and revolutions in the 18th-century world. Across my career, I have crafted projects that explore these processes in the context of exchanges between France and Asia. And the history of disease and epidemics plays a central role in many of my studies. My first book, Between Crown and Commerce: Marseille and the Early Modern Mediterranean (Hopkins, 2011) studied Franco-Ottoman trade and its role in shaping ideas about French citizenship. Iran and a French Empire of Trade, 1700-1808: The Other Persian Letters (Liverpool, 2020) examined French entrepreneurial imperialism in Persia. It argued for a more globalized study of the Age of Revolutions that integrates developments on the Asian continent into historical conversations about transformations in the Atlantic world. My current and future projects are global microhistories: case studies of French exchanges in the Mediterranean and in East Asia.

What was it that first got you interested in researching French history? 

My story I think, is rather unconventional, both for an academic and for a Francophone world historian. I became interested in history as a young undocumented immigrant in the United States, going to meetings and hearings for deportation. My parents had come to the States legally, and when they lost their jobs, their visas expired. Helping them translate the paperwork for our cases, I became intrigued with the concept of applying for legal status and what it meant to become eligible for American citizenship. One of the most vivid memories I have of childhood is of lining up for hours in the morning at the immigration processing center, and when we entered the building, there was a banner on the wall announcing how America was a land of liberty and opportunity. The message on the banner was one of contrasts, between darkness and light, oppression and freedom. As a historian, retrospectively, I would argue that that banner’s message was reminiscent of the civilizing mission. In any case, I became interested not only in the processes by which one becomes legalized or denied, but in the origin of these concepts of rights, liberty, and inclusion, along with their shortcomings. So I began reading about democracy and citizenship. This exploration took me to the eighteenth century, to the Enlightenment, and to France. The search for answers to those questions I began asking as a young student has energized my research on statecraft and globalization across my 15 years as a professor. My undergraduate advisor, Malachi Hacohen, introduced me to Alexis de Tocqueville and his writings on Algeria, which whet my appetite for French history in global context. And under the guidance of my graduate mentor, Keith Michael Baker, I began exploring French economic globalization and the political language of civic republicanism in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

The longer I’m in this profession, I keep returning to my roots. Inspired by my family’s experiences, I now try to write histories from the perspective of those who operate in the liminal spaces of nations, empires, and cities. I try to craft stories and teach in ways that acknowledge the experiences of marginal and marginalized figures in history and everyday life. In many ways, I write for and about them, to keep their memories alive.

In the length of a Tweet, what is your Virtual Special Issue (VSI) about?

“Plagues, Pandemics and Pathologies in French History” explores how bacilli, insects, animals, and natural disasters shaped discourses and policies across French history, in local, regional, colonial, and global contexts.

What made you decide to put together a VSI on this subject?  

As soon as I began reading about COVID-19 and its epidemiological trajectory last spring, and witnessed in real time, its effects on bodies, communities, global trade, and politics, I couldn’t help but think back to my research on the Great Plague of Marseille of 1720 that I’d completed for my first book. I gave a few presentations on the Marseille plague this past year, and on lessons one could draw from studying human and societal reactions to zoonotic diseases from the past. This VSI seemed like a perfect opportunity to reflect historically on how humans have understood their relationships to pathogens, animals, insects, and plants across time, and how they have dealt with real and imagined crises stemming from our interactions with the natural world.

What are the main insights you hope people will take away from the VSI? 

As scholars and students explore more inclusive and global research methodologies, a focus on pathogens, animals, and environmental conditions provides an alternative to crafting human-centric narratives of the human past. Such studies I think, are particularly resonant in our own time as we confront the challenges of climate change, global warming, environmental destruction, and globalization. This VSI reminds us that human actions and interpretations intersect with the forces of disease, environment, and technologies to shape large processes. We humans are not alone in shaping historical change, nor the only protagonists in histories of ideas, politics, and empire. All of the articles in this volume stress this key point.

What new thing(s) did you learn in the course of putting together the VSI? 

This was actually my first experience putting together and curating a virtual special issue of the sort, so everything was new to me, and a learning experience. Jessica Wardhaugh, associate editor of French History, provided me with all the help one might need. She helped define the topic and bring the individual essays together, so the whole process was as smooth as one could hope for.

What advice would you give to other people contemplating guest editing a VSI?  

I’m not sure if I have any useful advice to give. It was a lot of fun reading the articles and finding connections between them. I particularly learned so much from casting a wide net, from medieval history to the present, and discovering resonances between past and present.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

While efforts are increasingly underway to foster a more inclusive and equitable environment in academia, it has not always been a welcoming or friendly space for first-generation students like myself, and for people of colour. Being the “only one” in the room at conferences or in committee meetings, and having to consistently field questions about why I chose not to specialize in Asian history can be a bit isolating. That said, the rewards certainly are many. Mentoring and advising students, and having the opportunity to serve as a female role model to an increasingly diverse student population is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job. And I am so lucky to be an academic now, when exciting things are happening in Francophone and global histories.

What one change would you most like to see in Academia in the next five years? 

Much has changed in academia between the present and the time I first became a student. I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from a 4-year college (Duke University, NC) in 1998. At Stanford University, I was my advisor’s first female Asian-American student to complete a PhD in French history in 2006. I was the first Asian American woman hired in Syracuse’s history dept in 2006. And I became the first woman of colour to be promoted to the rank of full professor in the history of the History Department at Syracuse University in 2020. It takes at least a quarter of a century for a first-year student at an American university to reach full professorship at a research institution, assuming a continuous path through school and immediate employment to tenure stream. It takes a lot of institutional commitment, on individual, departmental, and administrative levels to support underrepresented persons across decades, but I would like to see more work done in academia in the areas of retention and promotion of faculty of colour, from first generation and immigrant backgrounds. We have a lot of work cut out for us in the areas of equity and inclusion, at a time when austerity measures, exploitative labor practices and adjunctification impede hiring full-time faculty.

What are you working on now/next?  

I’m currently working on two book-length projects. I’m in the middle of writing Avedik, Louis XIV’s Armenian Prisoner: A Global Microhistory of Kidnapping, Incarceration, and Empire, traces the experiences of the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople, Avedik Yevtogliatsi and his valet Cachadur, who were imprisoned on three French island prisons—in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Caribbean—by Louis XIV in the early eighteenth century. My other project, Global Insects: Silkworms, Statecraft and Franco-Japanese Trade, examines imperial expansion and silk-for-arms exchanges developed by particular local representatives in the French Second Empire and the Tokugawa Shogunate in the mid to late nineteenth century. Both of these studies trace relations between Europe and Asia through the use of micro-historical case studies.

Quick fire questions:  

What French place/space would you most like to be able to go to right now?  

My husband and I had booked a home with a garden and pool right outside of Aix-en-Provence to celebrate our ten-years anniversary last May 2020. This was part of a research trip I had planned for last summer. Of course, we cancelled due to the pandemic, and I’ve been dreaming of rescheduling that trip since. Otherwise, I’d love to return to Mont Saint Michel. That was my last pre-pandemic research trip to France. I stayed at a farmhouse with 400 sheep!

Favourite archive or library? 

Too many to mention, but I do love to work at the Archives historiques de la chambre de commerce de Marseille. Work in the morning, have lunch across the street at the Vieux Port, then back to the archives for an afternoon session.

Favourite century? 

It was the current one until Covid hit, so I’ll go back to the 18th century.

Èclair or saucisson?  

Saucisson, hands down. For pastries, macarons.


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