Dean examines Pacific cultures
Matt K. Matsuda analyzes the diverse history of certain cultures in his latest book
Professor Matt K. Matsuda travelled extensively to countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan to piece together the history of a variety of cultures in his latest publication, “Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures.”
Matsuda, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program, said there are many good textbooks and general studies about East Asia or Southeast Asia, about the Pacific Islands and about the Americas, but nothing about the relations between the people.
“There hasn’t been a large historical account in one volume in which we try to talk about the interconnections and the movements of peoples between all of those regions,” said Matsuda, dean of the College Avenue campus.
From the first discussions with his publisher at Cambridge University Press, Matsuda said he focused on drawing from Asian, American, European, modern and ancient cultures to provide a broad context and perspective for the book.
“American students have long known about the history of the Atlantic world — the Pacific has been less in the consciousness of Americans. But that has increasingly changed because of the global nature of the world now,” Matsuda said.
The reasons for many scholars, professionals and even students to be interested in Pacific and especially Asian history and culture are of great concern in society, he said.
The modern world focuses on Asia today as a place of rising economies, a producer of culture, formerly a major battleground in World War II, a place of major concern for international politics and an area of vital concern for environmentalists, Matsuda said.
Matsuda, who has been at the University since 1993, traveled to destinations including Malaysia, Australia, the Polynesian Islands and Fiji to acquire primary narrative and historical sources for the book, he said.
“Books like this — they can’t be done by sitting in the library here in New Brunswick. One has to go out. One has to travel in Asia and in the Islands, and the University has been very supportive because it recognizes the value of that,” Matsuda said.
Matsuda said his interest in the field of history stemmed from a childhood fascination with natural history, a love of storytelling and a desire to better understand different world cultures.
The inspiration to focus his research and his most recent book specifically on Pacific cultures stemmed from personal and familial connections, Matsuda said.
“The oldest part of my family is from Japan, and then my parents were both born and raised in the Hawaiian Islands, and I grew up mostly in California, so the personal connection is very much that trans-Pacific family heritage,” he said.
The research Matsuda conducted earlier in his career focused mostly on European regions where no one he knew as a child had ever been. After many years, his interests circled back to the more familiar Asian and Pacific cultures with which he had always been connected, he said.
The Department of American Studies’ Collective for Asian American Studies at the University hosted a book discussion with Matsuda last night at the Ruth Adams Building on Douglass Campus as part of their cross-cultural series.
Barry Qualls, a professor in the Department of English, who read the book when it was first published, said the unique approach Matsuda takes gave him a whole new perspective on the Pacific region.
“For me it was a revelation because here’s a book that sees everything in the plural ... the various kinds of peoples and the evolution of peoples and the formation of different nations over years is really remarkable,” Qualls said.
Clark Edmond, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said it was great that the University provides opportunities for students to come out and learn about topics outside of their majors.
“I just really admire Dean Matsuda because he is basically a master [on] every topic. He’s a musician, he’s teaching a class in social entrepreneurship, he’s the honors Dean, and he just wrote this great book,” said Edmond, who is a student in Matsuda’s honors seminar titled “Social Innovation: The Business of Doing Good.”
Matsuda is not only admired by his students and fellow faculty members, but has also been recognized by the University with the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Teaching and received grants by numerous organizations to further his research.
Matsuda said one of the main goals of the book is to bring together a number of cross-regional perspectives and in turn highlight unique and specific people and cultures instead of reducing them to large generalizations.
“What he does is give you a sense of the richness of this highly diverse region,” Qualls said.