Anthropocene East Asia

January 1st, 2017

Conceptual, material, and immaterial cultural forms through which environmental knowledge has been recognized, organized, activated, and transmitted in East Asia.

The Concept of the Anthropocene in the East Asian Context

Where is the Anthropocene? If seen from a corner of the East Asian Continent/Peninsula/Archipelago, does the same image come into focus as seen from other parts of the world? Although the notion of the Anthropocene points to humanity’s involvement in Earth history, especially in light of contemporary global environmental change, the very same planet is comprised of individual ecological niches and diverse cultures existing within particular milieu. So we might also ask: Who is this humanity?

Collaborating with both Japanese and European museums and their associated communities, the aim of the project was to design a sequence of events to explore the conceptual, material, and immaterial cultural forms through which environmental knowledge has historically been recognized, organized, activated, and transmitted in East Asia by way of conferences, public events, and publications.

Project activities emerged in the following three domains:


One of the characteristics of East Asian language is the widespread use of the sinograph which has been the lingua franca of this region—like Latin was in Europe—for more than a millennium. It still has huge influence on the way of thinking for nations in this area. How can the term Anthropocene be translated into languages in this Sinographic sphere (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese…)? A definitive translation of the term does not exist yet and there are numerous possibilities; 人新世(ren-xin-shi [cn] / in-shin-se [kr]/ jin-shin-sei [jp]/ human-new-era [en]), 人間世(ren-jian-shi [cn] / in-gan-se [kr]/ nin-gen-sei [jp]/ humanity-era [en]),人使期(ren-shi-ji [cn]/ in-sa-gi [kr]/ jin-si-ki [jp]/ human-usage-period [en]), 人造时(ren-zao-shi [cn]/in-jo-si [kr]/ jin-zou-ji [jp]/ human-made-time [en])? The problem of translation is the problem of a gap in perception. How are humanity, its agency, and its temporality — as contained in the term “Anthropocene” — translated into another language which has its own context? Is the translated word equivalent to the very concept of the Anthropocene itself? It might make us think of the possibility (and impossibility) of thinking the Anthropocene in a truly global perspective.

Knowledge Praxis

Related to the problem of language, the tendency toward “formal knowledge” is also problematized in the East Asian context. The history of modernization in this region is a history of struggle with new notions coming from the Western world in waves, one after another, over the last two centuries. Translation played an enormously important role in this process: the crucial task for intellectuals in that period was to express new foreign ideas in sinographs, and so to create new words.

When the Anthropocene is argued in the East Asian context, does it not follow the same trace? Or can another mode of learning and discourse exist? How is knowledge beyond the history and yoke of the nation-state possible? In Tokyo, one of the historical windows into the modern world of East Asia, discussions dealing with the problem of learning in the Anthropocene are already being activated.

Long Durée of Patterns in Materiality

What is materiality in the era of the Anthropocene? East Asia is a region of rich material culture traditions, some still living today even after the long succession of more than ten thousand years; some even preceding the dawn of the Holocene. Such continuities speak to deep flows of human experience conveyed from past to present. In this context, we think about materiality not only as material in the literal sense, but as also including “invisible” vehicles of culture such as social institutions, language, and landscapes.

Collaborating with both Japanese and European museums and their associated communities, RIHN is planning a series of workshops to explore relationships between environment and humanity from this long durée and environmental perspective, with special emphasis on the experience of artists, craftspersons, and others whose knowledge is embedded in the material world. In total, these activities point to an interactive experience at the 2019 HKW Anthropocene campus signaling the continuing ubiquity and significance of such place-based and shared experience even in the midst of the Technosphere.