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Thursday, November 04, 2010

SOAS Alumni Meeting in Tokyo

SOAS Alumni Meeting in Tokyo

London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies is one of the world’s leading centers of learning and research in things Asian and African. It has had an alumni association in Japan since the mid-90s. Having graduated with a masters in Japanese history from SOAS a decade and a half ago, I am on the alumni mailing list, and now living in Tokyo as I do, can easily attend its meetings.

Tuesday night was my first time to attend a SOAS alumni meeting. It was held at the British Embassy, just across from the Imperial Palace - only 5 minutes on my bicycle from the office in Kojimachi. It is located on what, next to the Imperial Palace itself, is historically Tokyo’s most prime real estate, having been the locale for the direct retainers of the Shogun, the gokenin and hatamoto, in the Edo era. The Shogun’s castle was the present site of the Palace.

It was only a few minutes past 6, but dark already. Cycling along the quaint old path in front of the embassy - rough paving stones flanked with a margin of a dirt track - I ask a patrolling policeman where I could park my bike.

Japanese police are often fairly genial - they must get bored and lonely - and he genially told me to ask the embassy security staff at the gate when I went in. The thin sheet of ice that the security guard I approached initially put up melted almost instantly when I told him my business and produced the crumpled e-mailed invitation that I’d printed out as required.

I told him my surname, he confirmed my first name, I showed him my alien registration card (or was it my driver’s license?), and he ticked my name off on his list. I was able to take my bike inside, and was escorted halfway to the bike stands and given directions where to go after that.

It had been a brilliantly sunny day, the first in a long time it seemed, and the night sky was as clear and starry as it gets for Tokyo. It looked especially picturesque framed by the dark Doric lines of the main embassy building, built in 1930.

I paid my 4,000 yen (had to be exact change) at the door, and got an "I Love SOAS" badge (see pic above - taken in the mirror, so reads funny) and an "I Love SOAS" business card holder - both in beautiful SOAS purple. The get together was well attended, with about 40 to 50 people filling the function room, and had a good mix of male and female, Japanese and foreigners, recent graduates and old graduates.

The opening address by the Director of SOAS, Professor Paul Webley, was partway through when I entered. He spoke of how successfully SOAS is doing in spite of the 40% cut to tertiary education spending by the British government (not as drastic as it sounds since SOAS relies on the state for only 25% of its funding).

The 4000 yen was worth it, especially since, we were told, it will not be required for future get togethers. Solicitous staff were constantly circulating, proactively refilling drinks and proffering mouthful after mouthful of everything from tiny egg sandwiches, to tandoori chicken pieces on toothpicks, to all sorts of great tasting sushi.

Having been out of the SOAS milieu for so long it was pleasant to relive it, however remotely and dilutedly, and talk to new people from different SOAS periods and fields of study.

I met teachers, students, administrators, an anthropology researcher. Fittingly the person most lacking in social nerviness was Professor Paul Webley who shone energy and joviality and helped keep the evening bubbling.

Five conversations was about my limit before my smile started to feel stuck on; any more and my face-and-name memory would have given out (may I blame two solid years of mid- and post-seminar breaks downstairs at the SOAS cafe all those years ago?) so I shook hands goodbye and made my way with my four or five meishi back out into the night.

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