Letter from the East: On Impact

Menelaos Gkartzios continues his account of his experiences during a sabbatical in Japan.


Last weekend, Prof Yukihiko Saito from Chiba University, well known to the Centre for Rural Economy from his sabbatical with us, took me to see some of Japan’s tsunami-damaged areas. The construction that goes on is extensive (still), the Japanese are building mountains (yes). Land-use planning takes on a different dimension in these coasts, the topography is reconstructed. Emotional development.


The sea looked calm; the Pacific, I thought, the greatest irony of all. The construction has also involved tsunami sea walls, on and off shore. With their 7-8 metre height by the coastline, they look aggressive – it was not a surprise hear that the communities oppose them. It is not just about blocking the horizon, they block their own understanding of what these communities ‘are’, what these communities ‘do’.


Saito sensei brought me to a residents’ market. He explained to me how he designed the basic structure, and got funding to create a structure that houses now a monthly market targeting the local community and especially the elderly who find it difficult to travel to other areas for essential shopping.

All commercial shops in the village were destroyed, there is debris on the land. ‘Be careful where you are walking’, he said. The market is an actual point of community-in-the-making as we like to think in social sciences. And it really is. I saw people sharing news, joking, hugging. We had a meeting afterwards about how the market went and how they can improve it in future. They asked for my opinion. I was formally invited back at the New Year’s Eve party, but I made them promise that they wouldn’t ask me to chop wood – again. My rural skills have their limits. We settled for sake.


I asked Saito sensei if this activity of his is important for his university. While this is practice that is valued at his university, there is no ‘Impact Case study’ in Japanese academia. This is not something he will write a ‘4 star’ paper about, although the residents’ market has featured in non-referred papers and in the media. What is impact? The personal investment, the local funding acquired, the design of the market structure, the time spent there (over the weekend and on public holidays) in the area, is, to me, an exemplary case of impact. Neither was this a case where he has personal attachments, he is not from this area; he explained to me how a past student introduced him to this community. I was greeted with such kindness and warmth, which I knew it was due to his actions. If there is such thing as emotional intelligence and emotional geographies, then there is also emotional impact.

In our engaged science and social science professional worlds, I cannot imagine any academic not wanting to make impact, in the different ways that they can. Nor is it unreasonable for academics to embrace their impact activities as part of their professional identity and actions. The problem I see is with the institutional requirement to measure it: the criteria and the stars. The politics of impact evaluation and the challenge to prove our academic citizenship, rather than accepting it as part of what we do. Understanding that as academics, not only are we asked about what we ‘are’, but, increasingly, about what we ‘do’.

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