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From (no) sex in Japan to environmental policy: ICAS 11 is coming to town

The walls of Paul van der Velde’s study at the International Institute for Asian Studies are full of neat rows of post-it notes. As organiser in chief, he is right in the middle of the upcoming ICAS 11, the 11th International Convention of Asia Scholars, which is returning to where it was first held in 1998: Leiden.

(No) sex in the city in Japan. Markets and market moralities in Asia. Crazy rich Asians. Governance, power and bureaucracy in China. Film history, tourism, marriage migration, human rights – you name it, it’s on the schedule of ICAS 11. Over 2,000 scholars and representatives of civil society will be convening in Leiden from 15 to 19 July.

Around 40% of the visitors will be coming from Asia. The events will include 500 panels, a book fair, book prizes for publications in various languages – with 700 submissions – and a carousel in which PhD candidates and writers can present their work. Everyone will be able to watch the huge parade of delegates as they walk from the Lipsius building to the Hooglandse Kerk on 16 July, where the opening ceremony will begin at 16.00 hours.


Historian Paul van der Velde has been organising ICAS since its very inception in 1998. What he likes about ICAS is the surprising mix of people on the panels. He and the selection committee choose these from around 1,500 applicants: ‘A geographer from Japan can end up on a panel with an anthropologist from Thailand. That creates a real vibe. And it’s a young conference too: the average age is 30 or 40.’

The very first ICAS was also held in Leiden. This is home to the Leiden University International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), the organiser of the event. After a second edition in Berlin in 2001, it was decided that the convention should henceforth be held in Asia itself. Cities such as Singapore, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur followed.

Bit of a knack

Is it tricky at times to guarantee the autonomy of scholarship in countries in which this is not a given? Van der Velde: ‘It’s a bit of a knack. Someone from a Chinese university who was also high up in the Party wouldn’t have wanted to answer any questions, for instance. I supplemented his panel with scholars who were able to do that in abundance. We work with people, not with countries.’

With conferences in Honolulu and Adelaide, they moved away from the idea of only holding the conference in Asia, and for the 2019 conference, Van der Velde managed to convince the municipality of Leiden to invest. ‘The multiple of that sum will be earnt back in accommodation, location bookings, catering and so on.

Extra work

It does involve extra work, now that another host country isn’t making all the logistical arrangements. Van der Velde and his team of four sometimes find themselves working right through the weekend at the moment. Besides the conference itself, they are organising lots of cultural events and exhibitions about Asia that will be held before and during ICAS 11 and will be open to all. ‘We don’t keep the conference in an ivory tower, but seek connection with the host city.’ It is unlikely to have escaped the attention that there is something going on about Asia. The Divine Encounters photo exhibition, for instance, is also part of ICAS: it shows the religious rituals in Asia that are usually hidden.

Van der Velde is looking forward to a varied and inspiring conference. Not to mention the legendary closing party on 19 July. ‘We’re known for our fabulous parties. It’ll be a great conference: the only thing we can’t promise here in the Netherlands is good weather.

Text: Rianne Lindhout
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