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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Economic geographer Yuko Aoyama is interested in how technologies such as the Internet can help consumers and producers overcome the contraints of geography and connect in a global marketplace, and how that connection affects cultural identity.

Meet the researchers: Geography provides an interdisciplinary approach to understanding globalization

Interview with Professor Yuko Aoyama, Summer 2006
In a recent conversation, summarized below, Professor Yuko Aoyama discusses what drew her to the study of geography and her research on the processes and impacts of economic globalization.

What is it about the study of geography that you find compelling?

What I enjoy most about research in geography is that it's truly interdisciplinary. The real world is not divided by artificial academic boundaries. In geography you can look at a whole variety of issues in a comprehensive manner. The opportunity to examine political, economic, social and cultural processes intrigues me and is particularly important in understanding globalization.

What initially drew you to the study of geography?

Serendipity! I spent two years of my youth in Malaysia, and that experience got me interested in ethnic conflicts. I saw how Indians, Malays, and Chinese living in Malaysia didn't live in the same neighborhoods or go to the same schools. They spoke different languages and co-existed with significant problems. So I started out wanting to study ethnic conflicts, and thought that perhaps anthropology would satisfy my intellectual curiosity. But at the time, many of the introductory anthropology classes seemed to focus largely on kinships issues.

Then, in my sophomore year, I came across a class called socio-economic human geography at the University of California at Santa Barbara, taught by Professor Helen Couclelis, who, by the way, is a 2006-07 Marsh Distinguished Lecturer here at Clark. I thought I'd give the course a try.

What really interested me in that class was industrial location theory, which shows how everything in the real world has an invisible social and economic logic to its location. Then I got interested in city planning as a way to practice industrial location theory professionally and ended up going to graduate school for a degree in urban planning.

Eventually, however, I realized that professional planning practice tends to be locally focused, and that I was more interested in cross-national, international issues. Local practice has its own appeal—that of being involved in making a real impact on the ground, but eventually I chose a different path, one focused more on developing theoretical frameworks and understanding international issues. That's how I returned to geography with a research focus on globalization.

What do you mean by globalization?

Globalization is indeed a heavily used and contested term. Many people use it as synonymous with global institutional convergence. In other words, the lives of people across the globe are becoming more similar economically, socially and culturally. We all wear Levi's jeans and drink Coca-Cola, we all work for the same global companies, and we all end up with the same systems of the market.

But global convergence to me is too simplistic, and even at times, too Euro/Anglo-centric in its assumptions. There are different varieties of capitalisms in various parts of the world, and each has its own history, evolution, and internal logic, which in turn interact with what we call today global capitalism. So whereas global capitalism may exist, institutional convergence at the global level is not always driven by it. Rather, it is a process of the local shaping the global, as much as the global dictating the local.

Taking countries as diverse as Japan, India and Spain, I look at how local varieties of capitalisms survive and thrive, and how they interact and connect with global capitalism. What is interesting to me is the question of how cultures, institutions, habits and practices become transformed both at the local and global levels.


As examples, can you describe a couple of your current research projects?

Over the past few years, I've been working on several projects, one on the video game industry, one focusing on retail TNCs (trans-national corporations), notably Wal-Mart, and, most recently, the flamenco industry in southern Spain, the logistics industry in the U.S., and IT entrepreneurship in Japan and the U.S.

I've always been interested in the role of technology, not only in the economy but also in social transformations. How and why do people use and adopt technologies differently in different parts of the world? I've done research on information technology entrepreneurs, for example, in Japan and New England, and how electronic commerce is being adopted differently in Japan and the United states.

As part of my interest in the use of technologies, I began looking into the video game industry. The first simple question was, why were all video game platform manufacturers (at the time I was researching) Japanese? Why was Sony Corporation so dominant? While trying to answer that question with my collaborator Professor Izushi at Aston Business School in the U.K., we realized that Japan had a peculiar situation when the video game industry was emerging. They combined the technical know-how that came out of the consumer electronic industry with the creative and artistic knowledge that came out of their very vibrant and thriving comic book and animation industries. Once we wrote a paper on that, then we asked a second question: how does the process of new industry formation vary across different countries? We just had an article published on how new industries draw skills from the old.

The video game industry project funded two undergraduates research assistants, Monica Stephens '05 and Ian Giddings '06. I met Monica in my first-year seminar, and later she became a geography major. Ian took two of my courses, "Miracles of Asia" and "Internet Geography," and became a geography major and my advisee. Both Monica and Ian are hard-working, responsible students, and I knew they would learn, enjoy and thrive from this experience. Monica helped me create a database of all video game companies in the U.S. by location, and Ian conducted research on the offshoring practices of the video game and animation industries.

I've also been working on a project on Wal-Mart with graduate student Guido Schwartz. We co-authored a book chapter on why Wal-Mart is NOT taking over the world. Wal-Mart just announced divestment out of Germany after 10 years, and they are not doing well in Japan, either. Wal-Mart bought a minority stake in an existing, non-performing Japanese chain a few years ago, and they are still non-performing today. We provided some answers as to why global retail giants like Wal-Mart have such problems breaking into certain foreign markets. You can read our chapter in a book entitled Wal-Mart World (Routledge, 2006).

There are two top global retailers, Wal-Mart and Carrefour, a French retailer. Carrefour is actually much more globalized than Wal-Mart, with over fifty percent of its revenue coming from outside France. Carrefour also tried to break into the markets of Japan, the United States, Italy and South Korea, but eventually divested.

What are your conclusions as to why they aren't taking hold?

Our conclusion is that localization is one of the most important prerequisite for retail TNCs (trans-national corporations). Such transition can't be made overnight. Also, retail TNCs bring with them a corporate culture and corporate practices that have made them successful in their home countries, but that may not be compatible with a different culture. Wal-Mart is a low cost operator that's really good with distribution. They locate on cheap land. American consumers are far more willing to travel long distances to get to those places. Japanese consumers aren't. Wal-Mart can't use many of the strategies that it uses in the U.S.


Are retail TNCs able to offer the products and shopping environment that consumers in other countries are interested in?

That's another point. Both Wal-Mart and Carrefour looked at the Japanese market and thought that Japanese consumers were paying too much. As it turned out, yes, cost is important for Japanese consumers, but they won't accept compromises on quality and service. Wal-Mart and Carrefour don't have the scale in Japan that they enjoy in their home markets and as such have no negotiating power. Moreover, they don't know the local cultural practices. They're also trying to enter a market segment—general merchandise stores—that is dying in Japan. There, convenience stores and specialized markets are the high-growth retail sectors, not the segment occupied by Wal-Mart and Carrefour.

Are there any countries where these big retailers have been particularly successful?

They tend to be successful in neighboring countries. For example, Wal-Mart is most successful in Canada and Mexico. They also tend to do well in countries where their particular retail format is still innovative and new to the consumers. For example, some developing countries have something called wet markets—stalls where you buy fresh fish, meat and vegetables. In such places, supermarkets are new, and therefore may not have a lot of local competitors already in place. Here Wal-Mart and Carrefour tend to do better.

And then there are little, nitty-gritty things. For example, when you go to a supermarket in Japan in the morning, you can buy a whole fish, straight from a famous harbor. By 11 a.m. the remaining fish have been sliced up for sushi and sashimi and packaged. In the evening, grilled fish are available. The retailers customize and go for the value added. Japanese consumers are not going to touch sashimi that's been on the shelf for many hours.

Finally, there are some people who would just never go to Wal-Mart, not because of ideological reasons, but just because they don't enjoy shopping there.

So there's a whole geography of approaches to shopping?

Yes, shopping is, I think, the least globalized of practices. Much of it is connected to eating habits, and these habits are hard to change and standardize. From an operational perspective, retail TNCs like Wal-Mart and Carrefour make sense because they're efficient. But whether efficiency is always the consumer's highest priority is a different question.

I understand that your newest area of research deals with the art of flamenco, and that you've researched funding from the National Geographic Society in support of this research.

Yes. I'm focusing on flamenco as an example of the interplay between a local cultural product and the global market for those products.

How did you become interested in flamenco?

Ever since I saw a flamenco show in Spain 15 years ago, I always wanted to learn it as a hobby. When I began taking dance lessons, my former advisor, the famous Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, commented that I was so typically Japanese. There are so many flamenco classes in Japan, and even in Boston I began to notice that many of the classes had quite a few Japanese women. I wanted to find out why Japanese women are so interested. Most of the numerous flamenco classes in major cities in Japan were being taught by Japanese, not Spanish, women. I became interested in how an art complex like flamenco, which has strong and particular regional roots, thrives in this age of globalization and how it connects to export markets in countries such as Japan and the U.S.

This past summer I went to Spain and visited Seville, the heart of the flamenco region of Andalusia. I observed that as much as fifty percent of the dance students come from Japan, and they're dedicated. My working hypothesis is that, despite the fact that Japanese and Spanish cultures are typically portrayed as being at opposite ends of the spectrum, there are actually some affinities. Andalusia and Japan both combine elements of occidental and oriental culture.

In Seville flamenco is an indigenous practice with a vast local population of aficionados, although foreign tourists bring in the money needed to keep the art complex alive. Without the combination, flamenco wouldn't exist in the first place. I plan on continuing to conduct more analysis on the economic implications of this particular cultural industry. I want to understand how flamenco is connected to sustained tourism in Spain, and how tourism affects the Andalusian economy.



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Professor Yuko Aoyama

Top: Japanese flamenco dance student in Kyoto, Japan. Photograph and permission provided courtesy of Flamenco Studio Fortuna where Professor Aoyama took courses in 2002. Bottom: American flamenco student.

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