研究最前線 No.69

柄谷 利恵子 教授


International Relations & International Politics



Exploring Various Phenomena in International Politics Through the Lens of "Mobilities"

Viewing the World Through the lens of "Mobilities"


柄谷 利恵子 教授

Faculty of Policy Studies

Professor Rieko Karatani

「移動と生存─国境を越える人々の政治学」(岩波書店 2016年)/「Defi ning British Citizenship: Empire, Commonwealth and Modern Britain」(Routledge 2003年)

「移動と生存─国境を越える人々の政治学」(岩波書店 2016年)

「Defi ning British Citizenship: Empire, Commonwealth and Modern Britain」(Routledge 2003年)


Professor Rieko Karatani of the Faculty of Policy Studies analyzes international politics from the perspective of mobilities. Through this perspective, we are able to study the role and meaning of not only the movement of people, but also the movement of goods, and information, in actual, imaginative and virtual worlds.







Exploring the international politics through the perspective of mobilities

What is your area of expertise?

I specialize in international relations and international politics. Generally, people tend to think of this field as a discipline that deals with the relationships between states, such as the relationship between Japan and the United Kingdom, but I've focused on increasing interconnections across borders in today’s world through the lens of mobilities. Specifically, I have dealt with laws and policies regarding nationality, citizenship, and migration with a focus on the United Kingdom. My research covers the time from the forging of the empire to that of dissolving it and to the post-Brexit era. The evolution of international regimes on peoples on the move is also a subject of my research.

What do you mean by "mobility"?

I'm referring to modern-day mobility that is characterized by the existence of various forms.

 It refers to not only the physical movement of people in the actual world, but also the movement in the imaginative world through newspaper, television images, books and movies. In addition to these two forms, the movement in the virtual world via the internet has become indispensable in our everyday life. With diversified forms of mobilities available now, even if we remain in a single location in the actual world, we are indeed "on the move" in one way or another.

政策創造学部  柄谷 利恵子 教授




The Refugee Convention established 70 years ago

Please tell me about the details of your research.

We assume that people who are forced to flee across state borders are considered refugees. In reality, the defition of a "refugee" is strictly determined by the Refugee Convention (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). It was established in 1951 through the process of negotiation and contestation among various stakeholders of the time. I investigated the process by which the Refugee Convention was enacted by reading archival materials and conducting interviews with those involved in its creation.
 The Refugee Convention was not necessarily intended to protect all the World War II refugees. At the end of the war, Europe was economically and socially devastated with an enormous number of unemployed people. Governments in Europe were, in addition, urgently seeking a solution to absorb people returning from battlefields after the war. If a surplus population was left unattended, they feared that social unrest would rise, and war might once again break out.
 Everyone agreed that the surplus population in Europe had to be dealt with, but disagreed how. One idea was to create an international organization that would protect the entire surplus population through international cooperation. However, the United States, the only country at that time that had the political and financial capacity, was opposed to establishing such an organization with broad mandates. The United States wanted a more practical organization that would not go againt its national interests. We ended up with the international organization whose job was restricted to the legal protection of "refugees". That is how the current Refugee Convention came to be.
 The definition of "refugees" was established almost 70 years ago. Applied rigidly in 2022, it is not adaptable to our current circumstances. The increasing number of peoples who need care and protection today do not fit into a strict interpretation of the Refugee Convention. For example, according to the Convention, those people from a conflict zone are not defined as "refugees". In a globalized world with diversified forms of mobilities, we must consider that, as the circumstances which force people to flee change, so do the definition of "refugees" and the protection regime for "refugees".






Friends from abroad with different future paths unknown to me

How did you come to choose "mobility" as the topic of your research?

It all started when I was a senior in college. I was a student of the English department, and I had been working part-time as an interpreter. When we were talking about job opportunities, my friends from Hong Kong who were studying in Japan told me they have relatives in Canada and Australia, so they were considering working in those countries, and my Italian friend told me that she could get a job in any EU member state. That was in the 1990's. It was a time when overseas employment was not common for Japanese people. I wondered why my friends from abroad had different paths that I did not have. It was around that time that I became interested in the movement of people across borders and the idea of mobility.
 After graduating from a college, I found a job at a foreign-affiliated bank in Tokyo. After working there for a year, I decided that I wanted to study international relations, so I left and was admitted to the Faculty of Law at Kobe University as a third-year student. A seminar I attended covered children's rights and the rights of foreigners. I found it interesting and wrote about Hong Kong immigrants in London in my graduation thesis. Since then, I've been researching the subject of migration and mobility.
 I went on to Sophia University for my master's degree and University of Oxford for my doctoral degree. I have conducted research while on the move myself, too.

What are issues of interests you are pursing while you conduct your research?

I take the perspective of "mobilities" as the key for understanding our world. It is said that we are influenced by our roots (origins) and routes (paths). I feel there is a strong tendency to place importance only on roots, such as blood relations and land, even though both the political communities and the states in which we live are formed on the basis of both roots and routes. We need to pay more attention to the implications of the routes, when we aim to understand how we live today.
 In particular, the discipline of international relaions tends to treat the states as rigid and static. It is common to regard them as something immobile. However, a state is not just made up of land and borders. It is also made up of people. People live with their routes and constitute history.
 What I want to study are the diversified forms of mobilities and their roles and implications for our everyday life. As I said, people, goods, and information are all on the move, not only in the actual world, but also in the imaginative and the virtual worlds. In general, laws are often created under the assumption that immobility is the norm and that mobility is the exception. As a result, people may not be able to properly understand how mobility is utilized and what impact it brings upon our lives today. How do I shed a light upon the discrepancy between what is seen as immobile by law and what is actually mobile in today’s world, taking the perspective of mobility into consideration ? I want to continue engaging with this topic.

  • 柄谷教授の専門演習風景

    Seminar by Professor Karatani

  • 柄谷教授の専門演習風景

    Seminar by Professor Karatani






Immigrants or refugees?

What are some examples of the discrepancy between the legal categories and the political world?

Around 2016, many people from Syria and South Sudan, for example, attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea, heading for Europe. On the way, quite a few lost their lives in the Mediterranean. There was a heated debate about whether they were immigrants or refugees. According to the Refugee Convention, they are recognized as refugees only after applying for asylum, so they were called immigrants at first. When people in Europe read newspaper articles with the title of "immigration crisis", they pictured illegal people from the Middle East and Africa coming to steal their jobs for economic reasons. In reality, most of them would have been accepted as "refugees", once they had claimed asylum. Leading media companies such as the French newspaper Le Monde thus cautioned this gap between what people perceived and what reality was, and stopped calling it an "immigration crisis".
 This is one example of how we respond differently depending on how we labeled people on the move. When they were labeled immigrants, they were immediately associated with illegality and perceived in a negative light.

The means of mobilities are evolving dramatically. This makes your research all the more important, doesn’t it?

Not only is this true for physical movement in the actual world, but the technology for information has also developed along with the Internet. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, online meetings have proliferated, and mobility in the virual world has become indispensable. In a rapidly changing world, there are two types of people: those who can command the diversified forms of mobilities and those who cannot. Wealthier and more skilled people can easily move across borders in one way or another, but others may find it more difficult. In the future, I would like to focus my research on the strain that emerges between those people with a high-mobility-class position who can act like "mobility masters" and those with little skills on mobility who might end up like "mobility outcasts".

政策創造学部  柄谷 利恵子 教授