Fall is the time, in the academic world, of conferences and annual meetings of high-minded associations. At the beginning of this month, I had the privilege to attend and participate in a conference that is rooted not in the ideals of ivory towers but in the realities of the history, politics, and culture of two important regions related to the defense of the United States, namely, the Middle East and Africa.

Formed three years ago, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) is no longer the new kid on the academic block. With the support of its two redoubtable co-founders, Professors Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, ASMEA has a membership of over one thousand spanning nearly all the continents of the world. This year’s annual conference was a testament to the hard work and dedication of those seeking thorough academic freedom as well as (to paraphrase the words of Professor Lewis) serious, sustained, systematic, and scholarly study of the Middle East and Africa.

One of the hallmarks of an organization like ASMEA is its membership. Those who participated in this year’s annual conference came from a diverse range of academic disciplines, from history to social anthropology to criminology to political science. Moreover, because of the nature of ASMEA, military officials and government policymakers were warmly welcomed and encouraged to participate. And for the first time, ASMEA recognized outstanding conference papers, by academics as well as graduate students.

While the paper I presented was a bit novel (more below), the range of panels and paper presentations captured the essence of full academic inquiry and policy relevance to today’s security environment. Because it is one of my research areas, Africa is the focus of discussion here. Panel topics ranged from contemporary challenges across the continent to Africa’s maritime commons to emerging threats in the Horn of Africa. Papers that were particularly impressive to me discussed research findings on the Lebanese in Sierra Leone, Rinderpest in Ethiopia, and the flow of Colombian cocaine across the Sahel in support of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Certainly not a major attraction, my own paper was a modest initial attempt to build on past research performed on Africa. While much attention has been paid to China’s “new” presence on the continent since about 2004, less attention has focused on other influential nations’ activities in Africa. One such nation is Japan, the focus of my paper. (Other non-European powers that are active in various ways in Africa and deserve serious examination are India and Brazil.)

Rather than narrowing my research to contemporary Japan, especially its use of official development assistance (which is being written about today), my paper sought to elucidate the historical and strategic nature of Japan’s actions in Africa prior to World War II, specifically from 1868 to 1938. Obscure as it may sound, such historical understanding of a nation like Japan in a region like Africa has direct relevance to U.S. policy today.

Despite the tremendous physical and culture distances, few know the Japanese were in Africa even before the twentieth century began. On his way to Europe, for example, a Japanese general stopped in Egypt in 1886 to learn about British modernization efforts in Egypt, observing firsthand the influence (and ills) of European colonialism. During the Boer War, the Japanese also sought to understand the modern strategy of the British Empire; so it sent a military observer to South Africa in November 1899. In addition to learning about the latest weaponry, military observers were tasked to study how the British handled their colonial problems. After all, Japan was an aspiring international power and wanted to learn from the best of them at the time.

Soon after the Boer War ended, Japan sent a research team on a two-month field trip to study the viability of trade to South Africa, with its report published in 1903. It is astonishing to believe the Japanese were learning about Africa, from its northern to its southern reaches, in this strategic manner at such an early point in time. Yet, Japan’s influence only grew, as it developed a regular shipping line during World War I that stopped in South Africa en route to South America. Japanese ships would later make port calls in East and West Africa, as diplomatic and trade missions popped up in places as far afield as Cape Town, Alexandria, Mombasa, Casablanca and Lagos.

In light of America’s concern with security (especially international terrorism) and politics in Africa, it is useful to comprehend the historical actions of a country like Japan, which has operated (and continues to operate) on the continent for strategic purpose. Indeed, in the modern era of nation-states (after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia), it was Japan – and not China – that was the original East Asian power in Africa. What one ascertains about such a strategic understanding of Japan in Africa is that all nation-states desiring international power and prestige will continue to go to Africa to attain, preserve and enhance long-term national interests. It was as true for Japan in the nineteenth century as it is for the United States today.

Thus, if the United States is to preserve and enhance its long-term interests, it better get serious about studying Africa – in a sustained, systematic and scholarly way.