Chair and Associate Professor of History
My courses introduce students to the particularities of Japanese history while challenging them to think closely about the process of reading and writing history in general. Whether we examine courtier culture in the eleventh century or women’s movements in the twentieth, I encourage students to reflect on the assumptions, techniques, and purposes involved in telling stories about the past. The courses introduce a wide range of materials, including history texts, novels, artwork, philosophical treatises, memoirs, and films.
On Sabbatical 2014-2015
Shaping my scholarship is a fundamental concern for how humans struggle to build and maintain connections to the past in the midst of radical change. In my first book, Modern Passings: Death Rites, Politics, and Social Change in Imperial Japan (2006), I examined the ways in which different interest groups in nineteenth- and twentieth- century Japan sought to preserve, abandon, or reinvent death rituals that had developed over generations to build continuity in the face of loss. The question “What to do with the past?” haunts Modern Passings from start to finish, informing such topics as the reworking of cremation from a minority religious practice into a mandated public health measure, the expulsion of temple graveyards from city centers, and the evolution of funeral professionals from suppliers of ritual paraphernalia into purveyors of ritual knowledge. Investigating the history of these and other changes enabled me to trace how those living in a time of rapid institutional and social change struggled to find stability in a world that appeared to have very little of it.
At present I am writing Fuji: A Mountain in the Making, a comprehensive “biography” of Mt. Fuji that treats the volcano as an actor in, and product of, both the physical world and the human imagination. The dissonance between physical and imagined can be striking. Fuji is often portrayed as stable, peaceful, and even timeless, but it is a relatively young volcano that has erupted many times in the not-too-distant past (most recently in 1707) and will probably do so again. It is one of Japan’s most powerful symbols of national unity, yet competition over its economic benefits has generated centuries of conflict among people living at its base. Finally, it is an awe-inspiring example of nature’s beauty, but its upper reaches are heavily trafficked and thus environmentally degraded; the lower slopes are even home to military target ranges. My goal is not merely to point out these incongruities, but to examine how Fuji as physical and Fuji as imagined shaped one another amid shifting material, social, and ideological circumstances.
Ph.D. 1999 Columbia University, M.A. 1994 Columbia University, B.A.1990 Amherst College