Associate Professor of History and Department Chair
SpecialtyJapanese history, Environmental history
My courses introduce students to the particularities of Japanese and environmental 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 industrial pollution in the twentieth, I encourage students to reflect on the assumptions, techniques, and purposes involved in telling stories about the past.
My scholarship has been shaped by a fundamental concern for how humans struggle to build and maintain connections to the past in the midst of radical change. In Modern Passings: Death Rites, Politics, and Social Change in Imperial Japan (2006), I examine 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.
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 from the Paleolithic era to today.
Ph.D. 1999 Columbia University, M.A. 1994 Columbia University, B.A.1990 Amherst College