Beyond Methodological Nationalism

Three Directions for Japanese Studies


  • Aike P. Rots University of Oslo



area studies, diversity, essentialism, Japan-making, transnational comparison


This article discusses the problem of lingering methodological nationalism within Japanese studies. It argues that methodological nationalism remains widespread not only in research but also in university teaching and public dissemination, which legitimises popular conceptions of Japan as a singular, unified entity that is essentially different from both the West and continental Asia. This methodological nationalism is a consequence of the ways in which disciplinary structures contribute to the reification, demarcation and naturalisation of ‘Japan’ and ‘things Japanese’ as distinct objects of study in need of their own guild of specialised interpreters. The article argues that to overcome methodological nationalism, scholars of Japan need to reconsider their choice of subject matter and reflect more upon their use of the adjective ‘Japanese’. It proposes three research agendas for the academic study of Japan. First, we should study discursive and institutional processes of Japan-making instead of being complicit in them. Second, we need to rethink ‘Japan’ as our main spatio-cultural unit by focusing on diversity within the Japanese isles and beyond (including migrant and Indigenous perspectives). Third, we should conduct and contribute to comparative research that focuses on both local particulars and transnational connections, rather than using the nation-state as our main unit of analysis.

Author Biography

Aike P. Rots, University of Oslo

AIKE P. ROTS is Associate Professor at the University of Oslo. His research has focused on religious environmentalism, heritage-making and religion, religion in contemporary Vietnam, Okinawan sacred groves, modern Shinto and Japanese Christianity. He is currently PI of the ERC-funded project ‘Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia’.


Allison, Anne 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham: Duke University Press.

Amino, Yoshihiko 1991. Nihon no rekishi o yominaosu (Rethinking Japanese History). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

Anderson, Benedict 1991 [1983]. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised edition. London: Verso.

Befu, Harumi 2001. Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of ‘Nihonjinron’. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Ben-Ari, Eyal 2020. ‘Area Studies and the Disciplines: Japanese Studies and Anthropology in Comparative Perspective’. Contemporary Japan 32 (2): 240-261.

Benedict, Ruth 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Dressler, Markus and Arvind-Pal S. Mandair 2011. Secularism and Religion-Making. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Earhart, H. Byron 1998. Religions of Japan: Many Traditions Within One Sacred Way. Waveland Press.

Ellwood, Robert 2016. Introducing Japanese Religion. Second edition. London: Routledge.

Gluck, Carol 1985. Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Harootunian, Harry and Miyoshi Masao 2002. ‘Introduction: The “Afterlife” of Area Studies’. In H.D. Harootunian and Miyoshi Masao (eds.) Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 1-18.

Hein, Laura and Mark Selden, eds. 2003. Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger, eds. 2012 [1983]. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hoshino, Seiji 2012. Kindai Nihon no shūkyō gainen: Shūkyōsha no kotoba to kindai (The Concept of Religion in Modern Japan: The Language of Religious Actors in Modernity). Tokyo: Yūshisha.

Hosoi, Y. T. 1976. ‘The Sacred Tree in Japanese Prehistory’. History of Religions 16 (2): 95-119.

Hudson, Mark J. 2014. ‘Placing Asia in the Anthropocene: Histories, Vulnerabilities, Responses’. The Journal of Asian Studies 73 (4): 941-962.

Hudson, Mark J., ann-elise lewallen and Mark K. Watson, eds. 2016. Beyond Ainu Studies: Changing Academic and Public Perspectives. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Isomae, Jun’ichi 2005. ‘Deconstructing “Japanese Religion”: A Historical Survey’. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32 (2): 235–248.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda 2012. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kendall, Laurel 2021. Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings and Masks in Asian Places. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kimura, Aya Hirata 2016. Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kirby, Peter Wynn 2011. Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. 1987. On Understanding Japanese Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lee, Choon Ja 2011. Kami no ki: Nichi/kan/tai no kyoboku/rōju shinkō (Trees of the Gods: Worship of Big and Old Trees in Japan, Korea and Taiwan). Hikone: Sanraizu Shuppan.

lewallen, ann-elise 2016. The Fabric of Indigeneity: Ainu Identity, Gender, and Settler Colonialism in Japan. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Maxey, Trent E. 2014. The ‘Greatest Problem’: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.

McCormack, Gavan and Satoko Oka Norimatsu 2018 [2012]. Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States. Second edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

McLaughlin, Levi 2018. Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

McLelland, Mark, ed. 2017. The End of Cool Japan: Ethical, Legal and Cultural Challenges to Japanese Popular Culture. London: Routledge.

Moore, Glenn and Cassandra Atherton 2020. ‘Eternal Forests: The Veneration of Old Trees in Japan’. Arnoldia 77 (4): 24-31.

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa 1998. Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe.

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa 2000. ‘Anti-Area Studies’. Communal/Plural 8 (1): 9-23.

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa 2020. ‘Indigenous Rights and the “Harmony Olympics”’. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 18 (4): 6.

Ogawa, Akihiro, and Philip Seaton, eds. 2020a. New Frontiers in Japanese Studies. London: Routledge.

Ogawa, Akihiro, and Philip Seaton 2020b. ‘Introduction: Envisioning New Frontiers in Japanese Studies’. In A. Ogawa and P. Seaton (eds.) New Frontiers in Japanese Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 1-18.

Okamoto, Takeshi 2015. ‘Otaku Tourism and the Anime Pilgrimage Phenomenon in Japan’. Japan Forum 27 (1): 12-36.

Pai, Hyung Il 2014. Heritage Management in Korea and Japan: The Politics of Antiquity and Identity. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Reader, Ian and George J. Tanabe, Jr. 1998. Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Robertson, Jennifer 1988. ‘Furusato Japan: The Culture and Politics of Nostalgia’. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 1 (4): 494-518.

Rots, Aike P. 2012. ‘Review of Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, edited by James W. Heisig, Thomas P. Kasulis and John C. Maraldo’. Japan Review 24: 213-215.

Rots, Aike P. 2017. Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan: Making Sacred Forests. London: Bloomsbury.

Rots, Aike P. 2019a. ‘The Elusive Adjective: Beyond Methodological Nationalism in Japanese Studies’. TIFO 30th anniversary essay contest. (accessed 9 February 2023).

Rots, Aike P. 2019b. ‘World Heritage, Secularisation and the New “Public Sacred” in East Asia’. Journal of Religion in Japan 8 (1-3): 151-178.

Rots, Aike P. and Nhung Lu Rots. Forthcoming. ‘When Gods Drown in Plastic: Vietnamese Whale Worship, Environmental Crises and the Problem of Animism’. Environmental Humanities.

Sahlins, Marshall 2022. The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 2000. ‘Classification’. In W. Braun and R. T. McCutcheon (eds.) Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, pp. 35-44.

Stanislaus, Warren A. 2022. ‘From Cool Japan to Cold Japan: Grime Cyborgs in Black Britain’. Japan Forum.

Tanaka, Masako 2020. ‘Limitations of Social Protections of Migrant Families in Japan Exposed by COVID-19: The Case of Nepalese Women’. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 18 (18): 10.

Thomas, Jolyon Baraka 2019. Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Trần, Bảo Quyên 2020. ‘Vietnamese Technical Trainees in Japan Voice Concerns amidst COVID-19’. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 18 (18): 11

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van der Veer, Peter 2014. The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van der Veer, Peter 2016. The Value of Comparison. Durham: Duke University Press.

Walker, Brett L. 2010. Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Weiss, Lindsay 2007. ‘Heritage-Making and Political Identity’. Journal of Social Archaeology 7 (3): 413–431.

Yamashita, Azusa, Christopher Gomez and Kelly Dombroski 2017. ‘Segregation, Exclusion and LGBT People in Disaster Impacted Areas: Experiences from the Higashinihon Dai-Shinsai (Great East-Japan Disaster)’. Gender, Place & Culture 24 (1): 64-71.

Yokota, Ryan Masaaki 2015. ‘The Okinawan (Uchinānchu) Indigenous Movement and Its Implications for Intentional/International Action’. Amerasia Journal 41 (1): 55-73.