Dr Anne Mette Fisker-Nielsen
PhD (SOAS), MPhil (Hong Kong Poly U), BSSc (OU)
Senior Teaching Fellow
- Dr Anne Mette Fisker-Nielsen
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- SOAS, University of London
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Dr Anne Mette Fisker-Nielsen - Religion and Politics in Contemporary Japan: Soka Gakkai Youth and Komeito
Japanese politics, religion and civil society in Japan, anthropology of politics, and social theory.
Anthropology of Politics and Religion
In my book, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Japan (2012) I present a study of politics at grassroots level among young Japanese. The book is based on my PhD research of 2003-4 and subsequent research carried out in 2008, 2009 and 2010. It examines the alliance between the Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai (the ‘Value-creation Society’) and Komeito (the ‘Clean Government Party’). The book spans the time Komeito shared power with the Liberal Democratic Party from 1999 to 2009 and a year out of power in 2010. (The Komei party is back in government as of December 2012 and a central political player in key issues Japan is currently facing – nuclear energy, escalating tension with China, and reconstruction of Tohoku - issues I am working on currently). Drawing on primary research carried out among Komeito supporters, the book focuses on the lives of supporters and voters in several distinct areas in Japan (West and North Tokyo, and Okinawa) in order to better understand the processes of democracy and how political issues play out among voters. It goes on to discuss what the political behaviour of young Komeito supporters tell us about the role of religious organizations, such as Soka Gakkai, in Japanese politics. Unlike most other books on politics in Japan which tend to concentrate on political elites, this book provides extremely valuable insights into political culture at the grassroots level, something that has not, with very few exceptions, been achieved in writings on politics in Japan.
Anthropology of Disaster; Anthropology of Hope; Anthropology of the State and of the Secular
Research in 2011 and 2012 also took me in new directions because of the devastating Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit the Tohoku are on March 11, 2011. One article based on that research was published in Anthropology Today (June 2012), which describes some of the unseen responses by Faith Based Organisations (FBO). Many issues remain unexplored. One theme is the nature of ‘volunteering’, and more specifically, how provision of aid can foster self-motivation in those ‘helped’ instead of despondence and feelings of obligation. Another theme is the significance of ‘hope’, an oft-repeated word in this crisis. My firsthand research shows that to live with hope is a ‘state of life’ that arises out of resilience, something that emerges when an individual uses his or her own knowledge and experience to transform their situation. Aid agencies or volunteers do not easily provide this kind of hope. Research have shown that if volunteers do not know local governance or ways, providing help tend to end up destroying local resilience rather than helping it. My research (among other things) focuses on how ‘victims’ themselves turned ‘volunteers’ doing the initial phase of the disaster, and how they go on to feel empowered, capable and independent in the reconstruction phase. However, hope has not only to do with overcoming disaster.
In my upcoming monograph I use an anthropology of hope to show how places of conviviality are created, spaces that have the power of being socially transformative (see below).
Transformative Power of Hope and Places of Conviviality:
Nichiren Buddhism as Community and Value-Creation
This new monograph is based on research carried out in 2008-12 and starts out with a chapter on some significant responses to the disaster in Tohoku that go unreported. The book is more broadly about human agency, structure, cause and change. Specifically, it is about ethics, religion, and an alternative political and religious attitude. It is simultaneously about twentieth century Japanese history, political culture and the formation of the modern nation-state. The book explores the processes by which a Japanese Buddhist sect (Soka Gakkai) transforms to a life-practice that addresses issues of a twenty-first-century globalised world. It sets out to explore the academically and politically ‘silenced’ grassroots reformation that has occurred within twenty-century Japanese society, a reformation that is turning out to have significant social and political impact in the twenty-first century, not only in Japan but also in the region more widely. While the book takes this wider backdoor view of the state, it is constantly rooted in substantial issues, some historical but many current. For instance, my more recent research (2011-12) in a central Tokyo neighbourhood show youths to be facing difficulty in finding meaningful and well-paid occupations, which present dilemmas for finding marriage partners. It also shows generational changes in gender role perfomativities. At the same time, much has been made of the problems posed by an aging population and an increasing number of elderly people living in so-called muenshakai (isolated society). The book explores how a hugely popular but also controversial Buddhist organisation lived and live within an alternative sociality that has transformative power. This is a sociality that is rooted not only in being socially active at the grassroots and at the political level, but arguably, most powerfully in the creation of hope. This manifests most starkly, but also mostly unseen in places of conviviality created by interaction with elderly people and in reaching out to young people, who are becoming increasingly precious and central to all activities. The book shows how groups of people are engaged in re-establishing community relations, and the way wider social and political concerns play out at the grassroots. It explores how new ethical concerns arise in places of conviviality.
‘40 years of grassroots diplomacy and the fostering of an internationalist mindset: another response to the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands’
This research looks at the state through grassroots level of political culture. The article that comes out it discusses how old imperial issues still play out in the current juncture of rising tension in the East Asia Pacific region. My recent research (Autumn 2012) shows how embodied the idea of the nation is, revealing a latent ‘nationalist core’ or easily made alignments that are hailed in wake of threats to border security and Japanese businesses operating overseas. The article compares this more general sentiment that manifest in increasing support for nationalist politicians to other socially active groups who are at work to transform rising reactionary sentiments. This indicates how easily the ‘hollowness’ at the centre of the modern nation-state project is steered in the direction of nationalism when no alternative position and vision play a part. In this article, I explore how politics is never just about the elite, but always presents a two-way process that needs the support of the majority of people. This article simultaneously demonstrates alternative ‘pockets of peace’. These are places of conviviality that transcends the idea of the nation itself, likely significant at a time where a potential military response is not inconceivable.
‘Transforming Subjectivity: A Comparison between the Educational Philosophy of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and the Theories of Antonio Gramsci’
This research was sparked by my more general interest in social theory and more specifically to my increasing interest in twenty-century mass movements. I compare what at first may appear an arbitrary choice – the Japanese educational philosopher Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) and the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) to explore new understandings of the workings of power and resistance in the modern nation-state in the first part of the twenty-century. They both present fundamental challenges to the way resistance to the rise of fascism and Marxism as mass movements have generally been understood. This is an arbitrary choice because Makiguchi and Gramsci were unaware of each other and lived in different contexts. Both were more than ‘theorists’ and active in their way to resist fascist regimes. However, the reason for making this comparison lies, paradoxically and more intriguingly, in where they located ‘resistance’ at a time of rising state-centred extremism. Both saw the only hope of resistance as a lying in processes of epistemological empowerment of the individual. Both recognised that understanding power relations in society involved much more than understanding formal institutions of the state, or even in necessarily overturning them. Through this comparison with Gramsci’s ideas of resistance, this article further explores how in Japan the idea of the modern ‘secular’ legitimated by science created a centrifuge of ideas in the nation-state project. Like a rapidly rotating devise, I discuss how this ‘centrifuge’ worked most powerfully through the involvement of all levels of civil society where the creation of ‘subjects of the nation’ was rooted the constructed opposition between science and religion. Alternative ‘religious’ subjectivities were thus some of the most powerful forms of resistance to the state.
- Conference papers based on fieldwork carried out in Japan between 2003-2004, and 2009 and 2010:
‘Religious Idealism and Political Reality: Young Soka Gakkai Members as Komeito Supporters.’ The Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions Seminar, SOAS, January 2005.
- ‘Religious Messages on Gender Equality: Women in Soka Gakkai in Japan and the SGI-UK.’ BSA Sociology of Religion Conference, Lancaster, April 2005.
- ‘Dilemmas over the Iraq War of Young Soka University Students in Their Support for the Komei Party.’ Research Student Forum: Japanese Humanities, Birkbeck & the Japan Research Centre, SOAS, May 2005.
- ‘The Issue of the Iraq War and Soka Gakkai Members’ Support for Komeito.’ Institute of Oriental Philosophy Lecture, Taplow, July 2005.
- ‘Interpreting Religious Text: Soka Gakkai on the Meaning of the Spiritual as Political Action.’ Reading Spiritualities Conference, Department of Religious Studies, Lancaster University, January, 2006.
- ‘To What Extent do Japanese Images of Western Political Systems Shape the Understanding of the Role of Religion in Politics for Soka Gakkai?” JAWS conference, Oslo, April 2007.
- ‘Young Soka Gakkai Members as Political Actors.’ INFORM/CESNUR conference, LSE, London, April 2008. (Another version of this paper appears in JAWS newsletter No. 42, April 2008).
- ‘Gramsci and a Religious Movement for Cultural Change’, JAWS conference, Austin, Texas March 2010.
- ‘Protecting Soka Gakkai? Komeito’s Role in Politics from the Perspective of the Supporter’, BAJS Conference, SOAS, London September 2010.
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- East Asia
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2012) Religion and Politics in Contemporary Japan: Soka Gakkai Youth and Komeito. London: Routledge. (Japan Anthropology Workshop Series)
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2013) 'Building A Culture of Social Engagement: Nichiren Buddhism and Soka Gakkai Buddhists in Japan.' In: Lewis, Todd, (ed.), Understanding Buddhism through Biographies. United States of America: Blackwell. (Forthcoming)
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2013) 'Socially Engaged in a Political World: Soka Gakkai as Civil Society.' Faith in Civil Society – Religious Actors as Drivers of Change . (Forthcoming)
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2012) 'Grassroots responses to the Tohoku earthquake of 11 March 2011: Overcoming the dichotomy between victim and helper.' Anthropology Today, 28 (3). pp. 16-20.
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2010) 'The Making of Representations of the Religious Adherent Engaged in Politics.' Fieldwork in Religion, 5 (2). pp. 162-179.
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2008) 'Young Soka Gakkai Members as Political Actors.' JAWS newsletter (42).
Conference or Workshop Items
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2012) On Being Religious in a/the Political World: How to Understand Soka Gakkai and Its Support for Komeito. In: European Japan Research Centre Seminar Series, 13 March, 2012, Oxford Brookes University. (Forthcoming)
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2011) Nichiren’s Political Attitude and Soka Gakkai’s Quest for Social Transformation: Keeping the Balance between an ‘Ethic of Ultimate Ends’ & an ‘Ethic of Responsibility’. In: Social Anthropology Seminar Series, January, 2011, SOAS. (Unpublished)
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2005) Dilemmas over the Iraq War of Young Soka University Students in Their Support for the Komei Party. In: Research Student Forum: Japanese Humanities, Birkbeck & the Japan Research Centre, SOAS. (Unpublished)
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2005) Religious Idealism and Political Reality: Young Soka Gakkai Members as Komeito Supporters. In: The Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions Seminar, SOAS. (Unpublished)
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2010) 'Review of 'Ideology and Christianity in Japan' by Kiri Paramore.' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland (Third Series), 20 (2). pp. 233-235.
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2007) An Ethnography of Young Soka Gakkai Members’ Support for Komeito: Religious Idealism and Political Reality in Contemporary Japan. PhD thesis. SOAS, University of London.
Fisker-Nielsen, Anne Mette (2001) A Group of Adolescent Girls’ Life Experience and Development in Hong Kong. MPhil thesis. Hong Kong Polytechnic University.