SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Ethnography of Japan

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 1

This module is designed to cover a wide variety of topics relating to Japanese society, beginning with the question of orientalism and representation in the ethnography of Japan to a consideration of family, education, religion, gender, sexuality and ethnic minorities. It concludes with recent concerns with popular culture and the so-called “non-human”. The module aims to provide both ethnographic detail and theoretical background on past and current debates in the description of Japanese culture(s) and to address questions such as “What are the boundaries of Japanese identity?” and “How can we understand difference in Japan?” These issues are addressed in a range of contexts, including the arts, consumption, the body and controversies in the medical anthropology in Japan.

This module is one of several regional ethnography modules offered by the Department of Anthropology (currently China, Japan, South Asia, South East Asia, Near & Middle East, West Africa, and East Africa). Each of these focuses on major cultural and social aspects, but varies in detail according to the characteristics of and scholarship on the region. These 0.5 unit regional ethnography modules are designed (in the second year) to be combined - according to student interest and module availability - with a second regional ethnography module taught in a different term to form a compulsory full unit of ethnography modules (e.g., Japan and China; South Asia and Southeast Asia; South Asia and East Africa), or (in the third year) to be taken as a free-standing option.

The grasp of theory, method and problem achieved in this module builds on the foundational skills in anthropology attained in the first year, and will enable students' progression, in their following year of study, to an Advanced Ethnographic Study with a focus on Japan or connections between Japan and other regions, and/or to an Independent Study Project.

Typical module outline by week:

  1. Introduction: Representation, Fantasy, Ethnography
  2. The Japanese House: Lineage, Materiality, Family
  3. Becoming Japanese: Education, Apprenticeship, Identity
  4. The Enigma of Belief: Japanese Religions and the Quotidian
  5. Masculinity and Femininity: the Salaryman Doxa, Sex, Marriage
  6. (Reading Week)
  7. Japanese Diversity: Ethnic, Social, and Queer Minorities
  8. Deities, Animals, Dolls, Robots: The Non-Human in Japan
  9. Ageing and the Ethics of Care
  10. How to live, How to die: Suicide, Death and Illness
  11. Popular Culture and Otaku Tourism


  • Students enrol via the online Module Sign-Up system.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to: 

  1. critically evaluate a range of theories and ethnographic source material relating to Japanese society
  2. locate and use secondary sources relevant to selected topics
  3. have a grasp of the key debates in the anthropology of Japan     

Developing regional expertise is a key component of the study of anthropology, and central to programmes across the school. The learning outcomes are designed to ensure that students develop a solid grounding in the anthropology of Japan, refine their ability to critically engage diverse literatures and communicate their knowledge in a variety of ways. These processes of comprehension, analysis and communication are central to all anthropology programmes, as well as to the broader humanities and social sciences at SOAS.

Method of assessment

There are three marked elements: an essay of 2’500 words due on the first day of term 2 counts for 40%; an exam in term 3 for 50% and 10% for class participation.

Suggested reading

  • Robertson, Jennifer (ed.) (2005) A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Sugimoto, Yoshio (2015) An Introduction to Japanese Society (4th edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hendry, Joy (2012) Understanding Japanese Society (3rd edition). London: RoutledgeCurzon.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules