SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Ethnography of Japan

Module Code:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 1

This course is designed to cover a wide variety of topics relating to Japanese society, beginning from the formation of the modern nation state and its effect on the family, rural, urban and religious life, and concluding with a re-evaluation of the anthropology of Japan in the light of debates over orientalism, and problems of representation.

One of the main themes running through the course is that of identity – we consider how Japanese national identity may be constructed, or contested. What are the boundaries of Japanese identity? What is meant by “Japanese culture”? What of gendered identities? These issues are addressed in a range of contexts, including the arts, consumption, and popular culture; the body and controversies in medical anthropology in Japan; debates over education; and migration to and from 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 course outline:

  • Week 1. Imagining Japan and Majority Culture
  • Week 2. Minorities, Marginality, Status and Class
  • Week 3. Becoming Japanese: Education and The Discourse of IE (house)
  • Week 4. Consumption, Food Culture and Identity
  • Week 5. Performing Gender and the Salaryman Doxa: Marriage and Sexlessness
  • Week 6. (Reading Week)
  • Week 7. Politics and Political Cultures
  • Week 8. Religion and Its Invention in Japan: Old and New Spiritualities
  • Week 9. Popular Culture, Otaku, Spirits and Pilgrimage
  • Week 10. The Mass Media, Tabloid Journalism and Historical Revisionism
  • Week 11. Geo-politics and Politics for Peace


  • 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 East Africa, 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.

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