SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Culture and Society of Japan

Module Code:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
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 consumption and popular culture; religion; current politics; the mass media; and migration to and from Japan.

This is one of several regional ethnography modules offered by the Department of Anthropology (currently Culture and Society of: 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. Masters students in the Department of Anthropology are encouraged to study more than one regional ethnography module (albeit not normally two modules taught in the same term), to explore synergies across regions and gain a broader comparative understanding of the discipline.

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.
  • MA Area Studies students wishing to take this module as their ‘major’ will normally hold a degree or substantial part-degree in social anthropology or a closely related discipline. Area Studies students wishing to take this module as their ‘major’ must contact the module convenor for approval.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of the course students will:

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

This will form a base which will enable MA Anthropology students to write their dissertations (10,000 words) on a topic relating to Japan should they so wish. Skills in reading and contextualizing works on Japan are readily transferable to other regional studies.

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