Return to Member Spotlight page
Jolyon Thomas, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania
Religious Studies/History of Religions in Japan
How long have you been a member of AAS?
Since 2005, so 11 years.
Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?
I joined as a master’s student so that I could keep up with trends in the field. I would definitely recommend AAS to colleagues, especially junior scholars, because the conferences and the journal give a really good sense of the types of questions people are asking in the various subfields. I’ve also directly benefited from some small grants from the organization, including travel grants and, most recently, a grant to host a workshop/symposium on Shinto at Penn in September 2016. As an added bonus, the AAS conference serves as a sort of annual reunion with old friends.
How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?
I moved to Japan on a whim in January 2002, and I started grad school a few years later having decided to pair my longstanding academic interest in religion with my newfound interest in Japanese language and culture.
What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?
I especially love teaching. It’s so rewarding to offer vicarious experiences to students who haven’t yet had a chance to travel to Asia, and for students who are already familiar with Asia it’s also nice to help them see the familiar with new eyes.
Tell us about your current or past research.
My current book project examines religious freedom in modern Japan, with a particular focus on the complicated position of religious freedom during the Allied Occupation of Japan. The book shows that “State Shinto” was a secular system rather than a national religion, that Japan actually had a robust and democratic mode of protecting religious freedom during the entire time that the Meiji Constitution was in effect (1890–1945), and that the Allied project of fostering religious freedom in Japan was characterized by a number of false starts, poorly defined terms, and surprising continuities with the Japanese wartime regime.
Future projects include a book on religion and public school education in postwar Japan and a book about relationships between religion, capitalism, and sex in contemporary Japan. I’ve already been writing about some of these topics in a series of articles at the web magazine Sacred Matters
, and I have links to most of my published work, as well as some audio and video files, on my website
What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?
If you have already committed to grad school and a career in the academy, then think really carefully about how to make your work speak to a general audience. Write for your neighbors and your family members and your friends, not just for your professors and other people who are already interested in Asia. Practice speaking about your work in a way that is intelligible to people who don’t have command of Asian languages. Develop several different versions of your “elevator pitch” and learn how to tailor that pitch for different audiences and scenarios. Most importantly, make sure that you are having fun with your work. If you aren’t getting great emotional satisfaction from your academic work, do something else that is fun or rewarding for you.
Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.
I love music and have been known to DJ weddings, birthdays, and impromptu fireside dance parties on Hawaiian beaches. My wife and I recently cooked a nine-course tasting menu for some friends featuring dishes from six different Asian countries. She's a geographer who studies water politics in South Asia, so between us we get pretty good coverage of the continent when we travel for research.