As an intellectual and cultural historian, I've always been interested in how concepts and categories possess their own histories. My first book relates the adoption of “religion” as a new discursive category in nineteenth-century Japan to the history of state formation. I examine policy debates and diplomatic negotiations, tracing how the imperative to distinguish the imperial institution from religion arose, and how the pursuit of a “religious settlement” informed the policies and institutional shape of the imperial Japanese state.
My current project explores the cultural history of the automobile in twentieth-century Japan. A wealth of literature considers the way in which the automobile shaped individual subjectivity through constructions of gender, citizenship, as wellas safety and liability in North America and Europe. Yet, the multivalent role of the car in twentieth-century Japan remains largely unexplored. I am interested in addressing this lacuna, in part because the automobile looms large in Japan not just as an successful export commodity, but also as an dominant element of daily life through much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Just as the jinrikisha and the railway colored the social experience of nineteenth-century Japan, the automobile also generated its share of cultural representation and social change. To the extent that automotive technology and its intrastructure, like any form of technology, was discursively mediated and constructed, the automobile provided a significant nexus for social and political contestation and signification through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.
Methodologically, my project draws on an interdisciplinary conversation that proposes a “mobility turn” in our approach to the cultural history of modern societies. The movement of people and objects is a basic and quantifiable aspect of any human society. In addition to its plain empirical reality, however, movement is both a product and producer of power, and as such provides a fertile source of narratives, ideologies, and embodied experiences. Automobility, treated as a subset of mobility within the literature, refers to the social meaning and conflict generated by the car and its attendant apparatus. Those meanings and conflicts vary according to the context in which the automobile is placed, making the history of automobility a rich vein of cultural history. When introduced into interwar Japan, for example, the car contended with a spatial infrastructure ill suited to its use and a highly stratified socio-economic order that made the act of owning or hiring a car particularly ostentatious and controversial. Using automotive journals that attempted to promote the car in this context, as well as newspapers, theater and film, I argue that the car crystallized debates about economic class and social stratification, debates that revolved around access to public space, safety, and even gender relations.