Courses I Teach at Penn

Coming Up in Spring 2018



Fall 2017

Japanese Popular Culture

(Undergraduate lecture; taught every Fall)

Today, Japanese manga, anime, J-pop, and film have a global audience. But these exports can only be truly understood in light of longstanding domestic anxieties about sex, violence, “the kids these days,” and vulnerability to natural and anthropogenic disaster. This course traces some of these anxieties through critical examinations of manga, anime, light novels, video games, television, music, and fashion in Japan. As we engage with the assigned texts and films, we will investigate how the popular culture products of the present reflect Japan’s past and envision its future. We will also have repeated opportunities to ask whether these media products are truly “Japanese,” why people call them “popular” (and what they mean when they do), and what exactly the commonplace word “culture” actually means.

Major Seminar: Japan’s Others

What is Japan, and who are the Japanese? The answers to these questions may seem straightforward at first, but upon investigation they turn out to be tremendously complex. Over Japan’s long history, the boundaries of Nihon have expanded to incorporate new territory and contracted to relinquish former colonies. Similarly, the definition of who counts as “Japanese” has fluctuated, with subjecthood and citizenship extended to some groups and denied to others. This course looks at peripheries and marginalized communities to get a sense of Japan itself. It includes opportunities to read primary sources in Japanese and allows students to conduct an extended research project of their own design.

Previously Taught

Sects and Violence in East Asia

(Split-level seminar open to undergrads and grad students; last taught Spring 2017)

The countries of East Asia have a long tradition of vilifying marginal religious movements. Journalists, governments, and anti-cult activists have often regarded groups such as Falun Gong, the Unification Church, and Aum Shinrikyō as hotbeds of sexual promiscuity or threats to peace and order. Yet these portrayals problematically assume that “real” religions are ascetic or pacifist; they may also overlook the violent techniques that governments have used to keep potentially seditious religious movements in check. This course investigates the fact and fiction of popular portrayals of marginal religious movements, showing that East Asian governance of religions is both historically and conceptually linked to the contemporary geopolitics of counterterrorism.

Japanese History & Civilization

(Grad seminar; last taught Spring 2017)

There are two basic premises for this course. The first is that scholars of Japanese studies must be fluent in the theoretical language that connects our scholarship with the work of our colleagues in other branches of the humanities. Accordingly, the course includes weekly readings from classic theoretical literature (Marx, Weber, Althusser, Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler, Latour, Spivak, Lefebvre) to foster familiarity with the lingua franca of the humanistic academy.

The other premise is that all participants in the course may have to teach courses on Japanese history or culture at some point in their careers. By the end of the course you should be prepared to teach an introductory undergraduate course on Japan with a syllabus of your own design, and you should be able to write a scholarly book review and a comparative book review essay. It is assumed that you will learn how to write a research article using primary sources in other seminars, so you have no research paper assignment. This course does, however, ask you to generate a manifesto about where Japanese studies is today and where it should go in the future. The purpose of the manifesto is to help you develop a unique scholarly perspective that respects the work of previous generations but also envisions new paths in the field.

Asian Religions in the Global Imagination

(Seminar; Last taught Fall 2016. Open to undergrads and grad students)

Which traditions should feature in a list of Asian religions? Does the term “religion” even apply to intellectual traditions like Confucianism or the supposedly non-theological “philosophy” of Buddhism? Why are Indian conservatives trying to ban books written by non-Asian academics, and why are scholars of religion wondering whether “Asian religions” even exist? How did mindfulness meditation make its way into American corporate offices, and how did yoga infiltrate American public schools? When Jon Stewart pauses for “a moment of zen,” what does he mean? Does his usage match the thousands of hits for “zen” in the Home Decor section of

This seminar answers these questions and more by critically examining the missionary impulses, colonial exploits, and translation endeavors that contributed to the rise of Asian studies and the emergence of the scholarly notion of “Asian religions.” It shows the crucial roles played by Asian agents and their European counterparts in the formation of modern conceptions of religion; it also engages reflexive questions regarding theory, method, and the geopolitical underpinnings of Asian studies and religious studies alike. Ultimately, the course traces flows of ideas and practices like mindfulness meditation, zen™, Reiki, and yoga out of Asia and into the rest of the world, showing how the very things that needed to become religion in the geopolitical context of the nineteenth century have largely transcended or bypassed that category today.

Japanese Religions

(Graduate seminar; last taught Spring 2016)

The phrase “Japanese religions” is a fiction. For most of Japanese history there was no analogue to the word “religion,” and for most of Japanese history people did not categorize their veneration of buddhas, bodhisattvas, kami, and other non-obvious entities as “Buddhism” or “Shintō.” Moreover, both of these “traditional Japanese religions” are indebted to continental ideas, ritual practices, and institutions, making their status as “Japanese” somewhat suspect.

For lack of a better term and for the sake of convenience, scholars often use the word “religion” when describing the ritual practices and doctrines related to empirically unverifiable realities and non-obvious entities in Japan. This course covers “Japanese religions” in this sense. Topics include Buddhism (sects, founders, major doctrines, ritual practices, political ideology, worldview), Shintō (kami veneration, imperial politics, National Learning), Shugendō mountain asceticism and Onmyōdō divination practices, “new religions,” religion-state relations, and common practices related to death, pilgrimage, deities’ cults, fiction, and visual and material culture.

Courses Previously Taught at UW-Madison

Love & Sex in Buddhism

(last taught Fall 2014; may offer again at Penn in 2018 or 2019)

From monastic celibacy to sanctified sex, this course examines the wide variety of attitudes and practices towards love, desire, and attachment in the Buddhist tradition. Readings include primary sources from South and East Asia, secondary scholarship on Buddhist social history and doctrine, and theoretical literature on gender, sex, and the body.

The Religion of Anime

(lecture; last taught Spring 2015)

Be it shrine maidens, gods of death, and bodhisattvas fighting for justice; apocalypse, the afterlife, and apotheosis… the popular Japanese illustrated media of anime are replete with religious characters and religious ideas. This course uses anime as a tool for tracing the history of how media and religion have been deeply intertwined in 20th and 21st century Japan.

Courses Under Development


Asian Religions and the Black Arts

Wu-Tang. Ghost Dog. The Man with the Iron Fists. The iconic 1976 Lee “Scratch” Perry album Kung Fu Meets the Dragon. Jim Kelly’s 1970s Blaxploitation flicks. Berry Gordy’s lovably cheesy The Last Dragon. Samurai Champloo’s hip-hop soundtrack. Afro Samurai’s loving depictions of black bodies. What is it about East Asian martial arts that has so attracted black artists, and what is it about American blackness that has so captivated the attention of East Asian musicians and anime directors? This course pairs studies of hip-hop, live-action film, Jamaican dub, Japanese reggae, and anime with analysis of the religious tropes of Asian martial arts: the Japanese “way of the warrior,” the mystical martial art of ninjutsu, and the spiritual cultivation of kung fu.

The Problem with Solutions

A year-long seminar co-taught with Kimberley Thomas (Penn State)

Are liberalism, toleration, secularism, religious freedom, and human rights workable solutions for the problems of extremism, sectarianism, and terrorism? Are development, market liberalism, and conservation workable solutions for problems of economic inequality and environmental degradation? This course examines the unintended outcomes of well-intentioned policies through six thematic units; students will conduct original research pairing at least two of the course topics (e.g., development and human rights). Students may apply for an additional component that includes fieldwork (possibly abroad) and a chance to work on a co-authored publication.

Graphic Novels and the City

How have comics artists imagined public space? What do the settings of their stories tell us about dynamics of class, race, gender, and disability in urban environments? This course uses a variety of comics (manga, graphic novels, bandes-dessinées) and their filmic adaptations to explore these issues. Texts include Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s Akira, Matsumoto Taiyou’s Tekkon kinkreet, Antony Johnston and Sam Har’s The Coldest City, and Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.