CfP Workshop: Cultures of Sense in Japan

February 27 & 28, 2020, Melbourne  

Japan is home to complex and distinct sensory cultures, which shape how people sense, and make sense, of the world. At this two-day workshop, scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds are invited to discuss contemporary and historical sensory cultures of Japan and to explore how the senses, as both subject matter and research methodology, can become a fertile line of enquiry for Japan Studies. The organizers particularly welcome contributions that pertain to hitherto underexamined and denigrated senses, namely, smell, taste, and touch. 

The social sciences has historically been silent on the sensory dimensions of lived experience, favouring questions of language, meaning, and symbolism. This is partially the result of Western “ocular-centrism”, which elevates the visual mode to the realm of reason and rationality within sensory hierarchy (Classen et al. 1994). Immanuel Kant, for example, described smell as “ignoble”, “animalistic”, and unworthy of cultivation. Since the 1980s, the “sensorial turn” has challenged this state of affairs, advocating for a cultural approach to the study of the senses and a sensory approach to the study of culture, (Howes and Classen 2014:13; Stoller 2010). Today, sensory studies is a dynamic and expansive field that attends to diverse sensory cosmologies (Porcello et al. 2010). However, despite the senses often appearing as important themes in research on Japan, sensory studies is not yet a cohesive field within the Japanese academy, or in Japan Studies more broadly (Gould et al. 2019). The senses are thus an untapped resource for research. In its attempt to re-orientate scholarship toward the senses, this workshop follows on from recent contributions to the sensory anthropology of Japan, on touch (Stevens 2011) and sound (the ‘Sonic Japan’ ARC project; Gould et al 2019).

To give just one example, the olfactory sense weaves its way through Japanese cultural worlds, from the complex play of the incense ceremony, to efforts to transform the “cultural odor” of Japan-made products so as to globalize their appeal (Iwabuchi 2002), and to the recent rise of スメルハラ(sumeru hara) or ‘smell harassment’ in workplaces. Smell has also been a key mediator of inter-cultural contact. For example, author Endo Shusaku wrote “Christianity had a foreign scent to me” (in Mase-Hasegawa, 2008, xxii). In Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan Lafcadio Hearn describes “…that first charm of Japan, [is] intangible and volatile as a perfume” (1894). Finally, scent is used to mark out the racialized Other, as seen in tropes of the ‘smelly immigrant’ as a subversive citizen in Australia and Japan. 

In this workshop, scholars are invited to reflect on the following questions in relation to their research:

  • How do senses help people ‘make sense’ of their social world in Japan? How do these sensory worlds intersect with dimensions of power, and in particular, ethnicity, gender, class and age? 
  • How are the senses depicted in the Japanese language, in particularly, in ideophonic (giongo) expressions? 
  • How do senses evoke memory and assist in historical investigation and imagination? 
  • How are the senses employed in fictional and non-fictional accounts of Japan, its communities, spaces, and cultures?
  • How are sensory experiences produced, marketed, and consumed (Moeran 2007)?

The senses are a topic that cuts across disciplinary boundaries and this workshop will invite contributions from all disciplinary backgrounds and theoretical approaches. We particularly welcome submissions on multi-modal, synaesthetic or inter-sensorial experience, as well as on smell, taste and touch, which have been overlooked in previous scholarship.

The workshop will be hosted by Gwyn McClelland (History, Monash University) and Hannah Gould (Anthropology, Melbourne University) and held at The University of Melbourne’s Parkville Campus. 

Details of submission:Applications should include 1. a Title for your paper; 2. An abstract of no more than 300 words; and 3. A short biography of up to 100 words. 
Please email your submission for consideration for this workshop directly to gwyn.mcclelland@monash.eduas an attachment due date2ndDecember (5pm Australian EST)

Bursaries available:Postgraduate students and low waged ECR’s who are interested from interstate/international or rural Victoria are encouraged to include on their submission a request to be considered for a bursary. Courtesy of the Japanese Studies Association of Australia, a maximum of six bursaries of up to AUD$450 will be available for attendance and participation in this workshop. 

Please note that papers will be circulated a few weeks prior to the workshop or late January so that participants can read in advance and the workshop opportunity is made more productive. 


Classen, Constance Victoria, David Howes and Anthony Synnott. 1994. Aroma: The cultural history of smell. London: Routledge.

Gould, Hannah, Richard Chenhall, Tamara Kohn and Carolyn S Stevens. 2019. An Interrogation of Sensory Anthropology of and in Japan. Anthropological Quarterly 92 (1):231-258. 

Hearn, Lafcadio. 1894 [2016]. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing. 

Iwabuchi, Koichi. 2002. Recentering Globalisation: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Mase-Hasegawa, Emi. 2008, Christ in Japanese Culture: Theological Themes in Shusaku Endo’s Literary Works. Leiden: Brill. 

Moeran, Brian. 2007. Marketing scents and the anthropology of smell. Social Anthropology 15 (2): 153-168. 

Porcello, Thomas, Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa and David W Samuels. 2010. The Reorganization of the Sensory World. Annual Review of Anthropology39: 51-66. 

Stevens, Carolyn S. 2011. Touch: Encounters with Japanese Popular culture. Japanese Studies 31(1): 1-10.

Stoller, Paul. 2010. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Thesis Abstract

I submitted my PhD thesis in August 2019. Below is the summary abstract.

This thesis examines transforming material relations with the dead in contemporary Japan focused on one artefact of Japanese death culture, the Buddhist altar or butsudan (仏壇). Butsudan are complex material artefacts with deep histories of religious symbolism that have been a key site for ancestor veneration, Buddhist practice, and connecting with the dead in Japanese homes for many generations. They are also an unstable technology of mediating the dead in Japan. Once present in the vast majority of households, butsudan sales have seriously declined and traditional artisan products are being replaced by modern, fashion-conscious, and secular designs. The progressively marginal position occupied by butsudan in Japanese religious and family life has contributed to a growing sense of unease, if not crisis, within the religious goods industry and temple Buddhism. Decline occurs against a broader backdrop of transformation to Japanese death traditions, precipitated by demographic changes, secularisation, and economic stagnation. In an age of “precarity” (Allison 2013), in which the socio-religious structures once relied upon to secure a good death have significantly weakened, how do relations with the dead proceed? 

This thesis traces the dynamics by which artefacts of mediating the dead like butsudan emerge, circulate within religious and funerary economies, come to mediate intimate exchanges between the living and the dead, and ultimately fall into disuse. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork with artisans, retailers, consumers, and clergy, including several months working in Buddhist goods companies in Tokyo, Osaka, and Toyama. Attending to the rich details of material practice at the altar, I further elucidate modes of necrosociality beyond memorialisation, in particular, kuyō (供養) or veneration, as they operate in contemporary Japan. I suggest that kuyō requires an investment in material forms, either altars or their growing alternatives, which make the absent dead present, facilitating acts of care that are also practices of disposal and disconnection. The contemporary form of butsudan emerges out of collaborative efforts to care for the dead, which are increasingly reliant on commercial actors and which must be balanced with considerations of convenience, economy, and personal taste. 

The five main body chapters of this thesis trace the life course of butsudan, through sites of their crafting, retail, encounter, disposal, and innovation. This structure illuminates the mutability, and ultimately mortality, of necromaterial forms, which I argue is an increasingly significant factor in how people navigate relationships with the dead in Japan today.This thesis thus contributes to our broader understanding of how absence through death is made sensorially present through the life and death of material culture.

Measuring Australian Religion: God is in the details

In the wake of the 2016 census results, a barrage of analysis proclaiming Australians are “ditching faith”, “turning away from God”, or “losing their religion” presents a concerning misunderstanding of both census data and religion.

Census data are limited by what questions are asked, and religion is far more complex than a single question. The census might capture religious affiliation, but this does not equate with faith, belief, or practice.

It is noteworthy that the “non-religious” population has grown to overtake Catholicism as the largest single affiliation, at approximately 30% of the population. It is also largely consistent with a global decline in organized religion across the Western world.

These results, however, miss almost everything about what makes religion in contemporary Australia interesting. For example, they tell us little about the person who identifies as Christian for cultural reasons, but attends church irregularly and is, at best, unsure about the existence of God. Indeed, these people are put into the same box as ardent evangelicals who attend services weekly.

‘Cultural reasons’ for identifying with a religion vary, from nationalism and educational upbringing, to parents filling in their children’s census data. More political motivations can be found in the public campaign urging lapsed Christians to answer “no religion”, or far more concerning, the Anti-Islamic, nationalist counter-campaign encouraging ‘Christian’ responses.

The results also reveal little about the modern phenomenon of ‘spiritual seekers’, who reject organized religious affiliations, but might attend Buddhist meditation retreats, Hindu festivals, and ardently affirm the existence of a ‘higher power’. As the ABS states, the category of ‘no religion’ in fact encompasses those with “secular and other spiritual beliefs”, including agnosticism, atheism, and humanism.

Finally, as the census directs respondents to select one affiliation, it does not reflect the existence of those who practice multiple faiths; where are the Bujews (Buddhist Jews) or Trinitarian Wicca (Christian Wiccans) in the data?


The disadvantages of using ‘affiliation’ as a proxy for religion reveal a more troublesome quandary for social scientists and demographers: how do we quantify religion?

There are several viable options, such as measuring the strength of belief in a doctrine, or the number of times one attends religious services, or performs a religious rite. More complex indexes, like The Duke University Religion Index (DUREL), propose a composite measure across multiple dimensions, including one’s experience of the divine and how religion influences one’s lifestyle.

At times, the different ways of thinking about and measuring religion – as identity, culture, belief, or practice – produce confounding results.


For example, marked differences emerge depending on how you ask the religion question. In a 2011 poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Humanists UK, when asked “What is your religion?” (as used by the Australian census), 61% of respondents identified with a religious group. However, when asked “Are you religious?”, only 29% of respondents said ‘yes’.

Further afield in Japan, attempts to quantify religion yield a minefield of contradictions. It appears that the Japanese are mostly non-religious, but also frequently perform ritual activities and are (at least formally) members of several religious groups.

A 2015 Gallup Poll showed that 31% of Japanese respondents were committed atheists, and 57% were religiously unaffiliated. At the same time, however, ethnographic researchers report widespread participation in activities like religious festivals, visiting shrines, and ancestor veneration. And the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs reports that Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines claim members in numbers that account for nearly 200% of the total population.

Such contradictions stem from trying to measure religion in a context where identity, belief, and practice do not necessarily align, and the term ‘religion’ itself is a foreign import – a similar problem is found in the data from China.


In Australia, there are undoubtedly spiritual people lurking in the ‘no-religion’ data, just as there are spiritually-apathetic respondents in the religious categories.

There is far more to faith than affiliation. But if we continue to read religion in modern Australia in this frame, then we will miss out on all the complex ways it plays a role in our lives – whether we believe it, or not.