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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

East Asian Studies
Keidanren Professor of Japanese Studies
Email address: 
+44 (0)1223 335430
Fellow of: 
Trinity College
Director of Studies at: 
Trinity College
Photo by Danish Saroee for SCAS

Brought up in Kalmar, Sweden, where he used a thirteenth century castle as his playground, Mickey Adolphson has been a historian as long as he can remember. After graduating from high school in the late (and joyful) 1970s, he went to Lund's University, where he graduated with a B.A. in History, Museum and Cultural Studies in 1984. A premodernist, he was inspired by the similarities between medieval Europe and Japan to focus his attention on pre-1600 Japan. He spent two years studying Japanese at Stockholm University before receiving a scholarship from the Japanese Education Ministry in 1986. During the next two and a half years he lived in Kyoto and Osaka while studying at Kyoto University under the guidance of Professor Oyama Kyohei. In 1989, he entered Stanford University's Ph.D. program with Professor Jeffrey P. Mass as his mentor. Returning to Kyoto University in the spring of 1992 for dissertation research, he also worked for the Japan Volleyball Association as an interpreter. He resumed at Stanford in the fall of 1993 and finished his dissertation two years later. Adolphson’s first academic appointment was at the University of Oklahoma from 1995 to 1999, after which he moved to Harvard University, where he was assistant and associate professor of Japanese History. In 2008 he joined the faculty at the University of Alberta as Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies, where he served as chair and associate dean. Professor Adolphson is currently Keidanren Professor of Japanese Studies at Cambridge. 

Teaching responsibilities: 

Professor Adolphson teaches a range of courses from a first-year introduction of East Asian Studies and occasionally a first-year text class to advanced seminars on hentai kanbun and Japanese history. 

Supervision information: 

Having supervised graduate students in a range of fields, including premodern and modern Japanese history, premodern literature as well as Buddhism, Professor Adolphson would welcome enquiries from motivated graduate students and young scholars from across the world.

** Prof Adolphson will be on sabbatical leave during the academic years of 2021-22 and 2022-23.  However, he may be able to accommodate new PhD students during this period. **

Research interests: 

Professor Adolphson is a broadly trained historian with a strong interest in medieval societies. In fact, he studied medieval societies and religions in southern France at the University of Lund before suddenly being inspired to switch to medieval Japan. Nevertheless, he took with him an interest in Annales history to the Japan field, and so he focuses on a wide variety of topics, ranging from social structures, ideologies, mentalité, religious institutions, legal history, historical documents and international trade. In addition, he has a strong interest in how historical narratives have been and are constructed both in the past and the present. Professor Adolphson’s current project focuses on Sino-Japanese trade in the twelfth century, with a special focus on the import of Chinese copper coins, which eventually led to a monetized economy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 

Current PhD students

Mr Thomas Booth: Understanding the Causes and Motivations of the Tokusei Protests 1428-1467. Understanding the Causes and Motivations of the Tokusei Protests 1428-1467 The tokusei protests (lit. virtuous governance) were a series of rural protests that occurred throughout the Kinai region of Japan between 1428 and 1467. Rural communities marched on Kyoto and Nara demanding a clearance of personal debts and a reduction in annual tax; when refused, they destroyed the property of temples and moneylenders. Military intervention by the shogunate against the protesters ignited a series of uprisings throughout the region. The origins of these protests have exclusively been understood in structural terms: socio-economic deprivation, political opportunity and the mobilising force of the packhorse drivers have been highlighted as the principle causes of the protests. This methodology has downplayed considerations of agency: what motivated, rather than stimulated, the rural population to rise up? Using insights from social psychology, this project aims to shed light on the identity of the tokusei protester and question how they articulated and interacted with the context of fifteenth century rural Japan.
Mr Colton Runyan: Ascending via Awase: Competitions in Heian Japan Colton’s PhD research topic concerns the world of premodern sumo wrestling. Specifically he will be looking into the role of the sumo at court, the motivation of the wrestlers, and how sumo was viewed by its spectators. Using sources from the twelfth century onwards Colton’s research will examine the rise, fall and subsequent rise again of sumo; from popularity as a court spectacle, through relative obscurity, to a cultural phenomenon of the Modern era.
Ms Polina Serebriakova: Petals of paulownia: sources of aristocratic legitimacy for warrior leaders in Medieval Japan. The apex of the Muromachi shogunate is usually attributed to the late fourteenth – first half of the fifteenth century and is strongly associated with the rule of three Ashikaga shoguns: Yoshimitsu, Yoshimochi, and Yoshinori. Each of them went down in history as a warrior leader whose political success was owed much to military force. However, non-military frameworks of subjugation, such as Buddhist ritual, courtly ceremonial, and diplomatic protocol, that allowed the Ashikaga shoguns to establish their legitimacy amongst the elites, are often being overlooked. By analysing these political rituals, this dissertation investigates how the Ashikaga warrior leaders acquired recognition and authority equal to the top-tier aristocracy of Medieval Japan.
Miss Jun Tham: Spirit pacification was a practice that reinforced the ruler’s role as protector of the polity from all threats, including the supernatural, and in Japan, also served to put blame for societal ills on the ruler’s enemies. Due to questions of terminology within and between the fields of scholarship on spirit pacification in China and Japan, the persistent and important link between spirit pacification practice and regime legitimation in the years c.1350-1650 has been overlooked. By setting aside terminology and redefining spirit pacification according to the core features of the practice, the proposed dissertation seeks to write a history of spirit pacification as a mentality and an ideology. In doing so, it has two aims: to investigate how spirit pacification played into regime legitimation, and how its role changed, but did not disappear entirely across the late medieval and early modern periods; and to explore the existence of a common, regional imaginary regarding the dead in East Asia.
Mr Luigi Ivan Triola: The role of charisma in shaping New Japanese Religions Ivan's PhD research focuses on the role of charisma in the development of New Japanese Religions, especially on Oomotokyo's off-shoot movements, under the supervision of Prof. Mickey Adolphson.

Articles, Book Chapters etc

Myōun and the Heike Monastic Influence in Twelfth-Century Japan Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 47/2 pp. 189–223 (2020)
Weighing in on Evidence: Documents and Literary Manuscripts in Early Medieval Japan Alessandro Bausi, Christian Brockmann, Michael Friedrich, Sabine Kienitz (ed.) Manuscripts and Archives: Comparative Views on Record-Keeping pp. 297–318 (2018)
Discourses on Religious Violence in Premodern Japan Religions, Volume 9, Issue 5 (2018)
Review of Matthew Stavros' "Kyoto: An Urban History of Japan's Premodern Capital" The Journal of Asian Studies, 75 pp. 524 - 527 (2016)
Review of Asuka Sango's "The Halo of Golden Light: Imperial Authority and Buddhist Ritual in Heian Japan." The American Historical Review, Volume 121, Issue 3 pp. 922 - 923 (2016)
Violence, Warfare and Buddhism in Early Medieval Japan Quaestiones Medii Aevi Novae, vol. 21: Cultures of War, Liturgy pp. 65 - 89 (2016)
Review of David Spafford's "A Sense of Place: The Political Landscape in Late Medieval Japan." The American Historical Review, Volume 119, Issue 4 pp. 1240 (2014)
The Doshu: Clerics at Work in Early Medieval Monasteries Monumenta Nipponica Volume 67, Issue 2 pp. 263-282 (2012)
The competitive enforcement of property rights in medieval Japan: The role of temples and monasteries Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 71 pp. 660 - 668 (2009)
Social Change and Contained Transformations: Warriors And Merchants in Japan, 1000-1300 Medieval Encounters, Volume 10, Issue 1-3 pp. 309 – 337 (2004)
August 2021 to October 2023

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