JAP4515 – Contemporary Japanese Culture and Society

Schedule, syllabus and examination date

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Course content

The Heisei period has given way to the Reiwa period, and Japan is standing at a crossroads. The social structures that contributed to the post-war economic miracle (e.g. life-time employment and the competitive education system) have lost their self-evidence, and growth has long stagnated. Contemporary Japan has been characterized as a “post-growth society”. It faces challenges such as a rapidly ageing population, ongoing rural decline, far-reaching gender inequality and serious environmental problems. The authorities appear unable to solve these problems, and political participation is low. Popular myths about Japanese society as homogeneous and egalitarian are increasingly problematized, yet remain popular.


Despite these challenges, Japan continues to be an important player internationally, both politically and economically. Japanese popular culture has spread throughout the world, and the “Cool Japan” brand remains strong. Meanwhile, authorities and local actors alike actively seek to revitalize “traditional culture” and “national heritage” in a bid to promote tourism and prevent depopulation. The disasters of 2011 have caused serious crises, but they have also given way to new types of social activism, community outreach, and environmental advocacy.


This is a research-based course that requires active participation from all students. Each semester, we will focus on one core topic, which will be approached from various thematic and theoretical angles. This topic will serve as a prism for the study of contemporary Japanese culture and society. In previous years, these topics were “The production of heritage in contemporary Japan” (2017), “Multispecies Japan” (2018), “Japan in the Anthropocene” (spring 2019), and “Coastal communities in contemporary Japan: coping with social and environmental change” (autumn 2019). 


The central theme for autumn 2020 is “Food, Sociality, and Power.” Premised on the idea that food is inherently a social and cultural object, we will examine the ‘social lives’ of foodstuffs and drinks—rice balls, ramen, sushi, flounder, miso, kimchi, beef burgers, heirloom vegetables, sweets, sake, and coffee--to gain an understanding of contemporary Japanese society and politics. By looking at the production, distribution, and consumption of these commodities, we will aim to situate Japan in transnational and historical contexts. How does the globalization of Japanese cuisine complicate notions of authenticity and culinary identity? How are histories of industrialization, imperialism, and emigration connected to foodstuffs? How do everyday practices of cooking and eating relate to ideologies of family, gender, sexuality, and motherhood? How might concerns over the governance of foods or related industries give rise to political mobilization and reconfigure geopolitics? To address such questions, the course readings will draw from sources in anthropology, history, gender and sexuality studies, and sociology. At the end of the semester, students will each give a presentation and write a paper about a case study of their own choice.

Learning outcome

In principle, this course uses both Japanese- and English-language materials.

  • You will practice reading and translating Japanese texts of a variety of genres, and improve your skills in using Japanese materials for your own writing.
  • You will critically read English-language articles, both on broader, theoretical issues and on Japanese cases.
  • You will be asked to reflect upon these readings and learn how to apply them, in written texts as well as oral presentations and discussions.
  • You will improve your academic writing skills by means of an essay, in which you are expected to integrate different theoretical perspectives, relating your findings to relevant academic debates.
  • You will also practice your presentation skills, and learn to present your research orally.


Students who are admitted to study programmes at UiO must each semester register which courses and exams they wish to sign up for in Studentweb.

Students enrolled in other Master's Degree Programmes can, on application, be admitted to the course if this is cleared by their own study programme.

If you are not already enrolled as a student at UiO, please see our information about admission requirements and procedures.


Formal prerequisite knowledge

Please see the admission requirements defined by the programme option Japan Studies.

Students enrolled in other MA programs (e.g., social anthropology, environmental studies, or Chinese studies) who do not master Japanese may request admission to this course if it is relevant for their studies. They will be given additional readings and assignments to make up for the fact that they cannot read the Japanese texts.


Autumn 2020: Teaching will follow the guidelines for preventing the spread of Covid-19.

A detailed plan for the semester will show which activities will be digital, and this will be updated by the beginning of August.

There will not be a requirement for compulsory attendance for teaching which is done digitally, but we strongly recommend that you follow all the teaching.


The course consists of 10 classes of 3 hours each. Students are expected to be prepared to classes and to participate actively in discussion.


Compulsory activities

  • Attendance to at least 8 of 10 classes
  • A one-page reflection paper on the readings
  • A research proposal

The reflection paper and the research proposal must be submitted in Canvas within a given deadline. The reflection paper and the research proposal is only valid for one semester. All obligatory activities must be approved in order to qualify for the exam. It is the student’s responsibility to keep track of any absence from class, and to check whether or not the compulsory activities are approved.


This is how you apply for valid absence from compulsory activities/compulsory attendance.


The examination consists of two parts:

1. An oral presentation (15-20 minutes)

2. An essay on a topic of your own choice, subject to prior approval by the teacher (8-10 pages)

You need to pass both parts to pass the course. The oral presentation counts for 40% of the grade. The final essay counts for 60%.

Grading guidelines

Submit assignments in Inspera

You submit your assignment in the digital examination system Inspera. Read about how to submit assignments in Inspera.

Use of sources and citation

You should familiarize yourself with the rules that apply to the use of sources and citations. If you violate the rules, you may be suspected of cheating/attempted cheating.

Language of examination

The examination text is given in English, and you submit your response in English.

Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

Resit an examination

Withdrawal from an examination

It is possible to take the exam up to 3 times. If you withdraw from the exam after the deadline or during the exam, this will be counted as an examination attempt.

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.


The course is subject to continuous evaluation. At regular intervals we also ask students to participate in a more comprehensive evaluation.

Course evaluation spring 2019

Facts about this course






Every autumn


Every autumn

Teaching language