Surveying Premodern Historians of Japan: Past, Present, and Future Directions of the Field

By Paula R. Curtis

Bar chart of PhDs in premodern Japanese history granted by gender, 1946-2026
Number of PhDs granted and to be granted to historians of premodern Japan (1946-2026) by gender. Graph by Paula R. Curtis

Since at least the 2008 economic collapse, scholars of all academic disciplines have been anxious about what the future holds for their fields of study. Even before the global pandemic of 2020-2021 exacerbated those concerns, large organizations like the American Historical Association showcased alarming data on the precipitous decline in academic jobs while the number of people obtaining PhDs continued roughly apace, revealing a wide chasm between career goals and job opportunities that was felt by historians and other academics alike.

In order to theorize about how niche fields will survive our current challenges, we must look to the developments of our past to begin planning for and investing in our future. This article surveys historians of pre-1600 Japan from the 1940s—the field’s proverbial advent in training Anglophone scholars at educational institutions, particularly those in North America—to 2026 in anticipation of the completion of degrees currently in progress. 

During the 2019-2020 academic job market season, globally there were approximately eight job advertisements for positions specifically in the history of Japan. Two were tenure-track, one a visiting position, and five were postdocs. In the 2019-2020 season, there was one position (a tenure-track job at the University of Leiden) advertised exclusively for premodern Japanese history. No tenure-track faculty jobs seeking a Japanese history specialist were offered in North America.

Where will these trends leave or lead the next generations of scholars? Many studies of these subfields and other disciplines that intersect with Japanese Studies can and should be written; as a premodern historian, I focus here on training, hiring, and retention to address challenges of our current moment as they pertain to premodern historians of Japan. An examination of intersecting data on degrees granted, training sites, current employment status, gender, the ability or desire to mentor, and career paths reveals that strategic interventions and advocacy on individual and institutional levels must be made to ensure the continuation of a prosperous and equitable future for premodern Japanese history, the livelihoods of its scholars, and the broader Japan Studies field.

Paula R. Curtis is a historian of medieval Japan. She researches artisanal organizations, social status, forgery, and elite institutions from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. She can be contacted at prcurtis@umich.edu. For more information on her job data collection in East Asian Studies, see http://prcurtis.com/projects/jobdata/.

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