Going to Japan with the International Placement Scheme

In 2017, Medieval History PhD student Lance Pursey, from the University of Birmingham, went to the National Museum of Ethnology (MINPAKU), part of the National Institutes for the Humanities, with the International Placement Scheme (IPS). 

Now, following his placement, he is looking to utilise his experience towards his future research. While currently working on his thesis and due to complete his PhD next year, he is also applying to do a postdoc with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. He found out about the opportunity while on his placement and is applying to work with professors who he met out there.   

Here are extracts from the interview he gave after he finished his placement in Japan. The full interview can be read at www.nihu.jp/en/publication/nihu_magazine/026

What are your research interests and what projects you are working on now?

“My research interests are social identities in medieval China and Northeast Asia. For my PhD research I am focusing on funerary inscriptions from the Liao period (907-1125CE), and incorporate not only their textual elements but also their archaeological context where available. During my time in Japan I became interested in how Chinese history is studied and researched in Japan, which I have developed into a larger project.”

How did you become interested in your research field?

“My undergraduate degree was in Chinese and Japanese, and afterwards I became interested in classical Chinese. My original motivation was to read philosophical texts, but I became increasingly interested in the historical context of the texts I was reading, which inspired me to do an MA in Religious Studies, focusing on Daoism, at Sichuan University in China.

“Nearing the end of my MA I was lucky enough to hear about an exciting PhD project that combined historical and archaeological methodologies. This was refreshing after spending several years looking at religious and speculative philosophical texts.

“My interest in inscriptions comes from both my passion for textual analysis and my interest in the material and social contexts of texts. In contrast to other periods of Chinese dynastic history, there is a shortage of received historical material for the Liao, which means that the archaeological finds since the twentieth century have played a pivotal role in uncovering more detail about the lives of individuals from the period.

“A lot of scholarship combines both artefacts and texts to paint a comprehensive picture of the Liao. I am curious to see whether these two kinds of sources when looked at in isolation paint two different pictures of Liao society, allowing us to reflect on the limitations of historical source material and historical methodologies.”

What was your most memorable moment during your IPS fellowship in Japan?

“I would say my visit to the Toyo Bunko in Tokyo. It’s a wonderful library with very helpful, courteous and professional staff. On my visits I was able to handle and examine rubbings of Liao inscriptions made or purchased by Japanese archaeologists in the 1930s. Some of these fragile sheets of taped-together paper are some of the only material remains of stone inscriptions whose whereabouts has been unknown for the best part of a century.

“I then had the opportunity to run a workshop at Waseda University, and chose to read through these inscriptions with teachers and students, alerting them to the fact these rubbings were very accessible and they could go check them out for themselves.

“That aside, the museums in Japan are great! The National Museum of Ethnology, where my placement was, gave me fresh perspectives for thinking about ethnic groups in the past and present and how to apply anthropological frameworks to my research. I was also very fortunate to catch many great exhibitions, some that directly fed into my research interests, like the Song ceramics exhibitions at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, or the Tang tomb figurines exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka. Other exhibitions expanded my interests beyond the immediate focus of my PhD, such as the Ninna-ji treasures on display at the Tokyo National Museum, the exhibition of Giga (Edo period manga) at the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts, or the brilliant permanent displays at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.”

What is your advice for students or early career researchers considering to do research in a different country or culture?

“Above all, go for it. You will learn things that you did not know there were to learn. If you do go on a placement, try your best to get out and meet people while you are there.

“I originally set out thinking I was going to Japan to read the volumes and volumes of work done in Japanese on my period of research. However, at the beginning of my placement I was encouraged to actively reach out to the writers of the works I wanted to read and go along to their seminars.

“This allowed me to see how the practice of sinology and history is done in Japanese in person, rather than merely on the page. This helped to turn my research from something quite dead (I deal with tomb inscriptions, after all) into activities where I was engaging with living people and indeed the living traditional of Sinology in Japan.”

The National Institutes for the Humanities in Japan has 11 placements available in the 2019 round of the International Placement Scheme. The closing date for this call is 24 January 2019. Apply via ahrc.ukri.org/funding/apply-for-funding/current-opportunities/international-placement-scheme-2019/

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