vol.025 - An interview with research fellows visiting NIHU – Senior Lecturer Oleg Benesch
An interview with research fellows visiting NIHU – Senior Lecturer Oleg Benesch
We asked Senior Lecturer Oleg Benesch, a 2017 International Placement Scheme (IPS) fellow of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), his research interests and his fellowship experience at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto. Oleg teaches East Asian History at the University of York in the UK.
Oleg, what are your research interests and what projects you are working on now?
My recent research interests have related to the use of premodern symbols and ideas in the formation of modern nationalism. Much of my work deals with the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My first book, Inventing the Way of the Samurai (Oxford, 2014), examined the development of bushido in modern Japan. I have just completed a second book manuscript, co-authored with Ran Zwigenberg at the Pennsylvania State University, that is a history of Japanese castles in the modern period, from the 1860s to the present.
In addition to several ongoing projects related to these two books, I am increasingly looking at the uses of the past in Japan, China, and the West from a transnational and comparative perspective. The spread of nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a global phenomenon, and different societies used the past in ways that were far more similar than is often thought. For example, the development of an idealized samurai ethic in Meiji Japan was heavily influenced by Victorian notions of chivalry and ‘gentlemanship’.
How did you become interested in your research field?
My current historical interests developed during several years living in Japan and asking questions about things I saw and heard. With regard to bushido, I didn’t feel that the existing literature was providing satisfactory answers to my questions about its origins. This led me to study the development of bushido in graduate school, first for an MA and then a PhD.
My work on castles developed from conversations with Ran Zwigenberg in Tokyo several years ago. We both felt that too little was known about the modern history of Japanese castles, as research and museums focus almost entirely on earlier periods. As we dug deeper, we realized that castles played major roles in Japan’s modern development, but also that the dynamics surrounding castles in Japan were in many ways similar to those in Europe and elsewhere. The history of both bushido and castles is closely related to the formation of local, regional, and national identity in the modern period, and this is a thread that runs through much of my past and ongoing work.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years? 10 years?
As a historian, I try not to get drawn into predictions of the future, whether it be my own or that of the areas I study. That said, I am still engaged in quite a few research projects and would be happy if I am still pursuing those.
What was your most memorable moment during your IPS fellowship in Japan?
The most memorable thing about my stay in Japan on the IPS was the amazing cherry blossom season. It was considerably longer than a moment this year, and I had the good fortune to be traveling around visiting castle sites during the peak of the season.
In many cities, castles are now public parks, often planted with dozens or hundreds of cherry trees, so the atmosphere was fantastic. It was a bit strange to be looking for historically significant objects in between masses of people eating and drinking on blue tarps beneath the cherry trees, but it certainly made the whole experience more memorable.
What is your advice for students or early career researchers considering to do research in a different country or culture?
I would just suggest getting out and exploring as much as possible. You never know where new ideas or projects will come from!
Senior Lecturer Oleg Benesch
Oleg Benesch is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in East Asian History at the University of York in the UK. He is also a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London. Oleg received his PhD from the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, and was Past & Present Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.
Oleg’s research interests lie at the intersection of intellectual, cultural, and social history. He is especially interested in the exchange and development of ideas and concepts across societies, with a focus on interactions between Japan, China, and the West. For more information, see: www.olegbenesch.com
In his free time, Oleg enjoys spending time with family and friends, as well as exploring new areas and playing football (soccer). During his time in Kyoto, he went for cycle rides and runs in and around the city. He would often run as far as he could in a new direction, and then take one or several trains back home as a way of exploring the city and countryside. Oleg also regularly played football with students and staff at Kyoto University, as well as at a futsal court near Nichibunken. He finds this a great way to meet people from many different walks of life, especially when one has first arrived somewhere new.