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Kyoto temple at night

Introduction to Japan: History, Religion, Culture

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Program Quick Facts

  • Location: Kyoto, Japan
  • Stanford Faculty Leader: Matt Sommer
  • Co-Instructor: Catherine Ludvik
  • Arrival Date: June 24, 2023
  • Departure Date: July 15, 2023
  • Program Cost: $600
  • Academic Prerequisites: N/A. A series of introduction sessions will be arranged with accepted and waitlisted students.
  • Activity Level: Light. Activities may include city walking tours, easy/short hikes, museums, and other site visits.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Health Information for Travelers to Japan
  • US State Department Country Information: Japan International Travel Information
  • Visa Information: Consulate General of Japan
  • Application Deadline: Sunday, January 29, 2023 at 11:59 pm PT

General Description

This course provides a broad introduction to the history, religion, and culture of Japan from prehistory until the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912, with emphasis on Japan’s relations with the continent (especially China) and the wider world and how those relations changed over time in the context of successive waves of globalization. The course is experience-intensive, taking full advantage of the historical and cultural treasures of Kyoto and environs through multiple field trips per week.

We begin with the archaeological remains of the “mounded tomb” period and Japan’s first appearance in Chinese written chronicles, and then explore China’s impact on the formation of Japanese civilization from the 6th through 15th centuries CE. That impact included the reception of Chinese writing, Buddhism, and the imperial model of statecraft, which can be seen in the great temples of Nara, as well as in the layout of Kyoto (modeled on the Tang dynasty’s capital of Chang’an). By the 16th century, when European merchants and missionaries first reached East Asia, bringing firearms and Christianity, Japan’s Muromachi Shogunate ruled over one of the most urbanized, economically advanced, and culturally sophisticated societies in the world—although China’s Ming dynasty clearly remained the superior regional power.

In the last years of the 19th century, however, that longstanding status quo was abruptly upended, and the direction of influence reversed. European and American steamships now dominated the Pacific, China’s Qing Dynasty was in the throes of social and political upheaval, and Japan had begun its modernization and march to empire. Japan’s shocking defeat of the Qing in 1895 marked its debut as a major power; soon Japan would defeat Russia, seize Korea, and begin encroaching further on Chinese territory.

Proposed field trips include the ancient mounded tombs and early Buddhist temples of Kyoto and Nara; Himeji Castle, the design of which reflects the impact of European firearms and East Asia’s “military revolution”; the elaborate Buddhist complex at Mt. Hiei, which was razed by Oda Nobunaga; a walking tour of Kyoto’s thriving commercial Gion District, which hosts many traditional family businesses that date to the 17th and 18th centuries, including geisha quarters and associated teahouses; and the tomb of the Meiji Emperor and the adjacent Shinto shrine to General Nogi Maresuke (hero of the Russo-Japanese War, who committed suicide to follow the emperor in death), located on beautiful park land in Kyoto’s Momoyama District.


Kyoto, Japan. Surrounding areas of interest will also be visited. The main focus of this course is Japanese history and culture from prehistory until the end of the Meiji period, with emphasis on its connections with China and the two countries’ influence on each other’s histories.  There is no better place to study this topic than Kyoto, with its abundance of historical and cultural treasures, and we shall take full advantage of them to make East Asian history come alive.

Living and Travel Conditions

Please note, both Kyoto and its surrounding areas can be very hot and humid during the summer, when the program will take place. Many of the places we will work and visit will be air conditioned, but not all, and students should be prepared to face non-California summer conditions. Temperatures average in the high 80s to low 90s, but can get hotter, with high humidity and frequent rains.

Students will stay in a hotel in central Kyoto, within easy access of the Stanford Japan Center, where class sessions will be held. The Stanford Japan Center is located inside Doshisha University’s Imadegawa campus, on the northern edge of the old Imperial Palace Gardens. Students will be expected to navigate Kyoto's comprehensive public transport system, and they will find that it is an excellent way to explore the city outside of class time. Students will have full use of the Stanford Japan Center during the daytime, as well as support from the local staff.


Prof. Matthew Sommer

Prof. Matthew Sommer is the Bowman Family Professor of History at Stanford, where he has taught since 2002.  He received his Ph.D. in Chinese history at UCLA.  A social and legal historian, his research focuses on gender, sexuality, and family in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).  He is the author of Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China (2000) and Polyandry and Wife-selling in Qing Dynasty China (2015).  He also has a deep interest in Japanese history and advanced Japanese language skills, and he has visited Japan many times over the past 30 years.

Prof. Catherine Ludvik

Prof. Catherine Ludvik obtained a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto in the Centre for the Study of Religion and teaches Japanese religion, visual arts, culture and history at Doshisha University and Kyoto Sangyo University. Spanning Indian and Japanese religions and their visual arts, her research interests focus on the metamorphoses of originally Indian deities in texts, images and rituals of Japan, as well as on ascetic practices and pilgrimage. Prof. Ludvik is the author of Recontextualizing the Praises of a Goddess (2006) and Sarasvati, Riverine Goddess of Knowledge (2007). She is currently researching the goddess Uga-Benzaiten and the Shikoku Henro pilgrimage. She has taught courses on Japanese religion, visual arts and gardens on the Stanford Program in Kyoto since 2001.

Prerequisites and Expectations

This course is open to all undergraduate students. Japanese language experience is not a requirement but some ability will enrich students’ learning experience. Please note that this course does not accept students who attended the BOSP Stanford in Kyoto 2022 Spring Quarter.

Grading Basis

Satisfactory/No Credit