Preparing for a PhD

I’m happy to announce that I will be starting my PhD in Archaeology this September at the University of Cambridge thanks to a successful bid for a Daiwa Scholarship in Japanese Studies! My research will look at the relationship between language and interpretation at difficult conflict heritage sites in Japan. Here’s the breakdown of what I will be doing over the next three years.

Wait, archaeology?

Yes, although I won’t be knee-deep in mud at dig sites or “acquiring” cultural artefacts from trapped-rigged tombs. My research would best define me as a specialist in heritage studies yet, as this field is relatively new, there are few PhD programmes solely dedicated to it, hence archaeology remains the parent field. Nonetheless, I will be working under the supervision of Dr Liliana Janik, Deputy Director of the Cambridge Heritage Research Centre, so my research will be firmly heritage-focused.

So, what is “heritage studies”?

Heritage studies is a field between social sciences and humanities concerned with the study of cultural heritage. The term “cultural heritage” has been popularised by UNESCO, in particular their World Heritage branch. Here is their definition:

“Cultural heritage includes artefacts, monuments, a group of buildings and sites, museums that have a diversity of values including symbolic, historic, artistic, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological, scientific and social significance. It includes tangible heritage (movable, immobile and underwater), intangible cultural heritage (ICH) embedded into cultural, and natural heritage artefacts, sites or monuments. The definition excludes ICH related to other cultural domains such as festivals, celebration etc. It covers industrial heritage and cave paintings.”

UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2009 UNESCO Framework for Cultural Statistics

So, it’s a catch-all term for any significant output of a human society past or present. Heritage sites refer to spaces dedicated to heritage, i.e. parks, museums or memorials. The organisations that define heritage operate on many levels, from local communities to national heritage to World Heritage. However, it is UNESCO World Heritage that has made cultural heritage so popular and powerful by canonising sites of global importance, providing host nations with soft power on the world stage and the economic benefits of international mass tourism. These appealing factors, combined with the responsibility of representing the nation to the world, have incentivised national governments to put forward aesthetically pleasing and politically unproblematic sites for UNESCO World Heritage status. This creates an authorised heritage discourse which prioritises the profitable appeal of positive heritage. My research seeks to challenge this, making the case that difficult heritage has equal international significance to positive heritage and is therefore under-represented as a category of World Heritage.

Difficult heritage

If you prefer listening to reading, check out my Beyond Japan episode on difficult heritage!

Difficult heritage is one term that has come out of attempts by heritage and tourism scholars to understand heritage sites with a contentious or “dark” history and those who visit them. This began with the idea of dark tourism and thanatourism, the phenomenon of tourists visiting sites generally related to death. However, this term has been criticised as too generic; after all, can the site of an infamous murder be compared to the catacombs of Paris, the Birkenau-Auschwitz concentration camp or a cenotaph commemorating the World Wars? New terms have attempted to better define heritage deemed “dark”, such as dissonant heritage and difficult heritage. I believe difficult heritage best fits my research, as it refers to heritage sites commemorating past atrocities committed by the same nation they reside in. My case studies will be looking at sites in Japan commemorating the Asia-Pacific War (1931-45), especially those relating to the Imperial Japanese Army. Given that many overseas tourists to Japan come from countries with a shared war history, this definition applies well to conflict heritage sites in major tourist cities.

Translating and interpreting war memorials

Research around conflict heritage has been focussed on the management of such sites, determining whether the historical narratives are progressive or nationalist. In the context of Japan, this often sees a focus on high-profile extreme cases, such as the Yushukan museum of war at the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. The memorial museums to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also dominate the literature with a focus on comparatively neutral peace narratives which avoid discussing responsibility of war crimes. Wrapped up in the grand politics of these sites, such research rarely asks the question: how are difficult conflict sites interpreted by the general public, Japanese or otherwise? This is a key question for my research.

Naturally, language then becomes a central factor when discussing interpretation. When I travelled Japan before university (2014-15), I arrived with little knowledge of Japan and no knowledge of Japanese beyond “konnichiwa” and “arigatō”. Over 9 months of travel and volunteering, I picked up casual conversational Japanese, but could not read text. Going to museums with this handicap, I would often rely entirely on visual information where no translations were available. In turn, a trend began to stand out to me: war museums with translations generally did not mention the Japanese Empire, while those with no translations were often decorated with unmistakable imagery of the Rising Sun flag, proud kamikaze pilots and impressive battleships. Despite the language barrier, I could clearly see there was a recurring war narrative that spoke of the empire that I could not access as an English-speaking foreigner. I wanted to know what is being said here that isn’t being said at translated sites? This question stayed with me through my studies, and I began to answer it when I returned for my year abroad in Kyoto (2017-18).

In my third year of intensive Japanese language classes, I could read both English and Japanese signage at heritage sites. At certain war memorial sites, I was struck by how different the information was when reading only in Japanese or English. Some sites, such as Mimizuka, had abnormal translation choices, privileging access to certain nationalities while denying others. This was particularly concerning where conflict heritage which shared a history with neighbouring nations had gone untranslated. It suggested a desire amongst those managing the site to restrict war history of international significance to a domestic Japanese audience. I attempted to interview managers of the sites in question, but either no contact information was available or I was promptly asked to leave. So, I now turn my attention to the consumers of heritage: the tourists and visitors.

After my experience as a monolingual tourist, I was curious how others in a similar situation might interpret these spaces, or if they were even aware of their existence. Until recently, Kyoto had an abundance of domestic and international tourists and many conflict heritage sites could be found within or nearby tourist areas, so surely a number would happen upon these places by chance. There certainly wasn’t much tourist literature highlighting these places. Then there was the question of Japanese visitors – were they aware of these places, and why did they visit? These are all questions I want to answer through interviewing tourists in Japanese and English at key conflict heritage sites across Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Why Japan?

Have you ever looked closely at translated signage?
Language Scramble” by magdalar is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Given my background in Japanese Studies, I may seem biased towards researching case studies in Japan. While I incidentally hope to enjoy ample quantities of ramen and karaoke, I assure you there is sound academic reasoning behind my choices! As mentioned, a key aim of my research is to understand how the language barrier affects interpretation of difficult heritage. This is difficult to establish primarily through languages spoken across the world like English, French and Spanish. However, more than 99% of Japanese speakers are Japanese nationals, and given Japonic languages are sufficiently different from the languages of mainland Asia, it is extremely unlikely that anyone who isn’t a Japanese citizen will understand Japanese signage. Therefore, deviations in interpretation between language groups can be attributed to the language barrier. In short, I expect to find that where there are substantial differences in information between language on signs at one site, this will be reflected in responses from interviewees of different language groups. In the long term, I hope this can make the case for better translating of difficult war heritage with an international audience in mind.

Now, Japan is unfortunately no stranger to poor translations, but there has been no public outcry over it, so why does it matter here? I argue that given the controversy over how Japan remembers the Asia-Pacific War and, to a broader extent, the Japanese Empire, difficult heritage may provide an avenue for measured international discourse. Rather than allowing nationalist politicians and revisionist historians dominate the historical narrative, allowing the international public to access difficult conflict heritage can encourage a nuanced discourse which appropriately reflects the complexity of war history. My research aims to demonstrate how a lack of translation impedes this, as well as the appetite for difficult heritage amongst tourists.

Potential obstacles

Only To Find That The Only Person Who Cares About Your Phd Is You by dirtyharry

General Dwight Eisenhower once famously said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The same is true of PhD proposals. It is highly unlikely that a plan for a PhD will go exactly as expected, although I believe mine is a rare case where I must prepare for two separate plans before I have even left for Cambridge. I’m sure some of you are thinking, “there hasn’t been an awful lot of tourism lately,” and you would be right. Tourism in Japan plummeted from 34 million inbound tourists a year in 2019 to less than 250,000 in 2021 following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic (Japan Tourism Bureau 2022). At the time of writing, the Japanese border remains closed to tourists and while we might say “surely by 2023 things will be back to normal,” this would be eerily similar to predictions made in 2020 and 2021 which failed to materialise. In the event that research is still primarily digital in 2023, then I will build on the methodology of my MA thesis, looking at international online engagement with conflict heritage. I should be able to address the same questions, albeit from a smaller online sample.

If I am able to get to Japan on a student visa, there is no guarantee that tourists will yet be able to arrive. Even if they are, who’s to say whether tourist numbers will reach the dizzying heights they once held in Japan? Following the PR disaster of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and with Shinzō Abe long departed from the office of Prime Minister, none of his predecessors have shared his enthusiasm for an economy buoyed by tourism. However, while this might sound like a death sentence for my thesis, I propose the contrary: it will provide an opportunity to see how interaction with conflict heritage has changed in a post-tourism Japan, yielding nonetheless fascinating results.

While the path ahead may yet seem foggy and clouded, I am extremely excited to embark on this unique opportunity as a full-time researcher following their own interests. In the run-up to starting my PhD, I will be getting a head-start on core readings and attempting to learn a little Korean on Duolingo. Follow my journey here or follow me on Twitter @olliemox for updates. You can (soon) read on my earlier research in Engaging with War Memory: Legacies of East Asian Conflicts, 1930-1945, due to be published in the Palgrave Macmillan Entangled Memories of the Global South series later in 2022. If you have any questions in the meantime, please get in touch!


  1. Stuart Moxham says:

    There is a difference between the ways in which the victors and the losers of a war are “allowed” to present their heritages. The victors don’t mention their atrocities, but the losers cannot mention their victories.Through the ongoing writing of my personal memoir I have come to see that I grew up in a time of apparent triumph, after the cowboys had won the West, the UK had won two World Wars and there were still resonating remnants of the British Empire. These were the things which filled my childhood reading and viewing. Of course I now know that the merest critical examination of these historic matters reveals them as highly compromised – certainly by modern, liberal standards. Life is a grey area!

    Liked by 2 people

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