ADI Academic Profiles - Jens Sejrup

By Martin Wendelbo Rasmussen, Asian Dynamics Initiative

The ADI - Academic Profiles series puts spotlight on individual researchers working on Asia related issues in the social sciences and humanities and promotes remarkable publications and innovative research projects.

Jens Sejrup
Jens Sejrup is a tenure-track assistant professor, jointly appointed by the departments of Anthropology, and Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS) at University of Copenhagen. His position between the Faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences is, in many was, in the spirit of ADI with its cross-faculty Asia focus. In this instalment of the ADI Academic Profile Series, Jens Sejrup tells us about his new position connected to the two faculties as well as his efforts to use the intersection between them as a catalyst for new interdisciplinary approaches to Japan.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview. Your current position is quite unique as it facilitates disciplinary bridge building between the two departments of Anthropology and Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies. Could you tell us a bit about your current experience as one of the few  researchers holding a position like this at the university? What kind of academic opportunities do you think it presents and how is your position accommodated at both faculties?

First of all, I look very much forward to seeing how this 6-year tenure-track position will work out. The two faculties have different traditions, different administrative ways of working, different ways of counting courses. It can look a bit daunting, I guess, but I have so far only met goodwill in both environments, as my colleagues share an interest in the interdisciplinarity that my new position facilitates.

In order to create a proper connection between the two faculties, I combine anthropological and humanistic approaches in my work, whether it’s teaching, research, or networking activities. There are obviously strong parallels between humanities and anthropology – at some universities, anthropology is even perceived as part of the humanities. And certainly, having an interdisciplinary understanding – a sort of double gaze – opens up opportunities for developing new discussions and types of cooperation.

In addition, I am convinced that students at the department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies can learn a lot from Anthropology, especially in terms of developing a keener methodological and theoretical perspective, and people in Anthropology can learn a lot from Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies and its very strong area-specific focus. The students seem to be very interested in ways to combine those different perspectives as well as in the topics I cover in my courses.

Could you tell us a bit about how you incorporate both perspectives in your courses and how you try to accommodate the students’ different academic backgrounds, whether they are from ToRS or the Anthropology department?

I’ll give you an example. Next Spring, I’m going to teach a revised version of a course I ran last year at Anthropology about urbanization and big-city life in Japan, China, and Korea. The first time I taught it, many elective students from Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies attended the course. I experienced that the anthropologists were not very familiar with the covered cultures and region, while people from Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies were unaccustomed to applying social-scientific methods and theories. Both groups were very strong in skills and knowledge that the other group was quite unfamiliar with and curious about. That made for some very stimulating and intriguing questions and discussions after lectures and student presentations. It was wonderful! In such a context, I see it as my task to facilitate a real dialogue between those two, quite different, perspectives. In addition, I have to consider the students’ disciplinary backgrounds and likely interests when I design and offer the courses, to try to make sure the courses will appeal to students from both faculties, departments, and disciplines. One of my main ambitions with developing teaching that seeks to span the two faculties is to foster an experience in people from Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies that they actually benefit from learning to develop more sensitivity towards methodological and theoretical concerns in their area-specific studies, and in the anthropologists that they benefit from learning to develop a deeper knowledge and feel for important aspects of the history, cultures, and traditions of the East Asian region in their anthropological studies.

One example of a fascinating discussion we had on that course was on the topic of cosmetic surgery, a practice that is popular among some young East Asian women and men. In our discussions, some of the anthropology students connected this phenomenon to discussions of interconnections between pain and beauty, ritual transitions from youth to adulthood, different technologies for disciplining the body, and current neoliberal ideas of continuous self-improvement. The area studies students, on their side, connected it to different historical beauty ideals and various traditions of bodily deformation for aesthetic purposes in the region, local ideas of interconnections between Western looks and modernity, and other recent trends in East Asian consumer behavior. It was very exciting for me to be part of this exchange of disciplinary approaches and to encourage a sense of mutual recognition, as both approaches were informed, valuable, and truly enriched each other.        

Overall, I’m happy to see that what the students who take my courses have in common, regardless of what discipline, program, or department they come from, is a keen interest and intellectual curiosity about current developments and social processes and phenomena in East Asia right now, a real interest in the lived experience of people in the region today.  That is certainly true for both the humanities and social-science students in my courses. To stimulate that interest, I make a point of introducing them to very recent literature to give them a chance to see where debates and research are going, how academic interpretations, vocabulary and concepts emerge in tandem with current empirical developments and discussions among researchers. East Asia and Japan have been changing very fast in recent decades, and I want to familiarize the students with some of the latest approaches and discussions on the topics and issues I select for the courses. Designing my courses that way has the added advantage of literally forcing me to  continuously revise course themes, lectures, and reading lists for every course I teach and to stay up to date with the relevant literature all the time.

We see a great potential in establishing further academic cooperation between the two faculties and we are glad to hear about your success in strengthening and developing the focus on Asia by facilitating more nuanced approaches on subjects related to the region. Lastly, we are very interested in hearing about what the future holds for you – even though it might be hard to tell in a time like this.

The research project I am really looking forward to continuing, when it becomes possible to go to East Asia again, investigates historical reconstructions and recreated cultural heritage in Japan. In that project, I am going to dig into three large-scale reconstruction projects being realized in three different localities in Japan; a castle from the 16th century, an imperial palace from the 8th century and a Dutch trading colony from 17th-19th centuries. All three historical sites have either disappeared or were rebuilt in a poor-quality version later on, and now they are being thoroughly reconstructed as exhibitionary heritage spaces. I try to incorporate examples from that project and insights from my previous published research in my current courses.

And after all, given that the whole period since I started in this new position has been so strange and abnormal, I am also looking very much forward to actually experiencing “normality” touring between the two faculties getting many more initiatives facilitated between the two faculties in a more natural and direct way. The whole ADI effort is an expression of a desire to get the parts of the university that work with Asia to enter into more systematic dialogue and cooperation with each other. I think I’m quite fortunate to find myself at the forefront of such efforts, positioned as I am with literally a foot in each faculty. I feel very excited and optimistic about it.

ADI would like to thank Jens Sejrup for featuring in this interview.


Jens Sejrup

Jens holds a PhD in Asian Studies as well as an MA in Japanese Studies, and has formerly held positions as a postdoctoral fellow in Japanese Studies at Lund University as well as a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Oslo. His research covers a wide range of fields related to Japan such as Japanese mass media, news narratives, and public and political rhetoric, Japanese museum architecture, the role of the news media for postcolonial controversies, and interactions between Asian societies as well as historical and present-day Euro-Japanese connections. In addition, Jens is an appointed member of the national corps of external examiners for Japanese Studies under the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, and a member of the Steering Committee of the Nordic Association for the Study of Contemporary Japanese Society (NAJS). Furthermore, Jens is actively engaged in activities with Asian Dynamics Initiative as he recently became a member of ADI’s steering committee.