Becoming Japan: History, Religion, Culture

Program Dates: May 17, 2023 - June 8, 2023

Over the course of three weeks, we will explore Japanese culture, history, religion, and society as we traverse the archipelago from north to south. We will visit world-class museums and historical sites as we experience the technologically modern in Japan’s bustling cities and explore their cultural and religious origins in the sacred landscapes of its ancient capitals. We will investigate the formation, evolution, and reorientation of Japan and notions of Japaneseness as we contemplate tranquil shrines, gaze from mountain vistas, and savor local cuisine. We will observe lived religion across Japan’s diverse communities, examine global and Asian influences on these religious practices, and experience traditional cultural arts in both modern and historic settings.  

The two courses will consider a host of questions, such as: How did Japan become Japan? How has Japaneseness been constructed from ancient through modern times? What roles have Buddhism,  Confucianism, Christianity, and Shinto played in Japanese history, culture, and society? How is religion practiced in daily life? Indeed, how are the different dimensions of Japanese identity and religious culture negotiated and performed?  

See, smell, taste, experience, and think critically about the many facets of Japanese culture, history, and religion with us next summer 2023!  



Nagoya was a major trading city and political seat of the Owari lords, the most important house of the Tokugawa clan. They encouraged trade and the arts under their patronage, especially Tokugawa Muneharu, the 7th lord, who took a keen interest in drama and plays and lived lavishly. Under his rule, actors and actresses began to visit Nagoya. Arts and culture was further supported by the city's wealthy merchants. Culture flourished after the feudal Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji era. During World War II many old buildings and artefacts were destroyed. The region's economic and financial power in the post-war years rekindled the artistic and cultural scene.


Nara is a core city located in the northern part of Nara Prefecture bordering the Kyoto Prefecture. Nara was the capital of Japan during the Nara period from 710 to 794 as the seat of the Emperor before the capital was moved to Kyoto. Nara is home to eight temples, shrines, and ruins, specifically Tōdai-ji, Saidai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, Kasuga Shrine, Gangō-ji, Yakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji, and the Heijō Palace, together with Kasugayama Primeval Forest, collectively form the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Kyoto is considered the cultural capital of Japan and is a major tourist destination. It is home to numerous Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens, some of which have been designated collectively as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Prominent landmarks include the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, and Kyoto Tower. Kyoto is also a center of higher learning in the country, and its institutions include Kyoto University, the second oldest university in Japan.


Hiroshima was founded in 1589 as a castle town on the Ōta River delta. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Hiroshima rapidly transformed into a major urban center and industrial hub. In 1889, Hiroshima officially gained city status. The city was a center of military activities during the imperial era, playing significant roles such as in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the two world wars.


Nagasaki became the sole port used for trade with the Portuguese and Dutch during the 16th through 19th centuries. The Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region have been recognized and included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Part of Nagasaki was home to a major Imperial Japanese Navy base during the First Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War. Near the end of World War II, the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Nagasaki the second and, to date, last city in the world to experience a nuclear attack.


Although there were Japanese settlers who ruled the southern tip of the island since the 16th century, Hokkaido was considered foreign territory that was inhabited by the indigenous people of the island, known as the Ainu people. While geographers such as Mogami Tokunai and Mamiya Rinzō explored the island in the Edo period, Japan's governance was limited to Oshima Peninsula until the 17th century. The Japanese settlers began their migration to Hokkaido in the 17th century, which often resulted in clashes and revolts between Japanese and Ainu populations. Japanese settlers colonized the island, the Ainu people were dispossessed of their land, forced to assimilate, and aggressively discriminated against by the Japanese settlers.


Originally a fishing village named Edo, Tokyo became a prominent political centre in 1603, when it became the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate. By the mid-18th century, Edo was one of the most populous cities in the world with a population of over one million people. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the imperial capital in Kyoto was moved to Edo, which was renamed "Tokyo" (lit. 'Eastern Capital'). (Source: Wikipedia)



All program participants will be enrolled in both classes. 

Course Prefix

Course Name



HIS 3538

Constructing Japaneseness


Scott Relyea

REL 3530

Performing Japenese Religions


Cuong Mai


Faculty Leaders

Dr. Scott Relyea
Associate Professor
Department of History


Dr. Scott Relyea earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago; an MA in Chinese Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London; an MA in International Affairs from the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University; and a BS in Journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

A historian of Modern China, he specializes in political, social, and intellectual history. He focuses regionally on the southwest borderlands encompassing Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and the Tibetan plateau. Dr. Relyea's research centers on nationalism, state-building, ethnic construction and identity, and the global circulation of ideas embodied in the interaction between empire, state, and nation.


Dr. Cuong Mai
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy and Religion


Cuong Mai specializes in the religions of Asia, particularly the history of Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism. He completed his undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at Columbia University, an MA at the University of Hawaii, and the Ph.D. degree in Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He previously taught at the University of Vermont in the Department of Religion.

His research focuses on the emergence of mortuary practices and paradise beliefs surrounding the Buddha figures Amitabha and Maitreya in early medieval China. Describing his research, he states "My approach to the study of religion is multidisciplinary, and my courses frequently incorporate the study of funerary customs, traditions of asceticism, religious festivals, beliefs concerning the afterlife, spirit mediumship, cults of saints and divine beings, and aspects of material culture." A second, long-term project will focus on the worship of Quan Am Bodhisattva (Guanyin) as seen in folktales and folk operas in early modern Vietnamese Buddhism and popular religion.


Program Cost: $5,605

Program cost includes airfare, meals, lodging, in-country transportation. 

Estimated Additional Expenses


Tuition - Resident

$152.54 / credit hour

Tuition - Non-Resident

$172.54 / credit hour

Personal Expenses




Meals (not included in fee)


Please note that non-billable costs are estimates only and will be affected by personal spending habits, currency fluctuations, etc. Prices listed in USD unless otherwise noted. Students are encouraged to start planning for their study abroad program costs well in advance. 

Payment Schedule





 Upon receipt of application

Payment 1



Payment 2 



Payment 3



Appalachian reserves the right to cancel or alter the program format or to change costs in case of conditions beyond the university's control.  Further details about Appalachian's withdrawal/cancellation policy can be found at this link.


Application Process

  1. In order to apply for this program, you will need to contact one of the program leaders and provide your Banner ID and email address. Program leaders may request additional information or a meeting to discuss the details of the program and your interest.
  2. When permission to apply for the program is granted, you will receive an email from the Office of International Education and Development with a link to the application and further instructions.
  3. Your application will be considered complete when you have submitted it and paid the $300 deposit fee. The fee cannot be paid until it appears on your student account. Please note that it may take 2–3 business days for it to post to your account. You will receive an email with Instructions for paying the deposit fee. Instructions can also be found in the application.