John Nelson

John Nelson


Full-Time Faculty

(415) 422-5093 Kalmanovitz Hall 159


John Nelson is Professor of East Asian religions in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Francisco. He is the author of Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan (2013, University of Hawaii; co-winner of the 2014 Numata Prize for 'outstanding book in Buddhist Studies'), two books on Shinto in contemporary Japan (A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine [1996], and Enduring Identities: the Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan [2000], numerous articles, and has produced two short documentary videos, "Spirits of the State: Japan's Yasukuni Shrine" (2005) and "Japan's Rituals of Remembrance: 50 Years after the Pacific War" (1997). He co-edited the reference volume titled Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions (Brill, 2012).

He has received extended research fellowships from the Japan Foundation (2006), as well as the the Social Science Research Council, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Niwano Foundation. During his 2013 sabbatical year, he spent seven months traveling through Japan, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Turkey, Greece, and Germany. Along the way, he gave six public lectures, was visiting faculty at Sanata Dharma University in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, had numerous adventures, and gained a greater understanding of the relationship between religion and globalization. His travel blog and many photos can be found at

As a cultural anthropologist, Nelson's research and publications explore the interaction between religion and politics in East Asia, with a current emphasis on global dynamics and rapid social change. He is also interested in transnationalism, constructions of gender and cultural identity, social memory, and sites designated as "sacred."

In February 2016, Nelson was interviewed as an expert on the Shintō religion for a Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC) program "Tapestry". The interview is live on the CBC's English language online service.

In 2015, Nelson appeared on the "New Books in Buddhism" podcast on the New Books Network to speak about his book Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan, which is available for free on iTunes.

Academic Director, Master of Asia Pacific Studies, USF Center for Asia Pacific Studies
PhD, University of California, Berkeley
Contemporary Japanese religion
Religion and globalization
Buddhist studies
The anthropology of religion
Sacred place and space
Visual anthropology
Selected Publications

Selected Publications

See JohnNelson.Works for a complete list.

2018. Against Harmony. Review of Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan. In Journal of Religion, Chicago: Chicago University Press. (forthcoming)

2018. The Continuing Career of 'National Polity' Ideology (kokutai) for Political, Religious, and Civic Control. Religion, Politik und Ideologie. M. Watchuka, M. Schrimpf, B. Staemmler, editors. Berlin: Iudicicum Verlag.

2018. Cutting through the Ideology and Politics of Sacred Groves at Shintō Shrines. Review of Shinto, Nature, and Ideology in Contemporary Japan. In Contemporary Japan. DOI: 10.1080/18692729.2018.1444323.

2017. Diasporic and Convert Communities in Buddhisms around the Globe. Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, M. Jerryson, ed. London and New York: Oxford.

2017. An Experimental Approach to Buddhism and Religion. International Journal of Dharma Studies, Vol. 5, No. 17.

2017. The Anthropology of Shintō. International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, H. Callan, general editor. New York: Sage Publications.

2015. Gardens in Japan: a Stroll through the Cultures and Cosmologies of Landscape Design. Lotus Leaves. 17(2): 1-9. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

2015. The Heritage of Ritual Activity. Dharma World, 42 (2): 4-8.

2012. Japan's Secularities and the Decline of Temple Buddhism. Journal of Religion in Japan, v. 1(1): 37-60.

2011. Global and Domestic Challenges Confronting Buddhist Institutions in Japan. Journal of Global Buddhism.v. 12, winter issue (

2010. Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism for the 21st Century. Tricycle Magazine. Winter, pp. 43-44, 111.

2010. Japanese Religious Traditions. World Religions: Eastern Tradition, a university-level textbook edited by R. Amore. London and Oxford: Oxford University Press.