John Nelson


Full-Time Faculty • Academic Director

(415) 422-5093 Kalmanovitz Hall 159
Academic Director, MA in Asia Pacific Studies


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

2016.  “Diasporic and Convert Communities in Buddhisms around the Globe.” Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, M. Jerryson, ed. London and New York: Oxford.

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.

2013. Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. (Co-winner of the 2014 Numata Prize for "outstanding book in Buddhist Studies")

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

2012b. The Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions. Inken Prohl and John Nelson, editors. Leiden: Brill.

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.

2008. Household Altars in Contemporary Japan: Rectifying Buddhist "Ancestor Worship" with Home Décor and Consumer Choice. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 35 (2).

2007. Teaching Ritual Propriety and Authority through Japanese Religions. Teaching Ritual. Catherine Bell, editor. New York: Oxford University Press.

2007. Traversing Religious and Legal Boundaries in Postwar Nagasaki: an Interfaith Ritual for the Spirits of the Dead. Multiculturalism in the New Japan: Crossing the Within. N. Graburn, J. Ertl, K. Tierney, eds. Oxford: Berghahn Press.