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Robert Tierney

Profile picture for Robert Tierney

Contact Information

East Asian Languages and Cultures
2090A Foreign Language Building
707 South Mathews
Urbana, Illinois 61801

Professor Emeritus


Robert Tierney is professor of Japanese literature in the Departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative and World Literatures in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His recent publications include Monster of the Twentieth Century: Kōtoku Shūsui and Japan’s First Anti-Imperialist Movement. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2015) and Tropics of Savagery: the Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame (University of California Press, 2010) and “Othello in Tokyo: Performing Race and Empire in Early Twentieth Century Japan,” Shakespeare Quarterly 62(4), December 2011. He is currently researching the later works of Nakae Chōmin, a leading Meiji intellectual and modern Japanese “death writings,” a body of works defined by an existential encounter with sickness and death. He may be contacted at

Research Interests

Japanese modern literature
medical humanities and death
film and media
gender and sexuality
minorities in Japan

Research Description

As a scholar with rigorous training in Japanese and comparative literature, I have devoted myself to research of the cultures of modern imperialism. My publications represent a far-ranging, interdisciplinary engagement with literature and performing arts of the Japanese empire. Beyond “literature,” I have written extensively in both English and Japanese on the introduction of ethnography, colonial policy studies, and folklore studies to Japan and charted the development of Japan’s early anti-imperialist movement. I have endeavored to understand both the literature and the intellectual history of imperial Japan within a cross-cultural and comparative framework and as part of the trans-national circulation of ideas and tropes.

In my first monograph, Tropics of Savagery (UC Press 2010), I use close readings of colonial period texts by Nakajima Atsushi, Satō Haruo, Nitobe Inazō, and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke to engage in a productive dialogue with the paradigms of post-colonial theorists. Although Japan was the largest non-Western empire, it occupies a peripheral place in Western histories of empire. Basing my approach on empirical studies of texts, I criticize the limitations of post-colonial paradigms based on Western examples and develop new paradigms to make sense of texts produced under different conditions. On the one hand, I highlight the psychology of Japanese as non-Western imperialists who were subjugated to the West under “unequal treaties” from the forced “opening “of Japan in the mid 19th century. As a “subaltern imperialism,” Japan imitated and modeled itself on other empires, but its conscious mimicry paradoxically produced a distinctive form of imperialism rather than a mere copy. On the other hand, I underscore the prominent features of Japan’s colonial discourse, its tendency to take a triangular form in which the West is always the implicit third side, unlike the dyadic form of Western empires, and the propensity of Japanese writers to deploy a rhetoric of “sameness” to promote identification between colonizer and colonized. My research has offered a new lens for thinking about a pivotal period of modern history in East Asia and as well as challenges of the dominant models of ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism.’

From 2008 to 2009, I was a visiting scholar on a SSRC/JSPS fellowship at the University of Tsukuba, where I researched Japanese adaptations of Shakespeare plays. My Shakespeare project entails an analysis of inter-cultural adaptation that simultaneously situates Japan as a colonial subject vis-à-vis the West and as the ‘imperial subject’ vis-à-vis Japan’s own colonial subjects. Besides joining in collaborative research and translation projects of Shakespeare in Asia with East Asian scholars, I have published “Othello in Tokyo: Performing Race and Empire in Early Twentieth Century Japan,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, the foremost journal of Shakespeare studies in the world. Besides offering a history of Othello adaptations in Japan, I focus on a 1903 adaptation written by the writer Emi Suiin and performed by the leading new wave (shinpa) troupe of Kawakami Otojirō. Shifting the setting to Japan and Taiwan, Emi turned Washirō (Othello), a general sent to rule the colony of Taiwan, into a member of Japan’s former outcaste community (burakumin), a “translation” of Othello’s racial identity into a Japanese context. Osero “performs” modern Japan both as a subaltern imperialist under Western hegemony and as an expanding colonial power in East Asia. I plan to publish an article on Sword of Freedom, an adaptation of Julius Caesar in the style of a puppet play written in 1884 by Tsubouchi Shōyō, who subsequently went on to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays. Focusing on the adapter’s ambivalent relationship with the pro-democracy movement of the 1880s, I argue that the work is an allegory for the collapse of the pro-democracy movement that contested the despotism of the early Meiji regime. It also mirrors a paradigmatic change in the relationship of politics and literature in modern Japanese letters.

In 2013, I received a Faculty Research Fellowship from the Japan Foundation that allowed me to spend seven months as a visiting professor at Tsukuba University and to complete my second monograph, Monster of the 20th Century: Kōtoku Shūsui and Japan’s First Anti-Imperialist Movement (UC Press 2015). This work offers a reassessment of the thinker Kōtoku Shūsui, an anarchist executed in 1911 for his alleged involvement in a plot on the Meiji emperor’s life, and a history of Japan’s early anti-imperialist movement. I focus on Kōtoku Shūsui’s Teikokushugi: nijūseiki no kaibutsu (Imperialism: Monster of the Twentieth Century), a systematic study of imperialism, which preceded J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: a study by one year and V. I. Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism by fifteen. Besides offering the first English translation of this work, I place Kōtoku’s theories into the broader context of global debates on the nature and causes of imperialism as well as the anti-imperialist and anti-war movements. In his critique of patriotism and militarism, Kōtoku effectively fuses enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity with Confucian notions such as empathy and righteousness, especially those of Mencius. In my analysis of the history of the movement, I explore the activities of Japanese anti-imperialist activists and their links with Russian anti-war movements and East Asian revolutionary movements. I believe this monograph is an important contribution to modern Japanese intellectual history and to the comparative study of critiques of capitalism and colonialism across the modern world.

Besides my two monographs and my work on Shakespeare, I continue to publish studies of the Japanese empire in both Japanese and English. After presenting my research on the origins of Japanese folklore studies during a speaker tour in western Japan in 2013, I contributed a Japanese language article on Momotarō, a popular folk tale hero who is appropriated as a trope of Japan’s expansionism in the twentieth century, to JuncTures published by Nagoya University. While working on my second monograph, I published a study of Kōtoku critique of patriotism for the Japanese review Shoki Shakaishugi Kenkyū (Research of Early Socialism). An established scholar on Japanese imperial literature, I have been invited to write articles for encyclopedic works such as Cambridge History of Japanese literature and Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies, both of which serve as important reference works for students and scholars. I am currently working on translations of colonial period works by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Nakajima Atsushi and writing substantial articles that focus on their works set in Korea, whereas I focused on Taiwan and Micronesian colonies of Japan in my earlier books.

During my sabbatical year 2015-2016, I was a visiting researcher at the Institute of Comparative Culture at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. Over the course of the past year, I have focused on two new research projects. I have completed a draft of a monograph on the thought and legacy of Nakae Chōmin (1847-1901) in Japanese and global intellectual history. This work is also a continuation of my earlier monograph on Kōtoku Shūsui, who was Chōmin’s student. Chōmin, who studied in France during the early Meiji period, became the foremost interpreter of French thought in 19th century Japan (among other accomplishments, he translated Rousseau’s Social Contract into Japanese) and was the intellectual leader of Japan’s pro-democracy movement in the 1880s. Though he has been widely studied as a radical democrat in Japan, he has received little attention in Anglo-American scholarship. Throughout his life, he was continually in dialogue with the two important traditions that shaped modern Japan: Western, particularly French, thought and Chinese philosophy. Interestingly, he viewed classical Chinese learning as a vehicle to introduce Western democratic ideals to Japan and classical Chinese as the best medium for translating Western concepts. By studying his thought, I explore the radical possibilities of the Meiji Restoration and the diversity of reactions it inspired. As part of this project, I have translated the two final works of Nakae Chōmin (1847-1901): One Year and a Half and One Year and a Half, Continued (1901), titles that allude to a doctor’s prediction that Chōmin would die of throat cancer in a year and a half.

Through my translations of Chōmin last works, I become interested in modern Japanese “death writings,” a body of works defined by an existential encounter with sickness and death. This new project also grew out of my longstanding research interest in medical humanities and the representations of illness as a metaphor. I have given conference presentations in Japan and the US on the literature of leprosy in Japan, notably its prevalence as a theme in crime and detective fiction. However, during my sabbatical year, I realized that a larger study of death literature would be a more valuable intellectual project than a study of leprosy. Besides Chōmin’s One Year and a Half, I will focus on death journals by the poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) who suffered from spinal tuberculosis, and Natsume Sōseki’s (1867-1916) Reminiscences and Other Matters (Omoidasu koto nado) an essay written after his near death experience. These different works share common traits that distinguish them as writings belonging to the Meiji period (1868-1912): doctors and hospitals play a very minor part in these works because death is not yet "medicalized" nor is it a solitary experience. In addition, these writers have an agnostic attitude toward religion and a skeptical attitude toward metaphoric interpretations of illness. Despite these similarities, each writer has a distinct existential experience of time and space, an idiosyncratic sense of the physical body and pain, and a highly individual sense of the purpose of writing in the face of death. I have spent most of this year studying primary texts and plan to devote more time to the theoretical and historical issues of death studies in the next year. Within the next few years, I will apply for external funding to turn this new project into a book.

In retrospect, I realize that my new projects bear a resemblance to my earlier books. Like Monster of the Twentieth Century, my new monograph on Chōmin will be a work of intellectual history that looks at a thinker who welded radical Western thought with traditional Chinese thought into a new compound that claimed universality. Like Tropics of Savagery, my study of death writings is a work of cultural studies focused on close readings of literary works in relation to social discourses and the historical backdrop of the Meiji period. In the introduction to Tropics of Savagery, I describe the writers I study as “tenants in the house of language rather than architects.” This comment defines my approach to imperial literature, which is in constant dialogue with other colonial discourses. This notion of “tenant” of language plays a less important part in the death book primarily because I devote much greater attention to poetry as a form of expression and I view the poet’s relation to language as different from that of the “tenant.


Ph D Stanford University
MA in Asian Studies Stanford University
MA French literature Middlebury College
BA Romance Languages Harvard College


Research Board “Nakae Chōmin's Final Works and Their Significance in Japanese and Global Intellectual History'” $5,000, March 2015 IPS International Research Travel Grant, “Research on Nakae Chōmin” $2,500, January 2015 Japan Foundation, Faculty Research Fellowship for 2012-2013, with award of 430,000 yen per month for 7 months, taken January to July, 2013Research Board, “Disease as Metaphor and Stigma: The Literature of Leprosy in Japan” $5,300, October 6, 2012 Japan Foundation, Faculty Research Fellowship for 2012-2013 Research Board Scholar Travel Fund Grant of $1050, to attend the EAJS Annual Meeting, Tallinn, Estonia, August 24-27, 2011 Japan Foundation, Faculty Research Fellowship for 2011-2012, declined Center for Advanced Study, selected as fellow for 2011-2012, declined NEAC Japan Travel Award, $3000, for write up of translation of Kōtoku Shūsui”s Imperialism, December 2010 Research Board, Kotoku Shusui’s Imperialism, summer funding of $7710, May 5, 2010 Research Board Scholar Travel Fund Grant of $500, to attend the AAS Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA, March 25-28, 2010 One year Extension of SSRC/JSPS Fellowship Program for Recent Ph.D.’s, 2009-2010 MOE: The Talent Cultivation Project of Taiwanese Literature, History and Art in Globalization for foreign research teams in Taiwanese studies, Ministry of Education, Taiwan, 2009 Social Science Research Council/Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (SSRC/JSPS) Fellowship for Recent Ph.D.’s, 2008-2009 SLCL award of $12,000 for curricular redevelopment of EALC 275, summer 2008 Research Board Scholar Travel Fund Grant $600, to attend AAS Annual Meeting in Boston March 21-24, 2007 Mellon Fellowship in Humanities for UIUC Junior Faculty, 2006-2007

Awards and Honors

William F. Sibley Memorial Translation Prize for The Colonial Literature of Nakajima Atsushi, January 2011, $2500 award Arnold O. Beckman Research Award for research project on Kōtoku Shūsui’s Imperialism, May 5, 2010 Daiwa Japan Forum Prize, British Association of Japanese Studies, for best article published in Japan Forum, November 2008, $1,000 award Grand Prize, 2nd Shizuoka International Translation Competition, 1999, 1,000,000 yen award

Courses Taught

EALC 466/MACS 466: Japanese Cinema, spring 2018 EALC 398/550 Bodies, Disease, Madness, and Death in Japanese Culture, Fall 2017 EALC 306 Japanese Literature in Translation, Spring 2017 CWL 114 Literature and Global Consciousness, Fall 2016 CWL 502 Graduate Seminar on Cross-Culture Comparison, spring 2015 EALC 500 Pro-seminar, fall 2014 EALC 306 Japanese Literature in Translation, II, fall 2014 CWL 114 Global Consciousness and Literature, spring 2014 EALC 306 Japanese Literature in Translation, II, spring 2014 EALC 466/MACS 466: Japanese Cinema, fall 2013 EALC 199 Japan at War and Peace, fall 2013University of Illinois EALC 306 Japanese Literature in Translation, II, fall 2012 EALC 398 Otherness and Minorities in Modern Japanese Literature, fall 2012 Konan University: Year in Japan Program EALC 306 Japanese Literature in Translation, II, fall 2011 EALC 415 Otherness and Minorities in Modern Japanese Literature, spring 2012 University of Illinois EALC 306 Japanese Literature in Translation, II, fall 2012 EALC 398 Otherness and Minorities in Modern Japanese Literature, fall 2012 CWL 502 Graduate Seminar on Cross-Culture Comparison, spring 2011 EALC 415 Love, Gender and Sexuality in Modern Japanese Literature, spring 2011 EALC 275 Masterpieces of East Asian Literature, fall 2010 EALC 398 Colloquium on Cultures of East Asian Empire, fall 2010 EALC 306 Japanese Literature in Translation, II, spring 2010 CWL 190 Literatures of Asia and Africa, spring 2010 EALC 306 Japanese Literature in Translation, II, spring 2008 CWL 395 Undergraduate Seminar on Literature and Empire, spring 2008 EALC 590 Graduate Seminar: Readings in Japanese Modern Literature, spring 2008 EALC 550 Graduate Seminar on Empire, Identity and Culture: 20th century Manchuria, fall 2007 EALC 275 Masterpieces of East Asian Literature, fall 2007 EALC 275 Masterpieces of East Asian Literature, fall 2006 EALC 531 Graduate Seminar on Occupation and Post-War Japanese Literature, fall 2006 CWL 190: Masterpieces of non-Western Literature, spring 2006 EALC 415: Love, Sexuality and Gender in Japanese Literature spring 2006 EALC 398: Colloquium on Cultures of Japanese Imperialism, fall 2005 EALC 590: Graduate Seminar on Japanese Colonial Literature, fall 2005

Additional Campus Affiliations

Professor Emeritus, East Asian Languages and Cultures
Professor Emeritus, Program in Comparative and World Literature

Recent Publications

Tierney, R. (2022). "I am not going on sunday" (nichiyobi ni wa boku wa ikanai) by mori mari (1961). In Queer Subjects in Modern Japanese Literature: Male Love, Intimacy, and Erotics, 1886-2014 (pp. 225-266). University of Michigan Press.

Tierney, R. (2020). Momotarō in the South Seas: Folklore, Colonial Policy Studies, and Parody. Border Crossings, 11(1), 13-25.

Yichi, K., Haag, A., (TRANS.), & Tierney, R., (TRANS.) (2017). From Postcolonial (2001). Review of Japanese Culture and Society, 29(1), 207-229.

Tierney, R. (2016). Japanese Imperialism. In S. Ray, & H. Schwartz (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies Wiley-Blackwell.

Tierney, R. (2016). Political Landscapes of the Pure Land: Buddhism and Politics in Wartime Japan. Paper presented at Asian Studies Conference Japan, Tokyo, Japan.

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