“I am convinced that academic mobility is crucial for innovative research” – 5in10 with Barbara Geilhorn

Barbara Geilhorn is a senior researcher at the Max Weber Foundation’s German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ) Tokyo. Before joining the DIJ, Barbara was a JSPS postdoctoral researcher based at Waseda University and worked as a lecturer at the University of Manchester, Free University Berlin and the University of Trier. Her research interests include cultural representations of the Fukushima disaster, negotiations of gender and power in classical Japanese culture, and stagings of contemporary society in Japanese performance. Her most recent project investigates how the multiple challenges faced by Japanese regions are addressed in the arts.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

In my project “Local Issues Take Stage – Culture and Community Revitalization” I investigate how pressing issues of Japanese society (e.g. ageing, depopulation, and the consequences of the triple disaster) are represented and negotiated in regional theater productions. I am asking questions such as: What topics and issues are addressed and how are they realized? What can theater – on and off stage – do to help society cope with social issues? And what is the role of the arts for the revitalization of regional areas?

The medium of theater can provide a space to act out alternatives to reality and engage in social debate. I am analyzing regional theater productions that address issues relevant not only to Japan, but to many other countries as well. For example, as part of my project I am examining the work of a young theatre director and trained nurse for the elderly who employs techniques of improv theater to improve communication between people living with dementia and their caregivers.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

I have always been fascinated by different cultures and their arts. As a student of Japanese Studies, I had the chance to learn about Japanese theater in general and Noh theater in particular. An account of a professional Noh actress in the early 20th century drew my interest, since scholarly work described Noh as an exclusively male art form. My curiosity to learn more developed into a PhD and a strong interest in the intersections between cultural and social studies. Around the time I was thinking about a potential topic for my postdoc, the Fukushima triple disaster occurred, and I began to analyze artistic productions responding to the calamity. My current research is an extension of this project.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…)?

Performance analysis and interviews are my main research methods. I regularly visit performances to keep myself informed on recent topics and trends in Japanese and international theater. For analysis I make use of performance texts, video materials, program notes and reviews. Furthermore, I rely on participant observation of workshops, rehearsals, etc. and conduct interviews with theater directors, arts program directors and cultural administrators. I enjoy getting back to Japan and being able to regularly meet artists and colleagues to exchange views and information on upcoming events and various other topics related to my research.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) have inspired you recently?

This summer, I had the great opportunity to participate in the IFTR Conference in Shanghai, which brought together researchers on theater and performance from all over the world. I was pleasantly surprised to meet and talk to so many people working on topics closely related to my own research. I received valuable insight from the research presented on ageing and disability as well as socially engaged theater. I particularly enjoyed the keynotes by Prof. Janet Pillai (University Sains Malaysia) on “Participation and Performativity as an Enabler of Urban Cultural Sustainability” and Kok Heng Leun’s talk (he is the director of Drama Box, Singapore) on his site-specific and participatory arts projects.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

I am convinced that academic mobility is crucial for innovative research. For example, living in Japan strongly enhances my opportunities for personal exchange with Japanese and Asian scholars and to develop my ongoing research based on recent trends in the field. Generally, I would not be able to realize my projects without being on site for an extended period and being able to travel throughout the country to visit performances and talk with artists. As a private person, too, I enjoy living the way I always wanted to. However, the fluidity of academic life also comes with serious challenges in regard to family life.


Citation: “I am convinced that academic mobility is crucial for innovative research” – 5in10 with Barbara Geilhorn”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, XX.XX.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19853.


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