January 31, 2019

Buddhist Social Work and Japan’s Leprosaria

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Receives American Academy of Religion Research Grant.

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Jessica Starling has received a $5,000 Individual Research Grant from the American Academy of Religion (AAR). These funds will support Dr. Starling’s fieldwork in Japan during Summer 2019 on her project, “Leprosy, Social Work, and Ethical Praxis in Contemporary Japanese Buddhism”. This research is a continuing ethnographic study of Buddhist social work at Japan’s national leprosaria.

Dr. Starling’s preliminary research—conducted during short visits to Japan in 2016 and 2017—revealed the past and present significance of Buddhist activities at leprosaria across Japan and its former colonial territories. In the early 20th century, Buddhists lent their ideological support to the Japanese government’s efforts to quarantine leprosy patients in the 1930’s. Once the government repealed this forced isolation policy in 1996, Buddhist efforts shifted to atoning for those many decades of state-sponsored discrimination against those suffering from the effects of the slow-growing bacteria that causes leprosy. For many socially engaged Buddhists, visiting and advocating for former leprosy patients has become a central expression of their Buddhist faith. Dr. Starling’s project will explore the modern Buddhist moral imagination as expressed through these encounters among Buddhist priests, laypeople, and leprosy survivors at several sites of Buddhist social work in Japan.

It is worth noting that in addition to this new award, since she joined Lewis & Clark in 2013, Dr. Starling has received four other competitive external grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the American Philosophical Society, the Japan Foundation, and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). More about Dr. Starling’s research, exploring several aspects of Buddhism, is available here.