Publication Date

July 31, 2018

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


Cultural, Legal, Military, Political, Social

Thomas Conlan is a professor at Princeton University. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and has been a member since 2017.

Websites: and

Thomas Conlan

Thomas Conlan

Alma maters: BA (history and Japanese), University of Michigan, 1989; MA (history), Stanford University, 1992; PhD (history), Stanford University, 1998

Fields of interest: conceptions of law, justice, and feuding; Buddhism and medieval political ideologies; international relations and ethnic identity; military, social, cultural, and institutional history

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I have no good reason for starting on my studies of Japan. When I was in junior high school, I bought a book by Stephen Turnbull called The Samurai. I was both fascinated by the rich stories, and at the same time skeptical of the behavior of the samurai. I went to the closest school to my home with the strongest program in Japanese, which was the University of Michigan. I was blessed with excellent teachers of language and history, who gave me the tools to explore an amazing country. After spending two years in Sendai, I went to Stanford and met my PhD mentor, Jeffrey P. Mass. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of 13th-century Japan, and his pure joy at new discoveries of the history that he did not know was something that I can never forget. After I received my PhD at Stanford, I taught Japanese history at Bowdoin College before moving to Princeton.

The graduating class of 2009–10 at Bowdoin College asked me to give a Karofsky Family Encore Lecture, and there I provided a more detailed overview of my journey to become a historian of medieval Japan (

What do you like the most about where you live and work? Princeton is an academic Eden. I am blessed to have stimulating colleagues, the ability to recruit graduate students in my field, and the resources to conduct research. Princeton is such a collegial place, and so many of my colleagues are, in addition to being great scholars, down-to-earth people.

What projects are you currently working on? I am currently researching a monograph on the Ouchi family, who were kings in all but name over much of the Japanese archipelago. They were immensely wealthy and controlled sea lanes stretching from Japan to Korea and China, and this, coupled with their control over copper and silver mines in Japan, allowed them to facilitate trade throughout East and Southeast Asia. The family claimed ethnic descent from Korean kings, and such claims were recognized in both Korea and Japan. They also created a distinctive, hybrid culture that fused Japanese, Korean, and Chinese beliefs, objects, and customs.

I am also part of a team that is trying to ascertain changes in smelting techniques through changes in chemical composition of copper slag, which we secured from copper mines from western Japan, and date from the 7th through the 18th century. I believe Ouchi control over the mines accounted for their wealth, influence, and ability to engage in extensive trade.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? I have long been interested in the historical influence of ongoing processes in shaping historical change, but my primary interest has shifted from exploring the process of war to examining the political influence of rituals. My monograph State of Warexplores how warfare transformed social organization, institutions, and ideals of the age. Thereupon, I became interested in how the wars of the 14th century were instigated and propelled by the actions of courtiers and monks. I focused on the importance of ritual, first as being a military act, and this led me to a new understanding of the age. In From Sovereign to Symbol, I argue that the 14th century witnessed a paradigm shift in the understanding of power, as ritual shifted from sanctifying individuals and offices to becoming the orchestration, or actual dynamic of power in itself. My current research on the Ouchi builds on my earlier studies of warfare and ritual actions.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? I discovered an attempt to move the emperor of Japan from Kyoto to the city of Yamaguchi in 1551. This event has been completely obscured, but I believe that it was of great significance, as it caused the collapse of the court as the center of politics and led to the downfall of the Ouchi. I published these findings in “The Failed Attempt to Move the Emperor to Yamaguchi and the Fall of the Ōuchi,” Japanese Studies 35, no. 2 (September 2015): 1–19.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? Marc Bloch’s overshadowed classic, The Royal Touch: Monarchy and Miracles in France and England.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Dailyfeatures a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association