Robert Thomas Tierney

 Robert Tierney

Contact Information

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

Office Hours

  • F 11-2
Head, Professor
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Additional Campus Affiliations


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, post-colonialism, gender and sexuality, minorities in Japan.

Research Description

As a scholar with rigorous training in Japanese andcomparative literature, I have devoted myself to research of the cultures ofmodern imperialism.  My publicationsrepresent a far-ranging, interdisciplinary engagement with literature andperforming arts of the Japanese empire. Beyond “literature,” I have written extensively in both English andJapanese on the introduction of ethnography, colonial policy studies, andfolklore studies to Japan and charted the development of Japan’s earlyanti-imperialist movement.  I haveendeavored to understand both the literature and the intellectual history ofimperial Japan within a cross-cultural and comparative framework and as part ofthe trans-national circulation of ideas and tropes.

In my first monograph, Tropicsof Savagery (UC Press 2010), I use close readings of colonial period texts byNakajima Atsushi, Satō Haruo, Nitobe Inazō, and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke to engage ina productive dialogue with the paradigms of post-colonial theorists. AlthoughJapan was the largest non-Western empire, it occupies a peripheral place inWestern histories of empire. Basing my approach on empirical studies of texts,I criticize the limitations of post-colonial paradigms based on Westernexamples and develop new paradigms to make sense of texts produced underdifferent conditions.  On the one hand, Ihighlight the psychology of Japanese as non-Western imperialists who weresubjugated to the West under “unequal treaties” from the forced “opening “ofJapan in the mid 19th century. As a “subaltern imperialism,” Japanimitated and modeled itself on other empires, but its conscious mimicryparadoxically produced a distinctive form of imperialism rather than a merecopy.  On the other hand, I underscorethe prominent features of Japan’s colonial discourse, its tendency to take atriangular form in which the West is always the implicit third side, unlike thedyadic form of Western empires, and the propensity of Japanese writers todeploy a rhetoric of “sameness” to promote identification between colonizer andcolonized. My research has offered a new lens for thinking about a pivotalperiod of modern history in East Asia and as well as challenges of the dominantmodels of ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism.’

From 2008 to 2009, I was a visiting scholar on a SSRC/JSPSfellowship at the University of Tsukuba, where I researched Japanese adaptationsof Shakespeare plays. My Shakespeare project entails an analysis of inter-culturaladaptation that simultaneously situates Japan as a colonial subject vis-à-visthe West and as the ‘imperial subject’ vis-à-vis Japan’s own colonial subjects.Besides joining in collaborative research and translation projects ofShakespeare in Asia with East Asian scholars, I have published “Othello inTokyo:  Performing Race and Empire inEarly Twentieth Century Japan,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, the foremostjournal of Shakespeare studies in the world.  Besides offering a history of Othello adaptations in Japan, I focus ona 1903 adaptation written by the writer Emi Suiin and performed by the leadingnew wave (shinpa) troupe of KawakamiOtojirō. Shifting the setting to Japan and Taiwan, Emi turned Washirō(Othello), a general sent to rule the colony of Taiwan, into a member ofJapan’s former outcaste community (burakumin), a “translation” of Othello’sracial identity into a Japanese context. Osero“performs” modern Japan both as a subaltern imperialist under Western hegemony andas 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 puppetplay written in 1884 by Tsubouchi Shōyō, who subsequently went on to translateall of Shakespeare’s plays. Focusing on the adapter’s ambivalent relationshipwith the pro-democracy movement of the 1880s, I argue that the work is anallegory for the collapse of the pro-democracy movement that contested thedespotism of the early Meiji regime.  Italso mirrors a paradigmatic change in the relationship of politics andliterature in modern Japanese letters.

In 2013, I received a Faculty Research Fellowship from theJapan Foundation that allowed me to spend seven months as a visiting professorat Tsukuba University and to complete my second monograph, Monster of the 20th Century: Kōtoku Shūsui and Japan’s FirstAnti-Imperialist Movement  (UC Press2015).  This work offers a reassessmentof the thinker Kōtoku Shūsui, an anarchist executed in 1911 for his allegedinvolvement in a plot on the Meiji emperor’s life, and a history of Japan’searly anti-imperialist movement.  I focuson Kōtoku Shūsui’s Teikokushugi:nijūseiki no kaibutsu (Imperialism: Monster of the Twentieth Century), asystematic study of imperialism, which preceded J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: a study by one year and V. I.Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage ofCapitalism by fifteen.  Besidesoffering the first English translation of this work, I place Kōtoku’s theories into the broader context of globaldebates on the nature and causes of imperialism as well as the anti-imperialistand anti-war movements.   In his critique of patriotism and militarism,Kōtoku effectively fuses enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, andfraternity with Confucian notions such as empathy and righteousness, especiallythose of Mencius.  In my analysis of thehistory of the movement, I explore the activities of Japanese anti-imperialistactivists and their links with Russian anti-war movements and East Asian revolutionarymovements.  I believe this monograph isan important contribution to modern Japanese intellectual history and to thecomparative study of critiques of capitalism and colonialism across the modernworld.  

Besides my two monographs and my work on Shakespeare, I continueto publish studies of the Japanese empire in both Japanese and English.  After presenting my research on the originsof Japanese folklore studies during a speaker tour in western Japan in 2013, Icontributed a Japanese language article on Momotarō, a popular folk tale herowho is appropriated as a trope of Japan’s expansionism in the twentiethcentury, to JuncTures published byNagoya University.   While working on mysecond monograph, I published a study of Kōtoku critique of patriotism for theJapanese review Shoki Shakaishugi Kenkyū(Research of Early Socialism).  Anestablished scholar on Japanese imperial literature, I have been invited towrite articles for encyclopedic works such as Cambridge History of Japanese literature and Encyclopedia ofPostcolonial Studies, both ofwhich serve as important reference works for students and scholars.  I am currently working on translations of colonialperiod works by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Nakajima Atsushi and writing substantialarticles that focus on their works set in Korea, whereas I focused on Taiwanand Micronesian colonies of Japan in my earlier books.

 During my sabbaticalyear 2015-2016, I was a visiting researcher at the Institute of ComparativeCulture at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. Over the course of the past year, I have focused on two new researchprojects.  I have completed a draft of amonograph on the thought and legacy of Nakae Chōmin (1847-1901) in Japanese andglobal intellectual history. This work is also a continuation of my earliermonograph on Kōtoku Shūsui, who was Chōmin’s student.  Chōmin, who studied in France during theearly Meiji period, became the foremost interpreter of French thought in 19thcentury Japan (among other accomplishments, he translated Rousseau’s Social Contract into Japanese) and wasthe intellectual leader of Japan’s pro-democracy movement in the 1880s. Thoughhe has been widely studied as a radical democrat in Japan, he has receivedlittle attention in Anglo-American scholarship. Throughout his life, he wascontinually in dialogue with the two important traditions that shaped modernJapan: Western, particularly French, thought and Chinese philosophy. Interestingly,he viewed classical Chinese learning as a vehicle to introduce Westerndemocratic ideals to Japan and classical Chinese as the best medium fortranslating Western concepts.  Bystudying his thought, I explore the radical possibilities of the Meiji Restorationand the diversity of reactions it inspired. As part of this project, I havetranslated 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 cancerin a year and a half.  

Through my translations of Chōmin last works, I becomeinterested in modern Japanese “death writings,” a body of works defined by anexistential encounter with sickness and death.  This new project also grewout of my longstanding research interest in medical humanities and therepresentations of illness as a metaphor. I have given conference presentationsin Japan and the US on the literature of leprosy in Japan, notably itsprevalence as a theme in crime and detective fiction. However, during mysabbatical year, I realized that a larger study of death literature would be amore valuable intellectual project than a study of leprosy. Besides Chōmin’s OneYear and a Half, I will focus on death journals by the poet Masaoka Shiki(1867-1902) who suffered from spinal tuberculosis, and NatsumeSōseki’s (1867-1916) Reminiscences and Other Matters (Omoidasu kotonado) an essay written after his near death experience.  Thesedifferent works share common traits that distinguish them as writings belongingto the Meiji period (1868-1912):  doctors and hospitals play a very minorpart in these works because death is not yet "medicalized" nor is ita solitary experience.  In addition,these writers have an agnostic attitude toward religion and a skepticalattitude toward metaphoric interpretations of illness.  Despite thesesimilarities, each writer has a distinct existential experience of time andspace, an idiosyncratic sense of the physical body and pain, and a highlyindividual sense of the purpose of writing in the face of death.  I have spent most of this year studyingprimary texts and plan to devote more time to the theoretical and historicalissues of death studies in the next year. Within the next few years, I will apply for external funding to turnthis new project into a book.

In retrospect, I realize that my new projectsbear 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 ata thinker who welded radical Western thought with traditional Chinese thoughtinto a new compound that claimed universality. Like Tropics of Savagery, my study of death writings is a work ofcultural studies focused on close readings of literary works in relation tosocial discourses and the historical backdrop of the Meiji period.  In the introduction to Tropics of Savagery, I describe the writers I study as “tenants inthe house of language rather than architects.” This comment defines my approach to imperial literature, which is inconstant dialogue with other colonial discourses. This notion of “tenant” oflanguage plays a less important part in the death book primarily because Idevote much greater attention to poetry as a form of expression and I view thepoet’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

Distinctions / Awards

  • 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


  • 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


  • 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

Selected Publications

Book Contributions

Japanese Imperialism Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies Japanese Imperialism Wiley Blackwel 2016.
Primitivism and Imperial Literature of Taiwan and the South Seas Cambridge History of Japanese literature Primitivism and Imperial Literature of Taiwan and the South Seas Cambridge University Press 2015.
Primitivism and Imperial Literature of Taiwan and the South Seas Cambridge History of Japanese literature Primitivism and Imperial Literature of Taiwan and the South Seas 2013.
Tierney, Robert “Ethnographer and Writer in Colonial Taiwan” and translation of “Demon Bird” (Machō) by Satō Haruo Reading Colonial Japan: Text, Context and Critique edited by Michele Mason, edited by Helen Lee. “Ethnographer and Writer in Colonial Taiwan” and translation of “Demon Bird” (Machō) by Satō Haruo Edited by Michele Mason, Edited by Helen Lee, Stanford University Press 2011, p. 109-140.


Monster of the Twentieth Century: Kōtoku Shūsui and Japan’s First Anti-Imperialist Movement Berkeley UC Press 2015.
Tropics of savagery Berkeley, CA University of California press 2010.

Journal Articles

南洋の桃太郎─民話、植民地政策、パロディ─ (Momotarō in the South Seas: Folklore, Colonial Policy parody) JunCture 06 (Nagoya University Japan-in-Asia Cultural Research center) 2015, p. 28-41.
Kōtoku Shūsui: From the Critique of Patriotism to Heiminism Shoki Shakaishugi Kenkyū (Studies in Early Japanese Socialism) 25 2014, p. 172-194.
Tierney, Robert “Othello in Tokyo: Performing Race and Empire in Early Twentieth Century Japan, Shakespeare Quarterly 62 4 2011, p. 514-41.
Tierney, Robert “Mimicry in Japanese Colonial Fiction” Proceedings of the Association of Japanese Literary Studies: Literature and Literary Theory 9 2009, p. 264-69.
Tierney, Robert “Folklore, Propaganda, and Parody: The Adventures of Momotarō in the South Seas,” Proceedings of the Association of Japanese Literary Studies: Travel in Japanese Representational Culture 8 2008, p. 489-99.
Ethnography, Borders, Violence: Reading Between the Lines in Sato Haruo's "Demon Bird" Japan Forum 19 1 2007, p. 89-110.
The Colonial Eyeglasses of Nakajima Atsushi Japan Review 17 2005, p. 149-196.


Tierney, Robert Book Reviiew of Mark Driscoll’s, Duke University Press, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque by Mark Driscoll. Japan Forum, 24 1 Source Author Mark Driscoll, 2012, p. 138-40.