My PhD Journey

Published February 11, 2021 by Shoko Saeki

I am a PhD student in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, where I am working on a project about the stories of the lost tribes of Israel, Japanese Jewish Common Ancestry Theory (JJCAT), and the relationship of these ideas to Shinto and wider Jewish-Japanese relations. I have had the pleasure of working with two revered scholars, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou and Dr Brandon Gallaher. I hope that my interdisciplinary research topic will be received as being valuable, helpful, and long-anticipated, and that my academic journey will continue to be as unique as it has been thus far.

Shoko Saeki with Woolf Institute staff and students and Lord Rowan Williams

My journey starts off at the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations - the former name of the Woolf Institute - in Wesley House in Cambridge. Most importantly, my first year of studying for my PhD has ended very differently to how I imagined, as a consequence of the drastic expansion of Covid-19 which has changed the entire world. In March 2020, I was advised to book a flight home after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for a national lockdown in England. Thus I chose to fly home to Tokyo. It is now 2021, and yet I am still in Japan, unable to travel to England because Boris Johnson has announced a third national lockdown. Furthermore, Yuriko Koike, the Governor of Tokyo, has declared a state of emergency. I am deeply grateful to the University of Exeter, my mentors, and my family members for their ongoing support and encouragement that enables me to continue working towards all of my goals. All PhD supervision sessions have been conducted through emails and online meetings, in which I have felt very supported. On the other hand, having no access to The British Library and various other university facilities has been very challenging, as not all rare materials are made available online, and it is hard to maintain self-discipline whilst working at home the majority of the time with your family. Furthermore, conducting all academic interactions online has often made me feel rushed, and lessened my experience of those more spontaneous moments of inspiration.

In many ways, Covid-19 has 'destroyed' and 'taken' from us, but in doing so it has also 'challenged' and 'given' to us. In fact, one of the most notable changes is that it has compelled us to avoid personal contact and group congregation, and has habituated us to wearing masks, which accordingly deprives us of the emotional expressions that give physical and mental warmth, love, and encouragement. Moreover, as a consequence of the restriction of movement in particular, misleading information on the internet has resulted in the narrowing of people's views and minds, and this has proportionately increased both mental and physical violence as well as some discrimination that causes strain and anxiety. On the other hand, a number of experts and specialists from many different fields have joined together, working and cooperating beyond all boundaries to ensure a change in the 'post Covid era'. Throughout all of academia, including Theology and Religious studies, people have been looking at what the world will be like after the pandemic. It was such an honour to have had the opportunity to join the Woolf Institute's series of COVID-19 Chronicles and to have taken part in an interview with Dr Edward Kessler (see The Chronicles show that the central concern of most religious leaders, teachers and students is the use of online systems for gatherings and meetings, and care for individuals with mental health issues. On the one hand, the fact is that we are forced to reevaluate the roles of religions in different countries with different cultures and societies, but on the other hand there are those who have rediscovered the value of their cultures and religions while they spent more time with their families in their home countries. For example, under the restrictions, I have witnessed many Japanese people practicing religious traditions, such as visiting shrines and temples. Although most people do not think it is a 'religious' practice, they do perceive it as part of their 'tradition' – but not a solemn one. As such, I believe the diversity and pliability of Japanese religious traditions is indeed remarkable. For example, this year most shrines and temples welcomed visitors for the First Shrine Visit of New Year from December, and most have claimed to have had the same number of visitors coming to pray as they normally would in January. The colorful characters of various Japanese religious-based traditions show how religious sensibilities have embedded deeply in the Japanese people's daily lives. Such rediscoveries and revaluations are inspiring and helpful to my PhD, and this makes me realise the fundamental role and nature of religion and what I as an apprentice to a religious scholar ought to work towards.

Recently, I have started to believe that everything happens for reason. The pandemic has changed our ways, our thoughts, and the lifestyles of all humanity around the world. At every second now, we have to make a choice. A choice whether to keep going with what we are familiar, or whether to adapt and make a change; whether to leave behind what we know, or whether to remain and protect what we already have. Indeed, a PhD is about gaining accumulated knowledge, the wisdom of those who lived in the past, and fostering how we could use this to contribute to the future. This is an important job in terms of the philosophical and social progression towards the coming post-Covid era. It is my aim to learn from it, to share my experiences with others, and to commit to converting this situation into one of both chance and hope.

Shoko Saeki is an alumna of the Woolf Institute.

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