Dr Hiroko Kawanami

BA, MA (Tokyo), MSc (London), PhD (London)

I became interested in the study of religions after the American Embassy in Iran was taken hostage in 1979, which subsequently led to the Iranian revolution under Khomeini. My father was posted to Tehran at that time and I witnessed a campaign of civil resistance and demonstrations. I initially studied international relations and politics as an undergraduate student, but changed the course of my study because I realised the power and significance of religion in deciding the direction of the country’s future. I witnessed the power of religion again in Burma (Myanmar) where I was conducting fieldwork in the 1980s. I fortunately left the country a few weeks before the mass uprising in March 1989.

It is strange not to be interested in religion when it is such an integral part of public debate and the multicultural society in which we live. Religion, whether we consider ourselves religious or not, is still very much part of our identity and we cannot dismiss the historical legacy that we have inherited. Having said that, most of my friends back home in Japan say that they are ‘not religious’ and not interested in religion at all, although they are always visiting shrines and collecting protective amulets. I think it is very important to be interested in religion and know what religion can do.

There are so many challenges teaching religion at university in the UK today. But I still think the environment in UK higher education is better than in many other parts of the world in terms of the intellectual freedom we are allowed and the potential to teach religion in a creative way.