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Research Activities of a JSPS Research Fellow (RPD)

Yayoi Kawahara
Faculty of Letters, Chuo University, JSPS Research Fellow (RPD)
Area of Specialization: Islamic History of Central Asia


After giving birth to my second child, I was selected as a JSPS Research Fellow (RPD) in 2017 and continued my research at Chuo University. This was my second time to be selected as an RPD, as I was selected in 2010 after the birth of my first child and I was accepted at Chuo University at that time as well. The sum of years I have been an RPD this time and the previous time is four years, through which I am very grateful that I was able to focus on research. I wrote my experience as an example, hoping it would help even by a little bit those applying for RPD in the future.

Research theme

Since I wrote my master's thesis, I have been researching Islamic history of Central Asia. Specifically, I focus on the activities of the tariqa (Sufi orders) leaders in the prosperous period of the Khanate of Khoqand in the Ferghana Valley (early 18th century to 1876) and their relation to political power and the people. Tariqa played an essential role in the dissemination of Islam around the world. It also had a massive influence on policymakers and people in Central Asia, for example, by contributing to the propagation among nomads. On the other hand, Islam in Central Asia was forced to be stagnant for a long time during the Soviet era. The Ferghana Valley is located at the easternmost point of Central Asia, bordering China. At present, it is a multi-ethnic region where the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are intertwined. It is the most populated area of Central Asia and is also known for its strong Islamic traditions, especially in comparison to the rest of Central Asia. I wanted to clarify the characteristics of Islam in Central Asia by examining the historical background that formed these characteristics of the region focusing on the tariqa activities.

My main task in the research is to analyze manuscript archives such as chronicles written in Persian and Chaghatay. However, following a policy based on the atheistic ideology of the Soviet era, there was a disconnection between history and modern times in the field beyond imagination. Although the subject of my research is not so distant past, the historical records stored in research institutes are very scarce. During the Soviet era, many religious leaders became the victims of the Great Purge, religious institutions were destroyed, and public religious education ceased, which led to the loss of many historical records.



A mausoleum in Ferghana Valley

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to reviewing history in the independent nations, reconstructing historic buildings and the return to faith in various religions. This caused a phenomenon that could be called an Islamic revival in the broader sense. The mausoleums (mazar) for religious leaders that were once demolished were also rebuilt. During my researches in Uzbekistan from 2001 to 2003, I visited a mausoleum in the Ferghana Valley using descriptions in chronicles as clues to survey tradition and private archives. The custodians of the mausoleum were usually descendants of the buried person who secretly inherited the ancestral tradition. Moreover, I found that the historical records that were considered lost were carefully stored. I often heard stories about these records being buried in the cemeteries and the walls of houses and being rediscovered during renovations. The historical records are rare internal sources related to clans' history, such as hagiographies, genealogies, and real estate documents. This is a very useful group of historical records in my research as I can use various kinds of related documents together since the origin of the historical records and the history of the clans are clear. Even after returning to Japan, I visited the site every year and copied many valuable historical records. I think reasons behind the success of my field research were the momentum of the rise of nationalism after the independence and that the people wanted to know their own history and the value of the historical documents since no one could read Arabic letters due to the many character reforms.


One of the discovered historical records

As a result of my sequential visit to relatives of one of the clans, I collected historical records related to the leaders of the people's rebellion at the end of the Khanate of Khoqand, shedding some light on the movements of people in cities and villages during the revolts which were not depicted in the chronicles. I also discovered that figures whose traces were lost in known historical sources were active in the Ferghana Valley.

Applying for RPD


Interview at a mausoleum

I continued my research based on the method described above, using the privately-owned documents that I discovered myself to its full potential in my doctoral dissertation as well. However, the birth of my child was a significant turning point for me. At that time, the fieldwork in the villages in the Ferghana Valley went smoothly thanks to the cooperation of local researchers. The interviewees spread the word about my research, introducing me to in-laws and distant relatives (even people across borders!). Hence, every time I visited the site, I discovered new historical records. On the other hand, my interviewees were getting older. At that time, I felt it was the last chance to interview people of the generation that remembered the Stalin era purges and the religious institutions before they were demolished. Although I could wait longer to apply for the RPD, I was so impatient and applied for RPD.

Fieldwork, once more


Visiting a cemetery

My son was two years old when I was selected as an RPD. In my daily life, I was able to leave him at a licensed nursery school, so I was able to concentrate on my research during the daytime. I immediately resumed my fieldwork. My friends over there were surprised that I returned that soon. On the other hand, what surprised me was that conducting fieldworks was much smoother and more successful than when I conducted research alone. Central Asians love great hospitality and will certainly always welcome you even if you are alone. However, from the local people's perspective, I am a foreigner who suddenly came and started asking about the history of mausoleums and their ancestors, so I often felt that they were a bit on guard in the past. Their reaction was natural, given their experiences during the Soviet era. As soon as I started traveling with my son, I felt that people soon became friendly and I had great conversations with them. I even felt that I started to hear more lively stories about tradition during my survey. I was worried that my survey would be hindered if my son got cranky, but it seems there was no reason for my worries. After that, there was a time when I got a job with my fixed-term employment. During that time, I was able to give birth to another child, which I believe was due to my experience as an RPD (the first time).


Waiting time

Another thing I was worried about was my son's reaction. I was satisfied to restart the research, but I was worried it might be a burden for him. However, children's ability to adapt is very high. Now that my son got used to an environment in which he is, when we visit the interviewees' homes, he kills time by going around the courtyard, looking at the sheep and cows and feeding them. The interviewees also let him pick the eggs laid by chickens and pick the grapes growing in the garden. He might even learn the language if I extend the period of my fieldwork. During a recent fieldwork, my son told me, "I learned Uzbek. 'Tush!' means 'get down,' right?" When the children at the house we were visiting invited my son to climb the barn roof and play, the children's mother went pale and shouted this word. Before leaving, I had endless discussions with the children's mother about raising children.


With girls in school uniforms in Turkmenistan

Although child birth and raising made me take a temporary break from my research activities, RPD not only relieved me of the hesitation to return to research, but also strengthened my connection with my fieldwork site in an unexpected way. That is why I am genuinely thankful for this program. Also, the limitations of the rules of JSPS Research Fellow are getting more lenient every year, and the system is being revised to make conducting research easier. As the side job restrictions were eased during my recruitment, I am currently working one day a week, serving as Project Research Fellow at the Uehiro Project for the Asian Research Library, the University of Tokyo. The job is building a book collection on central Eurasia in the research library which will be newly built. Through this job, I have many new discoveries and realization, which makes it very rewarding.

I am grateful to Chuo University for creating an environment where I can focus on my research. Also, I continue to research in the future further as well to consummate the results of my research.

Yayoi Kawahara

Faculty of Letters, Chuo University, JSPS Research Fellow (RPD) Area of Specialization: Islamic History of Central Asia

In 1999, she completed the Master’s course in the Division of Asian Studies, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, the University of Tokyo. From 2001 to 2003, she studied at the Institute of Oriental Studies named after Abu Rayhon Beruni, Academy of Sciences, Republic of Uzbekistan. From 2005 to 2008, she was JSPS Research Fellow (PD). In 2008, she completed the Doctor’s course in the Division of Asian Studies, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, the University of Tokyo (Doctor of Letters). From 2010 to 2011, she was JSPS Research Fellow (RPD). From 2011 to 2016, she was researcher of NIHU Program Islamic Area Studies. From 2017 to present, she is JSPS Research Fellow (RPD).

Her written theses include “Valī Khān Tūra: A Makhdūmzāda Leader in Marghīnān during the Collapse of the Khanate of Khoqand,” Devin DeWeese and Jo-Ann Gross (eds.), Sufism in Central Asia: New Perspectives on Sufi Traditions, 15th-21st Centuries, Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2018, pp. 162-190, “The Development of the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya in the Ferghana Valley during the 19th and Early 20th Centuries,” Journal of the History of Sufism, No. 6, 2015 , pp. 139-186 and more.